As much as I enjoy being a professional traveler, I think I most love coming home after a long trip. Lydia and I have learned to prepare our apartment prior to leaving, in anticipation of that comfort and joy – and also because the last thing we want to deal with when walking in the door is a mess. This means the refrigerator has been emptied of anything that might rot or sour, garbage cans are clear, laundry basket is ready for a new load, and surfaces cleared (as much as possible considering that Lydia is a working artist). I’ve been trying to teach my 17-year old about the joys of this kind of preparation, and it seems to finally be sinking it a bit.
Sharing a one-bedroom apartment with an artist and a full painting studio can make such organization challenging, but it’s worth it to return to a studio full of paintings left in various states of completion and maturity. It’s marvelous how quickly the studio resumes its joyful chaos as soon as Lydia starts up again. A lot of the paintings visible in the photo will be in her upcoming show in Truro, on Cape Cod.
After teaching annual workshops at a number of studios for the better part of a decade I also anticipate returning to these for the home-like atmosphere and the pleasure of relationships cultivated over the years. We got back from our highly successful Istanbul workshop on Monday afternoon and I managed to stay awake long enough to play basketball that evening. In spite of my body clock being set to 3AM, I managed to hit a couple of game winners but should have probably quit while I was ahead, as I was a liability in the last game. That night’s exhaustion helped me return to New York time as quickly as possible, which was good since I scheduled an airport pickup for my teenager plus 6 client sessions the next day.
Today we head back to Austin, TX to teach at YogaYoga Westgate for Rich Goldstein, Laura Forsyth and Lori Johnson. There will be meals at favorite – and new – restaurants, and catching up on kids/parents/romances and professional development. How lucky I am to get to *come home* to so many places and people!
We’re in the final preparations for this weekend’s Beyond Anatomy: A Somatic Symposium at my New York City studio, The Breathing Project, and I’ve realized I neglected to post links to three wonderful podcast interviews by Brooke Thomas of Liberated Body and an interview with Brette Popper on YogaCity NYC! Better late than never, here they are:
When I was first developing my online courses I had hoped to be able to to foster student/teacher relationships well beyond my physical sphere so hearing from Anna and experiencing her enthusiasm for ongoing learning was an inspiration. Often we invite workshop hosts to interview me prior to visiting their studios but this time we turned the tables. I was eager to hear about Anna’s process and path so I posed some questions which I’ve used as seeds for this post.
Q: How did you learn about my teaching?
Anna: I received an advance copy of the book “The Science of Yoga” (William J. Broad’s 2012 book). Upon reading it, I wanted a second opinion so started Googling and found your video “rants” (see them here: one, two , three, and four). I’d been a huge fan of the book Yoga Anatomy, so I was delighted that these led me to all your teaching videos. I signed up for the Monday email list and your online Principles course a bit later.
Leslie: I remember so clearly that storm of passionate debate William Broad’s article unleashed in the yoga/web/social media atmosphere 5 years ago, at the beginning of 2012. Not only was I motivated to produce those video “rants” I went to the trouble of composing my Amazon review of his book in advance, so I could post it at 3:00am East Coast time, when the book officially went on sale!
Q: What made you reach out to bring me to your studio?
Anna: I’ve been exploring the concepts presented in Principles and in the various YouTube/email videos in classes, workshops and trainings for almost a year. Our students and teachers responded with enthusiasm and curiosity. In the wake of the 2016 election, there was a feeling of despair about where our country and the world at-large is heading. One thing that occurred to me is how powerful learning is for the human psyche. When we are learning, we are expanding. So, I declared 2017 our year of learning. Starting with anatomy only makes sense: the more one learns about the body, the more we understand ourselves…and each other, our connection and our uniqueness.
Leslie: I agree wholeheartedly. Early on we saw the potential of online learning for the yoga community, not as a replacement for direct human contact, but as a way of connecting with people to whom I would otherwise not have access. To transform my virtual presence into an actual physical visit is really terrific.
Regarding the 2016 election, it’s clear that every generation shares a handful of singular, historic, transformative moments that are forever etched into our psyches. I can recall and re-tell every detail about where I was and what I was doing when the Kennedys and MLK were killed, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, when the twin towers came down on 9/11 — and, on the night of 11/9 when the outcome of the 2016 election became clear.
That night, I recall thinking how many of my fellow yoga educators would be faced with rooms full of sleep-deprived, emotionally frazzled students seeking solace from teachers who were pretty much in the same boat. That’s when I posted to following to social media:
Our government does not own this country, or your life. Regardless of which gang is in power at any given moment, never forget that.
All yoga educators: stress reduction is now the world’s #1 growth industry. Let’s do what we do best – stay centered and offer safe havens.
That is also why, on that Wednesday afternoon’s class at The Breathing Project, I felt moved to put this slide up on the wall as my students entered the room.
Q: What has your experience with the online course been so far?
Anna: I’m addicted. It’s the only TV I watch. It’s usually hard for me to find 2 hours in the day for anything, but not for these sessions. I learn things I’ve always wondered about; I question and reorganize and open up dialogues about things I’d held as “fact”…this may sound weird, but I love the homework. At one point I was having trouble with a concept. I looked at the homework questions, then decided to sit with them/sleep on them. I woke up the next morning and everything had fallen into place. If I hadn’t needed to complete the homework, I may not have actually processed the lesson.
Leslie: That’s really good to hear. I always hated homework (to be honest, I mostly just hated school on principle), so asking my students to do homework didn’t come naturally to me. We’ve worked hard over the years to improve the quality of the homework questions, and to offer the best support possible to our online students.
Q: You described your community as “…wonderfully nerdy when it comes to all kinds of learning…” – this is very appealing to me, but can you provide an example?
Anna: Though we teach vinyasa yoga/power vinyasa, the classes that our students enjoy most are the ones where we get deep into a concept, where we explore different ways of approaching posture. They enjoy “stop action” sessions where we break down a pose in order to make it more effective in individual bodies. They ask good questions…and they LOVE it when the skeleton comes in for workshops!
Leslie: This sounds exactly like my kind of crowd! I can’t wait to meet you and everyone there. I’m certain we’ll have a lot of fun learning together.
After a brief teaching lull for the holidays, my 2017 schedule is getting off to a running start with four upcoming workshops — all at new locations — three of them driving distance from New York City.
The weekend of Feb. 4 & 5 at Yoga Nanda in Long Beach, NY will cover some of my most popular topics, including an intro to breath-centered yoga and bandhas, practice and theory of backbending and twisting poses, plus a deep dive into foot anatomy and healthy walking habits.
We are also excited for our first visit to Louisville, KY on Feb. 11 & 12 at Bend and Zen Hot Yoga. A full weekend program features explorations of breath, spine, bones, muscles and alignment. We also have some schmooze time scheduled for Saturday evening’s wine and cheese meet-and-greet book signing.
So, come on out for one of these great events! I look forward to meeting you in person.
I love the fall, love the temperatures in the Northeast, and the colors, but mostly I love that my teaching schedule always kicks into high gear.
On Wednesday October 12 I’ll start my final year teaching Anatomy of Breath-Centered Yoga: Appendicular Body Focus at my New York City studio, The Breathing Project – a bittersweet occasion because I love this teaching and love the students and community we’ve built, but I am also filled with excitement about the opportunities for change and growth associated with closing the studio next summer.
Right after Wednesday’s class I’ll be heading to the airport to fly to Yoga Center of Minneapolis where I’ll present a four-day immersion focusing on breath and re-imagining alignment. We had a magnificent time at this beautiful studio last year and we’re eager to return.
Then we return to Yoga on High in Columbus, OH, for a workshop focused on the therapeutic aspects of Yoga. We’ll be doing some of my favorite things: a Hands-on Assisting Lab during which I’ll share teaching techniques developed over the past three decades of working therapeutically with groups and individuals. Also scheduled is Case Studies and Clinical Analysis, which follows the format in which I observed my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, work one-on-one with clients.
To finish out my year in December I’ll be returning to one of my favorite haunts, Soul of Yoga, in Encinitas, CA. Each year I’ve taught there has provided an engaged group of teacher trainees. This year we’ll explore Yoga and The Respiratory System, covering the energetic phenomenon of breathing and how it occurs on every level – from cells to anatomical systems and beyond.
If you’re near any of these locations, or willing to take a little trip, I’d love to meet you in person so make sure to introduce yourself!
I’m thrilled to report on my upcoming weekend of teaching for Annie Ory and her team at a new Baptiste studio in Portland, OR, yogaRIOT, located on the second floor of an old Masonic Hall on SE Milwaukie Avenue.
HISTORICAL DIGRESSION (I promise this will come back around to yogaRIOT PDX): Yoga on the second floor of a beautiful Masonic hall reminds me of the Center for Yoga, which started life as the original site of the Sivananda Community in Los Angeles. It was established by my old friend Ganga White at a nearby book warehouse on Larchmont Ave. When Ganga parted ways with Swami Vishnudevananda in the 70’s he re-named his space “The Center for Yoga,” and moved it to its present location, where it became not only the most beautiful yoga space in town, but a hotbed of teaching innovation – including early visits from B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and a precursor to Acro called “Double Yoga,” which Ganga pioneered with his then-partner Anna Forrest. The Sivananda community relocated to Hollywood (McCadden Place), and then to West Hollywood (Sunset Blvd.), where I assumed directorship in 1981.
Following historical strands, Ganga White, Baron Baptiste and I (among many others) intersected 7 years later at the 4th Unity in Yoga Conference at Murrieta Hot Springs, CA. That 1988 conference was significant for me as it began my involvement with Unity in Yoga, the group that eventually turned into The Yoga Alliance, and was the year I first met my teacher Desikachar, and became his student.
In September 2011, 23 years later, I was present at the 16th Annual Yoga Journal Conference at Estes Park, CO during the Baptiste Power Flow Immersion where I became acquainted with some of the teachers and senior leaders of Baptiste Yoga, including the delightful Paige Elenson, founder of the Africa Yoga Project – which began a fruitful relationship with her program, donating my online course for use in her teacher training. Throughout the Estes conference, I was struck by how refreshingly grounded, sensible and straightforward the Baptiste crowd seemed.
Now, back to 2016 and yogaRIOT:
As much as I relish any opportunity to tell a story and share some history, the main point here is that the yogaRIOT space looks beautiful and welcoming and, if my previous experience with the Baptiste community is any indication, I anticipate finding the same in the community. Since Baron lists my teacher Desikachar as one of his influences, I am eager to explore common connections during this weekend exploration of breath-centered, individualized yoga asana practice August 27 & 28. I hope to see a bunch of you there!
Yesterday, Kausthub Desikachar (my teacher’s son) published “The Future of Yoga – an Editorial.” Although I could provide counter-arguments to just about every assertion he makes about the sorry state of “modern yoga,” I will respond here to two specific points – one cultural, the other philosophical – based on a 1992 interview I conducted with his father while in Madras on an extended study visit. These points provide illustration of how far I believe Kausthub has strayed from his father’s perspective.
During that visit, Desikachar politely declined an invitation I had extended to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 1993 Unity in Yoga conference where we would celebrate 100 years of Yoga in America. Instead, he offered a taped interview, during which I was accompanied by Paul Harvey, from England, and Adrianna Rocco, from Italy. At the end of a wide-ranging conversation, Desikachar addressed the future of Yoga in America:
LESLIE: Let’s just say that through some magic, this microphone is hooked into the future, and it’s next year at our 100th anniversary of Yoga in America celebration. Is there anything that you would feel safe saying to this group of 500 Yoga teachers and students concerning the future of Yoga?
DESIKACHAR: I always feel that the future of Yoga in America is safer in the hands of Americans. Perhaps much more so than in my hands, because I am a stranger to America.
Speaking in Madras, in my own culture, I cannot envision the future of the United States – it is very difficult. So these people who are concerned about the future…must know that this (India) is a different culture, different traditions. As an Indian, I may not be able to do justice to the future of America. My culture is different than America’s. Even when I know so much about the West, I am very much an Indian in my heart.
And then when we speak about the future of Yoga, we are talking about the future of Man. This is very important – we are not talking about the tradition of Yoga for the future, we are concerned about the future of Man…which is one word, but the man of Italy is different from the man of the United States, and definitely different from England! (Adrianna and Paul laugh)
This is all I would say: “Let the future of American Yoga be in the hands of those Americans who are concerned about the future of Man!”
Kausthub is certainly entitled to his opinion about what he perceives as the wayward path that “modern yoga” has taken but – based on these quotes – I am pretty confident that sitting in Chennai editorializing about how Westerners choose to practice is clearly not something his father would have endorsed.
Philosophically, it appears Desikachar also had a very different perspective than his son as far as the definition and role of ego is concerned. In yesterday’s editorial Kausthub wrote:
“…Yoga practice today has thus sadly embraced a form of narcissism and focuses too much on the egoistic side of humanity. This is also a very dangerous path to tread, and also contrary to Yoga’s belief of diminishing the ego…”
From that same interview with Desikachar in 1992:
LESLIE: In your broad experience these last 20 or 30 years teaching both Western and Indian students one-on-one, have you found that the concept of surrendering the ego is helpful or harmful for people when they get the notion that surrendering is something that will bring them peace?
DESIKACHAR: Many people have tried it. It has not worked. (laughter) The problem, whether it is Indians or others, is because, “What is it that I am surrendering? I don’t even know what I am surrendering!” This is not a very happy situation and I’m sorry if people are trying to surrender and then feel bad about it – you cannot really verbalize these phenomena because it is something much deeper.
This is why in India great teachers like my father have said the act of surrender is the last stage of a person’s life. It is called Prapatti…which is not possible for a young boy. One has to go through a lot of evolution – one has to suffer a lot – one has to experience life – one has to enjoy life, and then one has to build up devotion. Then, maybe at the end of the whole story, maybe surrendering is finally possible. So it’s a long project. It’s not a one-day project for that to be really an act of surrender.
LESLIE: Is it possible for you to clarify what is meant in Yoga by the term ego or the term that gets translated as ego, and what role it plays in the process and eventual goal of Yoga?
DESIKACHAR: Regarding these questions, my reference is Patanjali. I want to make this very clear because that is the text on Yoga. There are thousands of ancient texts on Yoga but the most important text, the most accepted text, the fundamental text on Yoga is Patanjali. So my response is now based on his teachings, the very practical teaching of Patanjali.
Now, because of the proximity between Patanjali’s speaking and what is known as Samkhya, which is another of our schools, somehow this word ego has entered the field of Yoga. As far as I understand even if I myself have said it, there is no word called ego in Yoga. The word ego itself does not appear in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Does it?
LESLIE: Are you referring to Ahamkara?
DESIKACHAR: There is no word Ahamkara in Yoga Sutras. You go from the first sutra to the 195th sutra – there is no Ahamkara in the whole Yoga Sutra. Some people have used that word, but it is not Patanjali’s fault.
LESLIE: Has Vyasa used that word in his commentary?
DESIKACHAR: Yes, that is what I mean – some people might have used it – I might have used it, but according to the authority (Patanjali) there is nothing…Patanjali is very intelligent about this. First, he never used the word ego. Second, he talks about mind only. Mind with good associations and mind with bad associations (asmita). One is desirable, one is not desirable. So in Yoga we don’t even have this problem.
LESLIE: So, Yoga would speak merely of a collection of associations between the mind and some objects, but not a distinct identity or entity in and of itself which can be isolated as an ego. Am I understanding correctly?
DESIKACHAR: I don’t think ego can be just taken out of my pocket and kept here – “This is my ego.” Because the word Ahamkara itself was defined by my father as “where something that is not me is considered as me.”
According to this, to understand ego I have to understand myself. I have to understand what is not myself. How many people have the good fortune to understand that? So without understanding that, how can I even take it out of my pocket and throw it anywhere?
So in Yoga we are not worried about this question. We are quite happy that we don’t have an ego problem. (laughter)
LESLIE: So if we were to make a radical statement here, could we say then that a useful way for people to practice Yoga would be for the purpose of creating a strong, integrated ego or identity?
DESIKACHAR: Without using the word ego, because I know very little about that.
LESLIE: Identity perhaps then.
DESIKACHAR: All I want to say is; “I must know something about myself before I know what I’m doing with myself.” That I would say.
Not only did Desikachar avoid employing Freudian terms such as “narcissistic” and “egoistic” in conversation about Yoga, he was explicitly on record that the fundamental Yoga teachings do not even contain the concept of “ego,” let alone prescriptions for “diminishing” it.
UPDATE: Not sure why I didn’t think to include this in the original post when discussing yogic concepts of ego, but Desikachar engaged in a remarkable dialogue with his long-time student Hellfried Krusche in a book recently translated from German to English: Freud and Yoga: Two Philosophies of Mind Compared. HIGHLY recommended – as I say on its back cover: “This gem of a book is a must-read!”
Greetings from Truro, MA and my annual Cape Cod writing retreat, where the days are unstructured, the sunsets are gorgeous, and data is at a premium (no wi-fi means everything goes through my cellular data plan).
I have several writing projects into which I am eagerly diving, and by which I expect to be consumed right up until the end of the month. Then, it’s back to a busy teaching schedule in August.
First, I lead my 10th summer immersion at The Breathing Project August 8 – 12th: “Transformation Through Relationship.” There are a few spots available, so there’s still time to sign up. This year, we have a truly international group of students joining us from as far away as Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Israel, Sweden, Germany and Toronto. U.S. visitors are coming from New Mexico, Minnesota, and of course, the tri-state area.
Then, the following weekend, I’ll be making my first-ever visit to the Atlanta area on August 20 – 21st to teach “Breath and Asana: an Individualized Perspective,” at East Cobb Yoga in Marietta, Georgia. I’m very much looking forward to sharing the essential teachings of individualized yoga with a whole new group of students.
The very next weekend, August 27 – 28th I am returning to Portland, Oregon. We have been invited by a new studio, yogaRIOT, to teach a practice-heavy weekend of classes and workshops we’ve titled: “A Breath Centered Approach to Asana.” The event has just gone on sale, and you can get special early pricing right up until July 31st.
Once September rolls in, you’ll find us touring in the U.K. with teaching dates in Belfast, Glasgow and Cambridge. More details on those gigs soon.
Now, back to writing, then another sunset. Here’s last night’s…
The past few weeks have been chock-full of interviews with all kinds of interesting people. My general takeaway after being called upon as a historian and rabblerouser is that, 37 years into this field, what I really am is a yoga-elder with an intact memory!
I met with an old friend and Berkshires neighbor Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, as part of preparation for a keynote address he is delivering at the upcoming SYTAR conference in Reston, VA. We shared anecdotes and perspective of over 30 years working in the field of therapeutic yoga, and I was able to provide him archival photos to add to his slide show.
While in Laguna Niguel teaching a marvelously engaged group of students at You and the Mat, I met with Anna Dubrovsky as a follow-up to our article in Yoga International, “3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class.” It was a wide-ranging and frank discussion, from politics to practice, that may lead to a follow-up piece for YI.
A day or two later, Julie Selby interviewed me on behalf of an ongoing Yoga Alliance project aimed at gathering perspectives about how to best serve the yoga teaching community. Some of you may know that I haven’t always been a supporter of the Alliance, but I continue to be impressed by the current board’s insight and direction. This was a very productive and frank discussion, none of which was off the record, and I’m counting on some of my ideas being delivered directly to YA’s leadership.
Scholar and historian Natalia M. Petrzela is researching the intersection of fitness and yoga culture, a topic about which my personal history provides a unique perspective. After two hours of intense discussion, we barely scratched the surface and both look forward to an open-ended follow-up in the next weeks.
I find it mind-boggling that the obscure, non-commercial activity I began teaching in 1979 has transformed into a genuine multibillion dollar industry, being written about by serious journalists, researched by powerful trade associations and studied by post-doctoral scholars.
Back in February, reporters for the Daily News and NY Post either accessed court records or received a press release pertaining to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Jivamukti Yoga teacher against a senior teacher. The complaint contained enough details of intimate encounters between these two teachers to make for the kind of tawdry click-bait tabloid reporters lust after.
The complainant’s attorney apparently made his client available for a photo shoot in his office, as he prepared to try his case in the court of public opinion.
I read the initial news stories and formed my own opinions based on nearly four decades in this field, my personal history of student-teacher-guru dynamics, as well as my inside knowledge of many of the guru-teacher scandals of the past. I kept my opinions mostly to myself until I was contacted by Michelle Goldberg who asked to interview me for a piece she was writing for Slate that would focus on the “cultish” environment at Jivamukti. Michelle and I had a maintained a friendly connection since I had invited her to present an evening talk last June at The Breathing Project discussing her just-released book about Indra Devi “The Goddess Pose” so I agreed to the interview.
Over the course of about an hour, Michelle and I discussed many things, including my history teaching at Jivamukti in the early days (1992-1994) at their Second Avenue studio. I named a few other people I thought she should talk to who had more intimate knowledge of the current atmosphere at Jivamukti, but it never occurred to me to ask whether anyone had agreed to be quoted on the record. Apparently, I was the only one. To be fair, had I been offered the option of being quoted anonymously I would have declined because in my opinion anonymous online commentary is cowardly. Though I was quoted accurately in the final article there was far more that wasn’t quoted.
I enjoyed reading the Slate piece. I like Michelle’s writing style and she treated me fairly as far as she quoted me. Predictably, she chose the most controversial things I said for her article. I have no problem with that – she was doing her job, and doing it well. I even called to leave Michelle a congratulatory message the day the article came out. I thanked her for quoting me accurately and helping me sound critical without trashing anyone personally. As it turned out, not everyone agreed and some people felt very personally trashed by what I said. They wasted no time condemning me as an insensitive, brutish “victim-blamer.”
The most notable criticism came via Matthew Remski who interviewed the complaining teacher and her lawyer, as well as Sharon Gannon and David Life. Matthew gave me a chance to respond to their points of view (which I did), and to retract any of my quotes (which I did not). Matthew did include small excerpts of my lengthy reply in his blog post on the topic.
This past Wednesday, I decided to deliver a heartfelt talk on this topic for my monthly members event at The Breathing Project. We made a video recording and have edited the 90-minute talk down to about a half-hour – which is still pretty long, but if you stick with it, I can guarantee it will at the least provide food for thought. If you have limited time, skip ahead to the 25-minute mark to hear how rules, ethical guidelines, vows and boundaries can actually provoke transgression.
I may have more to say on this topic in the future, but for now, this was the most efficient way to get a response out there.