The Art of the Answer-Sutra (+ commentary), part 2

How do you know when your body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?Here’s another from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:

Q: How do you know when you’re (sic) body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?
A: This is a key question that involves a deep practice of swadhyaya (self-inquiry), and it never has any final solution, because as our body ages, the answers will constantly change.

My expanded commentary: Some questions cut right to the heart of yoga, and this is one of them. The second chapter (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra offers a brilliant, succinct three-part definition of yoga practice (Kriya Yoga). Two of those parts (tapas and isvara pranidhana) are referenced in this question and the third (swadhyaya) is in my answer.

The practice of poses (asana) can be seen as a kind of tapas. Although the term tapas is usually translated as “austerity,” a more useful view derives from its primary meaning of “warmth” or “heat.” My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar described the heat of tapas as a fire which removes impurities. Asana practice accomplishes this by working our physical body and breath against the grain of our embedded habits (samskaras). The assumption behind this idea is that we are working with something that actually is changeable – like how we breathe or hold tension in certain muscles – and this is how our bodies adapt to the practice. By contrast, we sometimes discover that some poses are made difficult (if not impossible) by some aspect of our body that is not going to change – like the proportional relationship of our arm-to-torso length, or the orientation of our hip joints – and this is when we must adapt the practice to our bodies.

Through practice and self-reflection (swadhyaya) we can discover some things about ourselves that are not subject to change – that’s when acceptance of that reality needs to become our focus. This is isvara pranidhana, a surrender to that which is not changeable or within our control.  Or, as Desikachar put it: “…in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.” (from Heart of Yoga)

To re-state what I said in my original answer, everything about our embodied existence is subject to some kind of change, so we must always maintain a self-reflective attitude that allows us to constantly re-evaluate what we are working to change, and what we need to stop trying to change.  Surrender is itself an act of will.

Another well-known formulation of this principle is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer which seeks to find “the strength to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Stay tuned for more Q&A sutras with commentary, and if you have yoga anatomy questions please ask them on Instagram, or email me.

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The Art of the Answer-Sutra (+ commentary), part 1

Q: Is there any way to teach people not just do the pose but feel the pose?Some of you reading this may have been on my e-Sutra email-based discussion list since 1997, when it was run through my AOL account (an inelegant solution, but all there was at the time). Those early long-form threads tackled important issues at a critical time in the yoga community, but the reach was inherently limited.

By far the vast majority of you are more recent members of my online community via web blog, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and may never have had exposure to long-form online writing. That type of inquiry-based exchange remains my comfort zone – evident to all who take workshops with me, as I insist on interaction and will ask questions of my students if they don’t speak up themselves!

Newer social media opportunities, such as Instagram Stories, have simultaneously opened up a much broader reach while requiring ever-briefer sutra-like* answers. I am constantly trying to improve my ability to deliver meaningful information is as few words as possible, but often know there’s more I’d like to say. By way of illustration, here’s a question from Iness Lagios (_yoginess__) from a recent Instagram Story, and my brief answer, plus some commentary:

Q: Is there a way to teach people not just to do the pose, but to feel the pose?
A: Yes. It involves engaging students in an inquiry – but first, we have to stop telling them what they should be feeling, and inviting them to see what they notice.

My expanded commentary: Iness’ excellent question touches on what is essential for anyone practicing or teaching yoga. The key to safety and effectiveness in asana practice depends on an ability to tune into your inner experience of the pose – not just mimicking a teacher, other students, or an idealized image of what the pose looks like, or what you’ve been told it should feel like.

My current thinking on this is encapsulated by the following teaching methodology: “Try this, now try that…now, see what you notice.” I propose that teachers should always have at least two different ways of teaching a single practice. By offering options in close succession students are encouraged to notice what difference they feel, if any, putting focus on their own embodied experience.

Invariably, some students will have trouble noticing any difference between the options, and it’s easy for them to feel left out or to assume they “did it wrong.” That’s why I always leave a lot of space in my classroom for not knowing. In fact, I honor confusion as a necessary starting point for any meaningful inquiry, as long as it is recognized. I’m pretty certain that for at least the last decade of workshops I’ve always quoted my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar on this point: “The recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity.” This is the point from which an asana practice can become yoga, not just physical exercise.

Stay tuned for more Q&A sutras with commentary, and if you have yoga anatomy questions please ask them on Instagram, or email me.

* My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s father, T. Krishnamacharya, described a sutra as being inspiration for the teacher rather than instruction for the student. When I refer to something as “sutra-like” I mean to offer some direction with room for exploration and development, not a hard-and-fast rule.

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A Post-Iyengar Reimagining of Alignment in Asana

For the last several years I’ve been pondering the derivation and evolution of the term “alignment” as it relates to yoga asana. My interest correlates directly to the increasing number of repetitive strain injuries my private clients, many of them long-term practitioners, have been presenting with. It is no longer a secret how many teachers have had to undergo hip repair and replacement surgery as a result of their asana practice.

Historically, the conversation about yoga alignment, at least in the United States, can be traced back to 1956 when  BKS Iyengar first visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to deliver several lecture-demonstrations. Ten years later, Iyengar released his perennial classic “Light on Yoga,” a work that was clearly influenced by his original teacher, T. Krishnamacharya’s “Yoga Makaranda,” which was published in 1934 . Ironically, by the mid-sixties Krishnamacharya himself was no longer hewing to the prescriptive rules he had laid out in the Makaranda. In fact, Krishnamacharya’s mature teaching methodology represented an almost complete reversal of his rigid alignment directives when he declared: “the very essence of yoga is that it must be adapted to the individual, not the other way around.”

For the past 62 years in America, one system of asana training – Iyengar’s – has held a virtual monopoly on the conversation about what constitutes correct alignment in asana. In my view, the time is ripe for questioning the assumption that Iyengar’s idealized, geometrical alignment directives are the ultimate goal in yoga asana. If there are no straight lines in the body, why are we always trying to “square our pelvis,” or  “place our feet in parallel?”

What is needed is an anatomically-informed definition of alignment from which healthy asana cueing language can be derived.  This is core of what I’ll be teaching Sunday May 20 when I return to Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas for a full-day immersion called “Reimagining Alignment.”

The ultimate context for asana practice is the unique person who is practicing. It is only an individual’s singular body that can be in alignment – not the asana. To speak about yoga poses as if they had some intrinsically correct alignment is, in my opinion, an error. To sum this up as a principle: “Asanas don’t have alignment – people have alignment.”

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Return to OZ

Lydia and I are preparing for a month of travel and teaching, in fact it’s our biggest teaching tour to date! We are really looking forward to the upcoming tour, which takes us to:

We work hard on these teaching tours, but we always schedule a couple days on each side of the workshops to enjoy the host city. We’ve heard Sorrento is beautiful and while I’m teaching there I’ll turn 60 years old (on March 13). Word on the street is there may be some celebrating going on, so come out to the workshop on March 14th to help cheer me into my 7th decade! I believe there’s still room in some of the workshops, so if you or someone you know is down under, please come out and say hello.

All this planning got me feeling nostalgic about my first visit to New Zealand and Australia in 1983 so I dug out some old photos. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles with my partner Lynda Huey where we worked at Dr. Leroy Perry’s International Sportsmedicine Institute.  Lynda was the athletic director and, although I was teaching yoga flexibility to the athletes, my main job was to administer a new form of electro-therapy that was getting great results with pain and soft tissue injuries.  The instruments I specialized in, the Electro-Acuscope and Myopulse, were in great demand around the world at the training areas of track meets so, eased by the fact that Lynda and I were also working part-time as travel agents, it created a perfect opportunity to travel.

August of 1983 found us in Helsinki, Finland for the first-ever world championships of Track and Field. Towards the end of 1983, we were invited by Australian Olympic swimming legend Murray Rose to present our rehab work at a Sports Medicine event at Sydney’s Town Hall. After a stop to visit some friends in Auckland, we arrived in Sydney and were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city by Murray and his friends.

In this photo, I am posing for an AP photographer with Evelyn Ashford, who at the time was the world’s fastest woman. Evelyn had sustained a hamstring injury in an early heat of the 100 meter dash, and I was treating her with the equipment.  She recovered well enough to make the U.S. team and win a gold medal the 1984 L.A. Olympics in spite of a slight re-injury at the team trials (for which I also treated her). As part the promotion for the Sydney event, I was invited to a T.V. interview on “Good Morning Australia.

This photo shows me on set preparing the equipment for my segment.  I am wearing my best (and only) suit for the occasion. I was apparently still wearing that outfit when we visited a game preserve outside Sydney.  There, I met kangaroos for the first time. Once the film was developed back in L.A. , I also noticed for the very first time that I was – at the tender age of 25 – going bald on the top of my head. I was shocked and devastated, but I’ve gotten over it.

The rest of our trip was terrific.  We traveled to Canberra to tour the brand new Australian Institute of Sport, and the headed up the Gold Coast to visit with some friends in Nambour before continuing up to check out the facilities at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Finally, we went all the way north to Cairns, where we had a memorable scuba dive off the Barrier Reef. Lynda and I actually returned to Sydney in 1984 for a return visit that was more of a pleasure trip.

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Spaces and Places

map of our upcoming travels

Transitioning out of the The Breathing Project’s physical space in July has required lots of moving, reconfiguring, and recalibrating.

For the first time in over 30 years, all my possessions are in the same zip code (10025). It’s a bit of a tight fit in our living space as I’ve accumulated three sets of almost everything: office supplies, clothing, bodywork equipment, books. Previously split between office, city home and country home, all my stuff has – quite literally – come home to roost. Much winnowing is required…it’s a process.

At the same time, my newly freed-up schedule has more space for travel and teaching. For the first time in 14 years I will not have to be in New York City every Wednesday during the scholastic year to teach my Yoga Anatomy courses, so we have been able to schedule more lengthy international teaching tours. Following our annual visit to one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s beautiful Asheville Yoga Center (September 16-17), and the Chicago edition of the Yoga Therapy Summit (September 30-October 1), Lydia and I will be off to Europe (the first of two visits this fall) for a 3-week tour:

  1. First week, we’ll be teaching at the Zen Center in Regensberg, Germany (October 14-15) for our new friend Tammy Bosler, who we met while teaching in Frankfurt in March.
  2. Next we’ll be returning to Madrid for our third time teaching for our good friends at Dhara Yoga (October 21-22).
  3. From there we are making our first visit to The Yoga Bank in Cheshire, England for a 4-day intensive (October 26-29).

We’ll be back stateside for a few weeks in November to rest up and a return visit to The Yoga Garden in Narberth, PA (November 4-5). For the first time in ages I will not be spending American Thanksgiving with my family: instead we will be returning to Europe to follow up last year’s sold-out workshops at Flow Yoga in Belfast (November 25-26) and CamYoga in Cambridge (December 1-4). Closing out the year, back in the US, we make our annual trek to Encinitas, CA and The Soul of Yoga (December 9-10). Phew!

Looking ahead to 2018 I’ll be spending my 60th birthday about as far away from home as possible: we’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere in the midst of a month-long teaching tour across New Zealand and Australia. I’ll be sharing more details about that trip in a future post.

So, as the start of my seventh decade approaches, I will be doing my best to focus on the theme that emerged this last month: “more space — less stuff.”

I’ll let you know how it goes.

more space, less stuff!

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Some thoughts on my final immersion at The Breathing Project

As I begin to prepare for my last-ever summer immersion (and the final program of any kind) at The Breathing Project, I thought I’d share some of the questions we will be considering during the five-day course of study I’ve titled “Bandha: Untying and Uniting Body, Breath and Mind”:

Is there a simple definition of bandha that can serve as a foundation for a breath-centered approach to yoga practice?

Can bandha refer to our natural tendency to hold, constrict, channel, and otherwise modulate our breathng mechanism in response to stressors, or should the definition of bandha be limited to the intentional techniques of breath manipulation more commonly referred to in yoga practice?

Can the yogic model of the five koshas help us experience the action of bandha on more subtle dimensions of our being?

Should bandha be taught to beginning students?

What is the relationship between traditional descriptions of the static application of bandha wherein the body is unmoving and the breath is retained, and the modern context of bandha practiced while the body and breath are in motion?

The great thing about using questions as an entry point into a practice-based group inquiry is that we can benefit tremendously from learning to be comfortable with not arriving at final answers. In fact, along with all the insights we generate, we usually end up with more questions than when we started.  I’ve learned to offer a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of every workshop I teach.

If I had to to pick one perspective that’s been changed the most by my  last 14 years at The Breathing Project, it would be just that;  a greatly increased tolerance for having my answers questioned.  Or, as Richard Feynman so succinctly put it:

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

There are still a few spaces left in the immersion. It runs Monday thru Friday, July 24–28. Here’s a link to the full description and registration page.  We have assembled a truly wonderful international group of students, and I’d love for you to join us.

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Istanbul!

There’s such political turmoil in the world, and I admit I was a bit concerned about a trip to Istanbul, but now that we’ve arrived I’m thrilled. Later this week I’ll be teaching for Cihangir Yoga but for the next few days Lydia and I will be touring the city and enjoying this gorgeous view.

View of Topkapi Palace over the Bosphorus at dusk, shot from the Karaköy neighborhood

There are always challenges (see my Instagram of a mob waiting to go through John F. Kennedy Airport’s TSA last night) to the troubling state of our current government, but for now we’re loving this full moon rising over the Bosphorus.

Full moon rising over the Bosphorus

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Prequels to Beyond Anatomy: A Somatic Symposium, coming this weekend

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:

Pete Blackaby: “Whether we open fully to the world or shrink back from it will be dictated by the kind of world we have met, and the support, or lack of it, we feel we have had.”
Leslie Kaminoff: “Healing is different than curing or fixing.”
Amy Matthews: “The movement experience and the psychological experience are completely tied together. They are the same thing. They are indistinguishable.”
An interview by Brette Popper of YogaCityNYC with Leslie, Amy and Pete about the what’s and the why’s of Beyond Anatomy.

There are a few spaces left, Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2 from 9:00am-5:00pm. Register NOW to reserve your space!

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Meet the “Beyond Anatomy” presenters: Pete Blackaby, Amy Matthews, Leslie Kaminoff, interviewed by Brooke Thomas

The wonderful Brooke Thomas, creator of The Liberated Body podcast, will moderate our upcoming Breathing Project symposium “Beyond Anatomy” in New York City April 1 & 2.

In this special episode which kicks off the fourth season of her podcast, Brooke asks Peter Blackaby, Amy Matthews and me what “Beyond Anatomy” means to us. I’m sure you’ll find our responses thought-provoking, and hope they’ll inspire you to join us at the Symposium.

We already have people coming from across the country, and even across the pond (Pete has lots of fans in his home country, Britain, and throughout the UK), so sign up while there’s still space. We look forward to seeing you there!

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3 Questions for Three Dog Yoga

Recently I was invited to teach by Anna McLawhorn at her Three Dog Yoga studio in Santa Rosa, CA. Anna had signed up for my online course, Principles, a couple of years ago but had just recommitted to both her own and her studio’s education, declaring “2017 our year of learning.”

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 McLawhorn, founder and chief joy instigator of three dog yoga

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.

So, if any of you reading can make it to Northern California over the weekend of March 11-12, please join us at Three Dog Yoga in Santa Rosa, CA.

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