Home / Articles / #7 February 2014 / Interview with Leslie Kaminoff: "The practice must be adapted to the individual"

Interview with Leslie Kaminoff: "The practice must be adapted to the individual"

Leslie Kaminoff is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar, one of the world's foremost authorities on the therapeutic uses of yoga. Leslie is the founder of The Breathing Project, a New York City educational nonprofit organization dedicated to the teaching of individualized breath-centered yoga.

An internationally recognized specialist with over 32 years' experience in the fields of yoga and breath anatomy, Kaminoff has led workshops for many of the leading yoga associations, schools, and training programs in the United States. He has also helped to organize international yoga conferences and has actively participated in the ongoing national debate regarding certification standards for yoga teachers and therapists.

Kaminoff has been a featured yoga expert in publications such as Yoga Journal and The New York Times, as well as online at WebMD, FoxNews Online, and Health.com. He is the founder of the highly respected international yoga blog eSutra, coauthor of the best-selling first edition of Yoga Anatomy, and creator of the DVD Breath-Centered Yoga with Leslie Kaminoff and the highly successful online course yogaanatomy.net.

Interview with Leslie Kaminoff

- First just tell us a little bit about yourself. Anything.

KA: Anything about myself? Does it have to do with yoga?

- No, anything that you would like to tell us.

KA: Ok. I am probably the only yoga teacher I know, who, for fun, gets on horses rides around fast and shoots targets with guns. It’s called Cowboy Mounted Shooting; it’s an event that we do on our horses. So I am pretty sure I am the only yoga teacher doing that, although if there is someone else out there who is doing that I would really like to know about it.

- Anything else?

KA: I am very thrilled these days to be focusing on some web-based projects. We have had great success with my online anatomy course, we have actually put three courses online so far, in addition, Amy Matthews, my writing partner is putting her forces online and so I began to develop a business that will help other educators, not just yoga people, but any educator feel (that they can) put their content in course form, in an online course like we have done. So that’s sort of my latest thing and I am excited about.

- You got a really unusual start in yoga starting from a Swami.

KA: Well it isn't unusual for people to have studied with a Swami.

- But you turned from a Swami to a totally opposite..

KA: Opposite of a Swami?

- Yeah... (Laughs)

KA: Yeah, whatever the opposite of a Swami is, that’s probably what I am now. No, I went through that stage when I first started. My original training was with the Sivananda Organization, which is a very traditional, classical, hatha yoga, spiritual organization. It’s very Hindu and so when I decided to get really serious with them, part of that was becoming a Swami myself. This was in the early 80ies, so I was sent to Los Angeles to run their operation there, in the early 80ies, and it was there that I decided that being a Swami really wasn't my path. But I stopped with yoga and that’s when I began a lot more my education in the fields of anatomy, biomechanics, sports medicine and all the hands on things that I do as well.

- What made you change your mind?

KA: About being a Swami?

- Yes.

KA: It was a girl of course. But more than that I mean ... See, here is the interesting thing about becoming a Swami, at least in the context of that organization. You take three basic vows when you become a Swami, its like becoming a monk or a priest or something so... The first vow is poverty, meaning you don’t have your own money; you are being completely dedicated to be supported by this organization. The second one is obedience to the Guru, so you are basically giving up the idea that you are making your own life decisions. If they send you somewhere you have to go, you don’t question it and things like that. The third is celibacy and I think we all know what celibacy means. What they don’t tell you when you take these vows is that (and again at least in the context of this organization), you step into a position of authority as a Swami in that organization. So I ended up handling more money that I had ever seen before. Running this yoga center, I was pretty autonomous; I did not have anyone directly supervising me, so I was making all these decisions. The obedience thing was the vow but what came to me was more autonomy to make decisions about what was going on around me than I ever had. And as far as celibacy is concerned, what they don’t tell you is that apparently there is nothing more attractive to a member of the opposite sex, than somebody that has taken a vow of celibacy. So, all of these things that you renounced are just coming at you like a hundred times stronger than you had ever imagined. And at age 23 I don’t think I was really equipped to deal with all of that, I realized that and made a decision to basically renounce my renunciation.

- Do you think it is a good experience for some period of time to try some of these vows and maybe to become a Swami?

KA: It was good for me, I don't regret it, but I don’t think it’s for everybody. I think everyone has to find their own path. My oldest son now is 23 and he is traveling through India just exploring things, to see what he wants to do with his life. I doubt that taking formal vows of celibacy is something that is in his future, but if you are serious about it and that’s a path, then its something to explore. A lot of times making a decision like that makes you learn a lot about yourself and you can discover things that you didn't realize before. And then some of those things may take you away from that path.

- What are the major things that you discovered about yourself during this period of time?

KA: When I was young, like when I was 23-24?

- Yeah, when you were doing all those...

KA: Well I discovered that I certainly wasn’t ready to be celibate, so that was important. I discovered that I really had a deep interest in the mechanics of yoga, much more so than was part of that particular teaching tradition, I began experimenting with variations on postures and little exercises to help people do the postures better. When I left that organization (Sivananda), I went to work for a doctor actually, who does sports medicine. Still does it, in the same place in Los Angeles. I began to learn a lot about anatomy and so I think what I learned overall was to trust my curiosity, to trust my desire to explore things and learn about things. I have always been much more of a self- motivated learner; I never functioned well in other people's structured learning environments, so I was very fortunate to be able to follow my own interests and to be surrounded by people who knew a lot more than I did, from whom I could learn. Trusting my curiosity I think, was a major thing that I learned.

- What about Desikachar? What was his role in your story?

KA: Sure. I was trained to be a yoga teacher at Sivananda in 1979, so it was about 9 years later that I met Desikachar in the summer of 1988. And that was completely life altering because I d already been teaching yoga for a while and I had established certain ways of working and understanding the body, particularly the breath. I was very interested in breathing and one of the main reasons why I wanted to meet Desikachar was because of my understanding that his tradition focused a lot on the breath, and so that was very important for me. But the immediate effect of meeting Desikachar and working with his method was that it completely wrecked my breathing because it was so different from what I had been trained to do and what I had been training other people to do. So I spend a good six months learning how to take a decent breath, after I met him, and then I really wanted to know anatomically, why; Why did this method that I just learned from Desikashar works so much better than the one I had been doing, and so I am still finding answers to that question. But no one else was so obsessed with the anatomy as I was, he did not answer my questions on an anatomical level, neither did any of his senior western teachers. No one was as obsessed as I was, and so I kind of took it on myself to try to understand anatomically what was going on, on all of these different ways of breathing and bandhas and all that stuff.

- What is so special in our anatomy and in our breathing that it inspires you so much that you want to dig into it so deeply?

KA: Because I think when you begin to understand on a deeper level how we are put together, you begin to understand these most fundamental important principles of yoga, which can be counter-intuitive when you first hear them that you are accomplishing more by doing less. That the way to accomplish things in yoga is to just discover what’s in the way and deal with that. Then something positive happens and we hear these things and they sound good and they are in the teachings, but when you see the anatomical basis for that, to me its inspiring. The fact that our bodies are put together in a way that it wants to support itself, the spine, the ribcage , the pelvis, the pressure differentials in your cavities, all of that creates an actual upward lifting supporting energy in your body which is already there; its even there after death. When you cut open a body you are releasing some of these forces that have always been there structurally, even when you are working with a cadaver, so to understand that that’s there, its already there, its always been there but, it may be obstructed, that to me is an anatomical validation of a lot of these principles that we hear in the teachings.

- What is yoga for you?

KA: What is yoga for me? It’s a job. It’s the only job I have ever had. It’s a natural force. I don’t think yoga, from my perspective, is something that was invented in India. It may have been discovered in India, but that’s like saying well gravity was discovered by Newton, he didn’t invent it, but he understood some of the laws that were governing that. I think, in that sense, yoga is a natural force of the universe, its a natural tendency for organic systems to want to organize themselves in certain ways, its a natural tendency for energy to follow the path of least resistance. It’s a natural tendency for energetic systems to want to be in sync with each other, instead of out of sync with each other. To me that’s what yoga is, it’s a natural force. In that sense it can’t be owned by any culture or religion or region, geographically, and Krishnamacharya very much felt that. He felt that yoga was India’s greatest gift to the world and didn’t feel proprietary about it, like "oh we own it and you shouldn’t be going out and making money doing it". And I certainly feel that way myself.

- And what is the aim of yoga for you?

KA: The aim of yoga for me? The aim of yoga is to bring balance to the system. That’s all, and that can mean anything to anybody. It always occurs in a context, which is the individual. And that’s the other great thing that we get from Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. We get that the breath center of nature in yoga and we also get the individual nature of it. You have to remember that my teacher trained with his father toward the latter part of his life when he was working as a healer. One on one with people, as opposed to more group things that were happening perhaps in Mysore, when the Ashtanga was developed. So, this idea that the practice must be adapted to the individual is absolutely essential to the way we teach. The ultimate context of yoga is the person that’s doing it. So to me the purpose of yoga is to bring that individual to more of a state of balance and whatever that means for that person. What's balance for me can be very different than what's balance for you. Understanding our own individual nature to me is what yoga is.

- As far as I read you are the one who is trying to implement yoga in public education.

KA: Ok, well yes. To explain, there are people that are dedicated to bringing yoga training to public schools and all of that. For example, my friends here in New York had been doing this spectacular job, doing that all over the country. That’s not exactly what I meant. What I meant was that I see us, Yoga Teachers, even if we are working therapeutically with people, fundamentally, as educators not therapists, I don’t like the term yoga therapists, I don’t call myself a yoga therapist. I don’t like the idea that there is this thing called yoga therapy which is this new therapeutic profession, which somehow has to interface with mainstream health care delivery. I am resisting those initiatives in my field in that direction.

- Why?

KA: Because number 1: I don’t think we are therapists. We are educators; even if there is a therapeutic outcome to what we do, it’s primarily because we help educate our clients and our students. Even if we call them patients, about their own bodies, about their own systems, about some of the things I was talking about anatomically. There may be profound therapeutic outcomes from that, but its primarily because we are educators. I don’t want to start competing with physical therapists, and movement therapists and dance therapists, and any other established therapeutic community out there. I don’t want to get in a turf war with them over who gets the insurance reimbursement, who gets the clients and who gets the referrals from doctors. I think that’s a crazy way to orient our profession, because we are an alternative to all of that, that’s why people are seeking us out. You know, they are fed up with health care delivery; they are fed up with the whole system. Why would we want to become part of that system? That’s a betrayal of our students, who come to us for help because they haven't been helped by any of that. I think what you read, that you were referring to, was that I think that if we do get more mainstream in any sense, it should be through educational institutions, like universities. I don’t see any reason in the world why someone can’t go to a university and get a degree in yoga, whether it’s a bachelor, masters or doctorate. So to implement programs in universities where we can be trained and have access to all the resources of a university, like their anatomy lab or the philosophy department or their Sanskrit scholars. It’s a very broad range and field yoga that can draw on virtually any department in a university, for a person to design an individual curriculum that tracks them through their education, in a way that they want. Maybe they want to go into research, maybe they want to go into more therapeutic work, maybe they want to just teach and be a scholar of the history or anthropology or language of yoga. All of these things are available in a degree program in a university and I don’t see why yoga can’t be taught that way. So if we are to be mainstream in a sense of having a broader base for education and our eventual practice when we graduate from that education, it should be through educational institutions, not through this whole medicalization of it and licensure, and the accreditation of the training programs and trying to become more medical. I don’t think that’s the way for us to go. It’s a dead end really.

- And do you think yoga is good for everybody?

KA: Everybody who is breathing, yeah. I mean, whether they recognize it if something is good for them is a whole other question but you know, people always come for help, and the fundamental questions we ask are "can you breathe?", "can you move a little bit?", "can you focus you attention a little bit?". Then you can do yoga. It doesn't matter what else has gone wrong with your body. There is still more going right with you than has gone wrong, if you can do all those things, and that’s what we work with. And that’s the other thing about yoga, it works with prana, with the life force. That’s what does the healing, we don't do the healing, we are not healers, we are educators, we are here to tell you that its your prana that does the healing and so that’s how it works.

- Ah, kind of a provocative question at the moment I guess, do you believe that yoga is a spiritual practice?

KA: Well in the strict sense yes because the word spirit comes from the same word as breath spirare, which means to breath, like in respiration. So, the way I understand spirit is that it is that force within us, which makes us take that next breath. We can call it prana, you can call it spirit, you can call it whatever you want. And so yes, by definition, if your asana practice, whatever you are doing, involves the breath in some way or another then it is by definition yoga and spiritual at the same time. I don’t see that there is a distinction between any of them. You could be doing something on a yoga mat that looks like yoga practice but you could be not paying attention to your breath, your mind can be wandering, you could be doing a hundred other things in your own head, while your body is going through the postures. I don’t think that’s yoga. By definition, if the mind and body are being brought together through the breath then I think its yoga, and its spiritual. It’s all the same definition.

- In your personal perception what are the differences between traditional and modern yoga?

KA: Well, that was then and this is now. It’s just a passage of time. I think, if you look back to the roots of yoga, it was from a bunch of people just observing nature and had seen how natural systems organize themselves that’s when the fundamental ideas came from. They didn’t have any access to anything that we don’t have access to. Now we have bodies, we live in gravity, we breath, we eat, we drink, we pee, we poo, we exhale, we do all those things and if you look at how those things work and how they can work better together that’s yoga. I don’t see that there needs to be a distinction between traditional and current yoga. You know Krishnamacharya lived to be over a hundred and saw people bodies trained; he saw things get more modern, he saw the people's lives started changing. He was perfectly willing to adapt to those different circumstances, so he was a defender of the tradition absolutely, because of his scholarship and his authority in that scholarship but he was also an innovator and an iconoclast at the same time, because he saw how things needed to change and be adapted as the times changed, as people's bodies changed. So a traditional person who understands the principles is also an innovator.

- Tell us a bit about your methodology in yoga.

KA: It’s actually very simple. Breathing, inhaling, exhaling is the shape change of your body’s cavities, your spine is the back of the cavities, therefore how your breath moves and how your spine moves have something profoundly connected to do with each other, and we just use that as a starting point, and we explore it. How can improving this shape changing of the cavities, which is breath, improve how your spine is behaving and vice-versa. So that’s really the fundamental idea that’s in the heart of the methodology, that’s what we talk about in the book.

- How do you see yoga in maybe 20 or 50 years from now?

KA: Well first of all, I hope I am around to see it in 20 or 50 years. I see just more of what we see around us. I see more and more people getting involved, I see more people making things up that have the word yoga attached to it even if it sounds silly, like yogalates, yoga booty butt burning whatever... you know

- Do you think that it’s normal that those different paths evolved, and don't they sometimes just dissolve the whole idea of yoga and it becomes more fitness?

KA: I don’t have a problem with that. See I am the big tend* guy. I say everybody should do whatever they want and I don’t have a problem with yoga being attached to these things because if it wasn't, then somebody wouldn't know that there was a path to looking deeper. Maybe you are doing something that looks silly or superficial, that has the word yoga attached to it and that might offend some people, but for me it’s like ok. Let’s say they experience something valuable in this class and it has this idea of yoga attached to it, maybe they will be prompted to look a little deeper, buy a book or go to a workshop or find a teacher, who has some more substantial, deeper training or experience. So I say, the more the merrier. And I hope it keeps going 20-30-40-50 years, I hope my kids can benefit from it as well, and their kids.

- Ok I think thats it. Would you like to add something?

KA: Thank you very much, great questions and I was happy to answer them.

- Thank you very much too.


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