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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Negative Feedback Can Be Positive (except when it’s just negative)

Leslie Kaminoff, hearing from a studentIt can be gut-wrenching to get critical feedback, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s a very important part of growing, both personally and professionally.

A number of years ago I started offering a survey to workshop participants. I tell them they can answer whenever they want because sometimes it takes a while to realize something I taught or said didn’t sit right or left confusion. The survey responses have provided invaluable insight into how I am actually communicating (sometimes not how I had intended). I know my workshops and teaching have improved as a result of the survey because over the last few years I’ve made changes in response to what had emerged as patterns of critique, at which point those remarks stopped coming in.

When I tell students about our survey and how much I appreciate their using it, I make sure to let them know that as much as I love hearing about their positive experiences what I need to hear are any critical comments they may have (as long as they’re polite!). My partner Lydia reads and replies to survey respondents and collects the comments. Whenever a pattern emerges and we see there is valid criticism, we sincerely take it to heart and use it to improve the quality of our programs.

As a teaching point, I then discuss what I see as an endemic problem with our profession as yoga educators — namely, a scarcity of critical feedback. There are two main reasons we are far more likely to hear praise for our teaching than criticism. The first is simply due to the fact that students who have a good experience return to our classes while the people who get hurt, annoyed or otherwise alienated by what we teach tend to leave and never come back. I’ve stopped being surprised when, in my bodywork practice, I hear that a client got injured in someone’s yoga class but has NOT told the teacher about their injury – they simply never returned – so that teacher had no opportunity to grow or improve.

The second reason we don’t hear critical feedback is that even regular students have a hard time telling us when something we say or do isn’t working for them. Let’s face it — we’ve all had issues with authority figures who’ve stood at the front of the rooms we’ve inhabited. As such figures ourselves, we yoga teachers are inevitably the recipients of many of those projections. No matter how much we may solicit feedback from our students, there is a natural reluctance to engage in a difficult conversation that could bring conflict to the cherished, peaceful haven of our yoga space.

As a result of this built-in issue, I find myself reminding my fellow educators, particularly those in attendance in my workshops, to be on guard against the danger of having an over-inflated sense of their safety and efficacy. Hopefully, we can create class environments that are safe enough for our students to have even difficult conversations with us.

That said, I know I can’t make everyone happy, and sometimes I receive a particularly scathing review from someone who clearly had a negative reaction to my personality. This is a great opportunity for me to become aware of my defensive reactions, take a breath or two, and gain some clarity.  Since this is a good example of my yoga showing up in real life (see #myActualYoga), I’m sharing a glimpse into this process below:

Dissatisfied student comment:
“Wow – very disappointing. Spending 3 hours on balancing on the 3 points of the foot was for me painful navel gazing. The rest of the weekend was much the same.” also: “It was so slow, I texted every person on my phone just to have something to do.”

My initial, gut level response:
WTF!?!?!?! What a disrespectful ass. If she was so bored she was texting in class, why didn’t she just leave and ask for her money back?

Eventually I was able to consider further:
“The rest of the weekend” for this student was not my full workshop – she only dropped in for the two mornings. My four-session workshops build organically on principles and topics, so this student had no context for what was being taught by the time she came back on Sunday morning when we were exploring the foot.

Bringing particular focus to the foundations of the foot helps address many common problems: knee pain, tight hips, lower-back pain. It is telling that for this one person the foot focus was “painful navel-gazing” while for another in attendance (a chronic pain sufferer), that same level of focus on her feet led her to report: “for the first time in four years, my knee pain has gone from an 8 to a 1.5!”  That student wrote back 10 days later to confirm she was still doing well. Even if I have to bore a full room of people to get one response like that, it would be worth it. As it turned out, the rest of the survey responses from that workshop were overwhelmingly positive.

More from that same dissatisfied student:
“Way too much sitting and listening to Mr. Kaminoff’s world view. Listening to all of his F Bombs was unprofessional and for all his self aggrandizement and self acclaimed educational attainment, one would think he could think of other more articulate adjectives.”

My initial reaction:
Fuck you.

After a few breaths:
Guilty as charged: I curse, which raises some eyebrows. I am an acknowledged atheist, which raises even more hackles. I am a forthright and direct communicator, which can be perceived as rude. I project a certain confidence in what I am teaching, which can easily be confused with self-aggrandizing arrogance.  I often say that I count on rubbing the right people the wrong way. Clearly, in this case I succeeded (and yes I get that some may consider that self-aggrandizing!).

That same student’s final comment:
“Pompous and offensive. I wish I could get my money and time back.”

My final response:
I can’t do anything about her time (at least she used it *productively* – texting everyone she knew while in my classroom!). I would gladly offer this student a refund but, since including name and e-mail on our survey is optional and this student chose to answer anonymously, I am stuck. Should this person choose to identify herself, I would be happy to send a check for a pro-rated refund. On two occasions during my 30-odd years of offering workshops I have received complaints about the cost of an event. In each case I asked the student what they felt it should have cost, and refunded the difference. 

 

Phew. It’s not easy to get critiques, but I know I am a better teacher – and human being – for being open to them. I thank my partner, Lydia Mann, whose background in communications and user-centric design encouraged me to develop our survey. I encourage all my fellow teachers to do something similar.

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Coming home

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.

Lydia painting in her studio (aka our living room)

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!

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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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First Workshops of 2017

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.

First up, I’m teaching a one-day immersion at YogaSpace in Bethel, CT on Sunday, Jan. 29.  This event is already sold out, but there are two other local events coming up soon on Long Island and Westchester.

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.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, I will lead a brand-new program designed specially for my good friend Patty Holmes at The Yoga Garden in White Plains, NY. Inspired by Patty’s role as clinic coordinator at The Breathing Project, I will teach a therapeutically oriented day of “Breath-Centered Asana and Vinyasa — Individualized Adaptation and Modification.”

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.

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Yoga and the Respiratory System at Soul of Yoga

check out my workshop at Soul of YogaIn anticipation of my upcoming “Yoga and the Respiratory System” workshop at Soul of Yoga’s therapeutic training in Encinitas, CA, I’m posting a snippet of an article I’ve been working on to discourage people from feeling they must always get the deepest possible breath. This is a preview of one of the topics I’ll be covering in an information-packed two days of learning and exploration at Soul of Yoga. Other topics will include:

  • How breathing occurs on every level – from cells to systems and beyond
  • The basics of breath physiology
  • The structure and function of the diaphragm
  • The key structures involved in breathing
  • How breath coordinates with and supports movement
  • The physiology of meditative states
  • Western and yogic models of anatomy and physiology
  • The physical correlates of the koshas, chakras, nadis and kundalini

If you can get to Southern California (and who doesn’t want to spend time there in December!), come join me Friday and Saturday, December 9 & 10.


The working title of the article is “Breathing Myths vs Breathing Reality.” This excerpt addresses maximal oxygenation, an often misunderstood concept related to oxygen, carbon dioxide, hyperventilation, and metabolic loads.

To read many yoga and breathing books, one could get the impression that deep breathing and maximal oxygenation are the holy grails of health, well-being and enlightenment. The assumption is that the more deeply you breathe, the more oxygen you will get in, the more carbon dioxide you will get rid of and the healthier you’ll be. The facts are:

  1. not enough carbon dioxide is dangerous,
  2. deep (maximal) breathing is only occasionally appropriate, and
  3. too much oxygen is toxic.

Breathing activity should always be linked to your body’s metabolic needs. If your level of activity requires a larger than usual supply of oxygen, deeper or more frequent breathing is perfectly appropriate. That same level of respiratory activity, if applied to a resting state, would produce blood alkalosis (hyperventilation).

Your body has homeostatic mechanisms that prevent a toxic excess of oxygen from building up in the tissues. The idea that one can improve health by increasing O2 concentrations in the blood is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the immense relief that accompanies a deeply satisfying breath. In fact, freeing the breath allows respiratory activity to more closely match body metabolism by releasing excessive, oxygen-hungry tension from the breathing musculature.

Your body is many times more sensitive to changes in blood levels of carbon dioxide than it is to oxygen. Carbon dioxide plays a critical role in helping hemoglobin transport oxygen from your blood to your body’s tissues. If you don’t have enough CO2 in your blood, the O2 gets held too tightly by the hemoglobin, and not enough oxygen will be released into your tissues. The idea that one can improve health by ridding oneself of excess CO2 is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the simple act of exhaling more effectively (which is a prerequisite for filling your lungs).

This is why I have gotten out of the habit of using the phrase “take a deep breath” when teaching yoga. Instead, I try to say things like, “take a relaxed breath” or “let your body fill with breath.” These are ways I seek to help students trust that their body knows what it is doing, and the best breathing happens when we get out of its way.

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My busy fall teaching schedule has gotten underway

Gorgeous Northeastern colors along the PalisadesI 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.

In early November I’ll be going to Philadelphia to teach for the first time at the Yoga Garden Narberth, then onto Chattanooga, TN for another first-time visit, teaching A Breath Centered Approach to Alignment in Asana for the Yoga Landing on Warehouse Row.

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!

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“Who knows?…It may do something good.”

My upcoming weekend workshop at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio will focus on the healing potentials of Yoga. Whenever I teach this topic, I like to play a section of a 1996 documentary I helped produce in which my late teacher T.K.V. Desikachar talks about students who showed up at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram seeking help.  His simple words express very beautifully the essence of how yoga can help:

“The most important problem is suffering…but for some reason, the usual system of medical and health care is not able to understand the person who is suffering. They know a lot about the problem..but the relationship between this illness and the person is not so much emphasized. It’s not just illness, it’s what I call ‘the relationship to the illness’.  So, when the person goes to all these (medical) people, and still they are not better, they become desperate.

“We talk to these people. We say: ‘You have some resources which are not just medicine.  There’s something you have: you can still breathe…you can still talk…you  can sit and move. That means you still have the energy that can heal you. Let us direct and use this energy…who knows? It may do something good.’”

In my practice, this principle has evolved into a quick checklist for new students: “Are they breathing?  Are they able to focus their attention?  Can they move their body voluntarily?”  If the answers are even a little bit of yes, then they can practice yoga and reap immediate benefits. It is my contention that the most profound healing derived from yoga practice comes from the simplest things we teach, not the most complex.  The first, simplest thing that we ask people to do is also the most powerful: bringing the body and mind together through the medium of the breath.

I’ve provided a more extensive quote of Desikachar’s ideas about healing and the student-teacher relationship for Yoga on High’s blog, and the complete piece was a chapter in the book “Yoga Therapy and Integrative Medicine: Where Ancient Science Meets Modern Medicine” by Larry Payne Ph.D., Terra Gold M.A.LAc. and Eden Goldman D.C.

yoga-on-high-logoIf you’re available and can get to Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio October 21-23, please come join me as we explore some of the therapeutic applications of yoga.

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Hashtagging My Actual Yoga

I’ve been prepping my Portland workshops at yogaRIOT this weekend (there’s still room so come join me if you’re in the area!), which will conclude Sunday afternoon with “Better Backbends Through Breathing.” One of the slides in my presentation is a 1983 photo of me in Ustrasana (Camel Pose). It got me wondering what the 25-year-old version of my body would look like alongside my 58-year-old 2016 Camel Pose. So, I asked Lydia to take a photo of me on the mat in our living room so she could combine them in a single visual.

Seeing the resulting image got me thinking about all the old photos I have of me doing asana, and how they would compare to my present-day versions. I’ve also been thinking for a while about how difficult it is to visually depict how yoga practice shows up in off-the-mat situations, because so often, it’s a very internal process that does not make for a particularly interesting photo-op.

Uniting these two musings, I will henceforth supplement my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds with images tagged #MyActualYoga.  You are welcome to use the hashtag as well if you have interesting before/after asana images to share, or if you can find a visual way to represent how yoga shows up in your daily life.  You can see examples of both in this post.

Let’s put something different on Instagram yoga feeds! It may not be pretty, but it will be real.

Camel Pose 1983-2016Switching Hands

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We’re going to have a yogaRIOT in PDX!

kaminoff-600px-yogaRIOT-2016I’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.

Baron 2011In 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!

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