I’m quite please to be able to present to you a very special author and yogi today. He is a man that has, even if only on paper, taught me a lot.
I’m sure every yoga teacher that wants to know more about anatomy and breathing in relation to yoga is familiar with your name, but for those who have no idea let me introduce you shortly before we do the Q&A. If that’s okay?
Leslie Kaminoff is a yogi and co-author of the bestselling book “Yoga Anatomy” and creator of YogaAnatomy.net, a yoga educator, and internationally recognized specialist with over three decades experience in the fields of yoga, breath anatomy and bodywork.
How do you feel about teaching yoga and the discussion about certification and licensing?
Well, that’s a two-part question. The first part is easy and quick to answer. How do I feel about teaching yoga? I feel very good about teaching yoga. When I say that I’m referring to whatever I teach in the context of the principles that come to us from the ancient teachings in general, and from my teacher Desikachar and his teacher Krishnamacharya in particular.
The word yoga gets tends to get used interchangeably with asana in the west. That’s unfortunate because there is a distinction. You can be practicing asana and not be doing yoga at all just as you can be doing fantastic yoga that has nothing to do with asana That said, if you want your asana practice to be a tool of yoga, it requires you to have a certain perspective. The one refer to is the actual definition of yoga practice as laid out by Patañjali in the first sutra of the second chapter of the yoga sutras: “tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah.”
As far as the discussion about certification and licensing goes, I can relate to the second part of the question to my first answer by saying I feel very good about teaching yoga because I am free to teach yoga. I am free to conduct myself in whatever way I wish that is responsive to and respectful to the people I work with and to my students. As soon as licensing enters into a field, any field, that freedom starts to disappear. I would feel very bad about teaching yoga under a governmental licensing structure, if it ever came to be. That is why I’ve been fighting against licensing for as many years as I can remember.
Certification is different than licensing. Certification merely means that somebody is certifying that somebody else did something. That could be anything from bare attendance to completing really rigorous training in order to get a degree of some kind. At a certain point, through accreditation, the government gets involved and that’s when we start having problems. I’m not against the government per se, I’m just against the government using force inappropriately in a field like yoga, and any other field for that matter. My views on that are pretty well known and they can be found on the site I have created: iyea.us (Independent Yoga Educators of America).
Is there any food that you feel benefits you as a yogi?
No, not any one food in particular. My take on the whole dietary thing is that yoga teachers should not be providing nutritional advice unless they are certified as nutritionist or if they are a healthcare provider with real training in nutrition. In the absence of that, it is outside a yoga teacher’s scope of practice to provide nutritional advice. Even the idea that you have to be vegetarian or adhere to a certain diet in order to be pure, to be a yogi, is really nonsense. However, once food passes into someone’s mouth, they chew on it, then swallow it – what they have eaten enters the province of what yoga teachers can help with.
So, I would say that our scope of practice begins at the inside of the mouth. Although I don’t advise people what they should into their mouths, I do tell them that whatever they choose to eat can be better assimilated through yoga. Just as significantly, they might even be able to make better choices about what they put into their mouths in the first place by becoming more sensitive to what their bodies needs are. This is certainly something yoga has a great track record of helping with.
What is your favourite dish and can you give me the recipe?
Thanks for reminding me of that heavenly dish. I found a great recipe for it on Kate Schwabacher’s site.
What is your philosophy on yoga?
I partially answered that in my first answer when I talked about how I feel about teaching yoga. My philosophy on yoga is that its practice must strike a balance between Patañjali’s three principles of tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana
Put simply, this is about changing the things you can (tapah), surrendering to the things you cannot change (isvara pranidhana), and having the wisdom to know the difference (svadhyaya). So, my philosophy on yoga is pretty much identical to the ideas expressed in the serenity prayer.
I also would point out that all of those principles can be found in the way our bodies operate, which provides an anatomical grounding to my philosophy on yoga.
Even though this anatomical perspective is in accord with many of the ancient teachings, I don’t gain my sense of authenticity in yoga simply because I’m teaching ancient stuff. If I can find these teachings in the body, and the way it operates, then I feel it’s authentic. If that’s in accord with some of the ancient teachings, great – but if something is ancient and it doesn’t agree with what I can verify through my own experience, than I don’t need to pay attention to it.
What do you enjoy most, teaching workshops or practicing asanas?
Well, since I do much more of the one than the other, I would say what I enjoy the most is teaching workshops, trainings, and classes.
At this point in my life, asana practice is very much on an as-needed basis. I did a lot of practice when I was younger while my body was still growing and developing. That set me up in a pretty good way for my adulthood when I’m now sensitive enough to my body that I don’t tend to build up a lot of the stuff I would need asana practice to get rid off. When I do find something happening in my body that needs attention, I definitely have those tools available.
Is there any pose you’ve ‘lost’ over the years? I mean is there a pose you used to master but now no longer have the ability to hold, and how do you handle that?
(Leslie laughs) I handle that the way I handle everything that changes over the years. There’s a certain amount of change that is inevitable to which I must surrender, and a certain amount of change that I’m in charge of and can actually do something about.
Poses I’ve lost over the years? I used to be able to do lotus, but then I had two knee surgeries and realized that I was thrashing my knees by doing things like lotus, which I stopped doing and teaching. I can’t do full locust anymore, or at least I haven’t tried for a while and I don’t think I should. I mean full locust – salabhasana – with my legs up in the air and my feet dangling in my face.
There’s a few others I suppose, but I tell people that every pose you master you are going to lose except for one: savasana – corpse pose. That’s the one I’m trying to master more and more as I get older.
What made you follow the teachings of T.K.V. Desikachar?
There’s a bit of a story there, but this is the way I would sum it up:
I’d already done my swami/guru thing when I was working with the Sivananda organization, so I really wasn’t looking for a guru per se when I sought out Desikachar. It was the teachings; specifically the idea that you could put the breath in the centre of the practice and that was how you integrated everything you were doing. I recognized there was a tradition out there with this idea at its centre, so I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I had been working on my own breath explorations, but by the time I met Desikachar in 1988 I was ready to really absorb what this tradition had to say and it was earth shattering for me. Fortunately, I was able to continue with Desikachar right up until he stopped teaching.
What is the Breathing Project? And how did it start?
The Breathing Project is fundamentally a non-profit, educational corporation founded in New York State in 2002. I got the idea for it pretty soon after 9/11 happened in 2001, which was sort of a wake up call letting me know life can change very quickly and unexpectedly in a direction you didn’t want which means you should really be doing what you want and as often and as soon as you can. That’s when I realized I really did want to have a vehicle for doing more teaching and writing.
It evolved into a studio named the Breathing project that opened in February 2003 and it’s still there, going strong. We really evolved into not so much a yoga studio but an educational institution that’s dedicated to supporting the yoga teaching community. We also train people who teach Pilates and Gyrotonics and who do body work.
The Breathing Project is a kind of graduate-level space where you come to learn more about anatomy, kinesiology, and yoga. We don’t have a yoga teacher program, and absolutely never will. We don’t compete with teacher training programs, we support the graduates of all the other teacher training programs. The Breathing Project is also the space where we record the advanced studies courses we teach, to our worldwide community through our online courses at yogaanatomy.net.
And another thing about how it started was simply to have a physical space in New York where people who taught in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar could teach as they wished. There was no centre where that was possible prior to the Breathing Project, because any other place where you could teach, like a gym or yoga studio, would have an agenda as to what kind of class was expected.
I know you have a very busy schedule. How do you fit in a daily practicing of the asanas and meditation in your life?
Well, as I said earlier I don’t, I’m too busy. It’s all on an as-needed basis. If I can live my life, play basketball, ride my horse, do my bodywork, and demonstrate what I need to in front of a group of other yoga teachers without making a complete ass of myself, then I consider my practice to have done its job. If I feel that I’m unable to do any of those things because there’s something happening physically, then I go to the tools that I’ve developed over the years, but it’s certainly is not something I need or even want to do every day because I’m too busy doing all those other things I’ve talked about.
What can you recommend to people who want to start practicing yoga but for some reason keep putting it off?
I don’t know what to tell people like that. (Leslie laughs) Actually, I think we all want to do lots of things that are supposed to be good for us but keep putting them off for whatever reason.
The most common excuse I hear is, “I’d like to try it but I’m too stiff to do yoga.”
Maybe they see pictures, videos, and calendars of all these flexible people doing gymnastic things and say, “That’s not for me.” What I say is that being too stiff to do yoga is absolutely, exactly like being too sick to go to the doctor. There’s a yoga for everybody and it’s just a matter of getting over yourself and trying it. But, it’s the same thing with anything that requires change; sometimes we sabotage ourselves. What eventually happens is that our body, our system, our physiology creates an alarm that we simply can’t ignore. For a lot of people it’s being laid up with back pain for a month and having nothing to do but think about their lives. That back pain didn’t start off that way. It started as a whisper and then tried to become a conversation and then it started shouting and then it knocked you on your ass. So, I would tell people yoga practice is a way to tune into the conversation your body is always trying to have with you before it becomes critical – but quite frequently people need to become critical before it gets their attention.
Thank you for taking the time to do this Leslie. I’m sure the yogis and yoginis following this blog are pleased to find you here. If they want more they can best go to your site YogaAnatomy.net where they can book the online course, and sign up for your newsletter. Or just read more about the Breathing Project.
Thank you for your interest, Lucy.