"This is a major problem with religious fundamentalists of all stripes. They simply don't know how to leave non-believers alone." (Leslie Kaminoff on the Take Back Yoga Campaign, e-sutra 11/30/2010)
I chose to start Part 2 of this Leslie Kaminoff interview by bringing attention to a few of the hot button issues in North American yoga that have been making good copy.
The New York Times recently ran an article entitled, "Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul", that incited its fair share of debate as arguments circulated freely at the Huffington Post, and elsewhere in the blogosphere. The influential group backing the "Take Back Yoga" campaign is called the Hindu American Foundation, or HAF, which is a Hindu Advocacy Organization based in the U.S whose goal it is to reclaim the spiritual roots of Yoga and recouple them with Hinduism. To summarize, the piece outlines the arguments set forth by a group of people The NY Times designates "Indian-Americans" who have started a campaign to "take back yoga".
What the hyphenated term Indian-American designates is not clear. And, as Indian-Americans and South Asians in general are comprised of at least 4 of the world's major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam... not to even mention Jainism and Zoroastrianism, the designation Indian-American is sloppy and vague. To boot, yoga is also a lovely hybrid of many different strands of religious thought still largely co-mingled and indistinct. Nonetheless, both the New York Times as well as the HAF appear to flatten the pluralist nature of religious identity in the subcontinent and elsewhere, which is to say the least, only one part of a much more tangled problem.
Opponents include the ever popular voice of American Hindu thought, Deepak Chopra, whose take on the matter is made clear on his home page...while those in support of the campaign claim that Chopra's Hinduism is an amiable pushover.
The HAF make it clear that they have no interest in proprietorship regarding yoga; however, they do make it clear that contemporary yoga evades its relationship with Hindu tradition and culture. Unfortunately, the HAF's credo of reclaiming yoga to accord with perceived notions of authenticity flirts most unfortunately with fundamentalist approaches to Hinduism. And, the HAF does not clarify exactly how Hinduism has been overlooked.
And this is exactly the gap into which Leslie Kaminoff has thrown his thoughts; and he addresses the issue directly on his blog, e-sutra, as well as through our interview:
Priya Thomas interview with Leslie Kaminoff October 2010, Part 2:
|(Leslie Kaminoff, left; Amy Matthews, right)|
Leslie: I believe of course, that yoga was discovered in India; but that doesn't mean that Indians own it.
Leslie: Well, you say right and I say right. But the people who created the database of traditional knowledge would disagree. You're aware of this right?
Leslie: There are a lot of people in India who are pissed off at yoga being appropriated or misappropriated by Westerners; and even more pissed off at it being missappropriated by Indians living in the West...you can fill in whatever name you want there, but it's really about Bikram and his insistance that he should enjoy copyright protection for his sequence, which I agree with. I supported him for that. I still think he's an asshole. But I supported him in that. So you know there's this idea that you can gain patent protection for traditional knowledge, and prevent other people from using it. And that's why they created this database of traditional knowledge, and have filed this database with the patent offices around the world in an attempt to keep people from producing yoga products. It's as if the word yoga itself is something that could be protected.
And that's pretty much Gary's Kraftsow's perspective. He has no problem with anyone doing anything they want based on yoga teachings or an amalgam of yoga in this or yoga in that as long as they don't call it yoga, he thinks it's misleading. He thinks it's a form of fraud to call these things yoga if they're not grounded in the traditional knowledge. And I would disagree with that because my perspective is that yoga was discovered in India, not invented there.
Priya: Do you have a basis for saying that?
Leslie: Well, it's like a force of nature. Like electricity...you can't invent electricity. My take on yoga is that it is the natural tendency of organic systems to want to function in harmony. And that's something that's built into nature. And we can discover that principle and take advantage of it and align ourselves with it. So that's the perspective in which I view this term "yoga". So it's much bigger, and older and more ancient than India, or even this planet. You know, it's a force of nature. And as such, I have no problem putting the word yoga on it. Yes the word is a Sanskrit word, and it has an etymology and it has a history and all of that. But you know you have to use some word for it.
Priya: I liked your iteration of anatomical structures to illustrate yogic principles. For instance, I read your use of the word "joint" in your articulation of embodied metaphors for joining. It's as if the metaphors for yoga can be found in existing anatomical structures, and in the structure of language itself.
Priya: Yes! And that's what I found really creative about it. Because it is something that often happens as a way of understanding Sanskrit words; but less so when it comes to understanding words in English. I thought that perspective of looking at the "joint" was a remarkable reiteration of the spiritual underpinnings of yogic ideas through anatomy.
Leslie: Well if it gives you a new take on something and a new perspective that's useful, I'm all for it. You know, English is not a consistent language like Sanskrit. Its grammar and spelling and pronounciation are all over the place. And yet, there's a lot of Indo-European roots in English, where you can find it in the language, Im always looking for it.
"Because what you're initially attracted into is based on who you are at the moment you are exposed to it. Who you are going to be, is determined by how willing you are to get past that. And to use the yoga to maybe dissemble some your neuroses, rather than reinforce it." (Leslie Kaminoff)
Leslie: And he could put that aside and say "Ok here is this argument" and "here is this argument" and "here is this argument" because his scholarship encompassed all of the darsanas, and all of the perspectives. And you know he could make coherent arguments from a Buddhist perspective because his scholarship went there as well...And in the big picture, he was very clearly saying to people, "Look, you have yoga, and you have Hinduism, and they are distinct. They have different metaphysical roots". In fact, the arguments that the Vedanta sutra makes to support its point of view, by necessity, have to destroy Sankhya. But that's how you make your argument in the tradition. You have to destroy all the other arguments!
Leslie: And Desikachar pointed this out to me in an interview we did in 1992. He said, "You know Vedanta Sutra refutes yoga: "Etena yogah pratyuktah" In other words, by the argument we have just given, which has just destroyed Sankhya, therefore, we also refute yoga.
And people don't realize this because a lot of the yoga that people originally got taught was from a Hindu swami. And it was all mixed up.
Leslie: And Sivananda was famous for that. Sivananda was the smorgasboard of India. There was no discrimination in terms of which darsana he was drawing from. Even terminology like Atman and Purusa were mixed up...You know, it was all sort of mishmashed together. And that was my original training. And so a lot of that sorting out happened after I met Desikachar; and he was very clear about keeping the traditions distinct in your understanding but also showing, of course, how they are all related.
Priya: I would think it's a very Hindu perspective to accept that kind of multiplicity and fragmentation. Fragmentation, it's often argued, is better tolerated in Hinduism than in the Abrahamic religions...
Priya: Yes exactly.
Leslie: So sure! I can understand how it's so confusing to people. You know because I've been in this field for thirty one years, and have been to India, and had the conversations and met the people from all the different castes and traditions. For example, I can ask you about your family's caste and tradition and know a little bit about you and the philosophy...
Priya: Well, my dad's a Syrian Orthodox minister. So you might not get to know very much..
Leslie: a minister??
Priya: That's what he is. So it doesn't apply.
Leslie: Ah ha...
Leslie: Syrian Orthodox??
Priya: There you go. fragmentation.
Leslie: But, but your mother has a tradition she was born into?
Priya: Yes, she's Syrian Orthodox.
Leslie: From Kerala?
Leslie: That's the great thing about Kerala. I mean, the Christians ended up there, there are Jews in Kerala...
Priya: And Muslims...
Leslie: It's the only place on the planet where Communism actually works!
(laughing) And it has a 98% literacy rate!!! Beats this country...
Priya: (laughing) The New York Times published a few articles earlier this year that came out bashing yoga, and you commented about it on your blog...Why do you think the New York Times is interested in yoga?
Leslie: Well because yoga is so popular. And because people become such zealots about it. And there's money involved. No one gave a shit about yoga twenty years ago! When we were doing things like teaching for $4 a class just so we could use the sauna at a health club! I mean, I was doing that! You know, there's celebrities involved. And there's a story.
And when a yoga teacher himself becomes a celebrity, people like John Friend, you know, there's something there. But you know, they've been doing this forever. You know, New York Magazine ripped into Rodney Yee and Colleen when they got together, and there was this whole thing about "Oh you know, he's married.." and "She's married" and blah, blah, blah...
If it's a gossipy story that can be made, then they'll do it. And the Times is not above doing that; after all it is a journalistic enterprise...That is, unlike Yoga Journal. (And my apologies Kaitlyn, if you're listening)...But Yoga Journal is not about investigative journalism. It's not about creating a story. I mean, Yoga Journal wouldn't bash John Friend in an article. This is what comes with success and with money. This is what comes with yoga being an industry. And the point I made in my blog was that from that perspective, there's no such thing as bad PR.
Leslie: There's this view that's being put out there by people who I think I could refer to as "defenders of the faith", you know those people who say that India invented yoga and that the West has stolen it...To me, that's just so stupid. Cos you know, look, here's the thing, when Krishnamacarya was finishing his time in the cave in Tibet, with his teacher, Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari, a Hindu teacher of yoga living in Tibet, and you know this tradition, I'm sure...gurudaksina...the time for payment comes. And woe be to the student who refuses payment. There are stories of what curses descend upon you. Now, Krishnamacarya would no more consider refusing payment to his teacher than cutting his sacred thread. He would never do it. And so with full knowledge of who this man was, his teacher asked for payment. Now this is a man who was clearly headed into a religious life. This is man who was offered later on, the job of basically "pope of South India", or the head of all of the Sri Vaisnavas in South India, and he was offered this post more than once, which he refused because of the promise he made to his teacher. Because the payment his teacher asked was "you leave, you go, you marry, you raise a family and you teach yoga". For a high Brahmin like Krishnamacarya this was a sentence of poverty and low-caste work. Cos at that time, teaching yoga was the era of fakirs and yogis as circus entertainers.
Read Singleton's book. (Referring to Mark Singleton's book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice)
Leslie: so yeah, charlatans...And Krishnamacarya accepted his sentence without hesitating I'm sure. This price that his teacher put on the teachings. And it's because of that promise that we're sitting here having this conversation.
So for Indians to then say that the flowering of this all over the world is somehow against the tradition is to somehow ignore the fact that India ignored its own traditions for centuries, and cast out these practitioners who kept this alive. Only now that it has become an industry in the West, and it's popular, and there's people who want to study it, to now say:
"Oh now this is our sacred tradition which we've nurtured for centuries" that is such disingenuous bullshit you know?
And it betrays a lack of knowledge on the part of these people of this whole context. So I have no patience for that. And that, I think, is what I was reacting to in my blog as well.
(and then after some silence, there's laughter)
Priya: Well, fair enough then. (laughing)
Priya: I read somewhere that mystical yoga disturbs you because it can bring with it a host of misconceptions. What is it about that mystical approach, I mean apart from the fact that it's such a confusing hybrid of so many distinct traditions, that you dislike about the approach?
Leslie: The broadest thing I think I could say about that is that is you know, this perspective that the body is not the vehicle for liberation, but the obstacle to it. And you'll find this is Sankaracarya. It's not a very body-positive perspective with Vedanta, in general. Have you ever read Sankaracarya?
Leslie: So you know what I'm talking about. This body is the dwelling place of filth and worms, germs and shit and all of that. But you see, you find that in most religion. Is that this earth is not ultimately the place you really want to be...
Priya: Unless you are looking at Tantra; or other body-affirming strands...
Leslie: Well you see, there you have it. And so I think the Tantric perspective, although I don't identify myself with that tradition so much, I feel much more affinity to the fact that it has a much more body-positive approach and sees the possibility of the jivamukta. It's ironic that my friends who started Jivamukti are actually much more mystical! The whole concept of jivamukti is liberated within the body, not to get past it somehow. But Sharon Gannon and David Life's explicit mission in life is to "re-mystify yoga".
Leslie: Those are direct quotes. Yes. And mine is to de-mystify yoga. It's amazing we can even be in the same room as one another!! (smiling)
Leslie: But we can. Cos you know, we're friends. (laughing) So anyway, it's really about: is this body and by implication, this entire earth-plane, the environment in which liberation occurs? Or is it something you have to somehow get past?? Because our true nature, our true spirit, dwells somewhere else? In Western philosophy that goes right back to the tension between Plato and Aristotle. You know, between the world of forms and this world. So I'm much more Aristotelian. I learned and studied philosophy not just from the Indian perspective, but also from the Western perspective. Specifically, within the area of Objectivism; and the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who is Aristotelian. She considers herself to be Aristotelian. And my friend Ron Pisaturo, who I dedicated the Yoga Anatomy book to, along with Desikachar, were my philosophy teachers. And now Ron Pisaturo is our homework guru!!
Priya: That's brilliant!
Leslie: Oh it's perfect! And he's interacting with students and he understands the material very well because he's sat in on so many of the things that I've taught over the years.
Priya: So on the heels of talking about Ayn Rand, and de-mystifying yoga, would you think that you are influenced by a very American kind of sensibility as pertains to yoga?
Leslie: Absolutely. Valuing individual liberty, valuing the individual...absolutely.
Priya: And does that have something to do with being a "hard-core New Yorker"? I read that you refer to yourself as a "hard-core New Yorker". What's New York yoga like?
Leslie: It's where you learn to stand on other people's heads!
Priya: (laughing) Of course.
Leslie: No ok...What's New York yoga like? As distinct from say Los Angeles yoga? Hmm... I don't know if I would want to make that broad a generalization. I think there are people teaching in L.A who have more of a New York attitude and vice versa. But generally, it's very "get past the bullshit to the core of it". I think in L.A, in general, and again, I think people who make broad generalizations are assholes, and that was a broad generalization right there!! But the kind of new-agey, and "oh it's all good" and "let's go align our chakras", I think that goes over better on the west coast. Here, in New York, meh not so much. So if I had to put a flavour on it, I'd say that. But there are people in New York who are much more chakra-y...(laughing) The great thing about yoga is that it's so broad, and so varied, and so highly self-selecting that people will find what works for them, and they'll gravitate towards it.
And that's how you get hooked. But how you make progress actually, is getting past that.
G aps started to gather between words. There were longer pauses as the discussion recalibrated, and veered towards talk of yoga and personal transformation.
Priya: I keep coming across people saying the very same thing through these interviews with regard to transformation...that transforming is something that happens after the initial attraction to yoga; a deliberate decision to move against the grain of samskaras...(Sanskrit word often translated as stains, patterns, grooves)
Leslie: Because what you're initially attracted into is based on who you are at the moment you are exposed to it. Who you are going to be, is determined by how willing you are to get past that. And to use the yoga to maybe dissemble some of your neuroses, rather than reinforce it.
Priya: So did yoga transform you that way?
Leslie: Oh absolutely...
Priya: Can you describe how it did?
Leslie: Well, it gave me something to do for a living for one thing. I'm pretty much unemployable in any other field..You know, and I make no bones about that. As I said, I'm a terrible employee. I'm very bad with obedience. And I really like being apart from the system, apart from power structures. And it's ironic for someone who really, growing up with learning disabilities and so forth which I only identified later in life, it explains why I really didn't function well in other people's structured learning environments. You know, the irony is that here we are sitting and speaking in this school that I started and run. If you had told me in school that I would become and educator and actually run an educational program, I'd have said you were out of your mind. So, that's a major transformation for me.
Priya: Sounds like it.
Leslie: I can say that it's due to yoga. I've also travelled the world because of yoga. I've met extraordinary people from every walk of life you could imagine... from entertainment, show business, athletics and dance. And then stretching into the all the therapeutic work I've done with people that have all sorts of disorders. I've done several cadaver dissections to further my knowledge of anatomy. I mean, all of this is because of yoga. I feel like I owe an enormous amount to the field of yoga, to the people that have kept it going, to my teachers, to all the people out there. And having been in it so long now, you know, I get to be one of those people that keeps others going too.
Priya: When you began, how disciplined were you with your practice?
Leslie: Oh, early on, I was much more disciplined than I am now in terms of actually doing asana and pranayama. But that's kind of built into the structure of living at the ashram for one thing, but yeah, I put in a lot of hours when I was young.
Priya: Do you think it transforms people who are less disciplined? Do you think the way you dove into your practice was directly proportionate with the extent to which you actually grew?
Leslie: Well that's a good question... (long pause)
I think the ultimate discipline is the willingness to focus your attention. Whether that ends up looking like doing a lot of asana, or pranayama or whatever other practices are involved, I think depends on the individual. But I think the ultimate discipline is a willingness to look at your own patterning, and your own habitual behaviour. It's the formula that Patanjali uses to describe practice, "Tapas swadhyaya ishwara pranidhanani"...you know...(*translated: austerities, self-study, and renouncing the outcome of actions to ishwara comprises the activity of yoga)
This willingness to act outside of your habitual patterns which is the tapas. Which brings you around to the recognition of the fact that well, you can't control everything. And that's the "ishwara pranidhana". (*renouncing the results of your action to Isvara)
Leslie: But it's the svadhyaya (self-study), I think. It's the quality of svadhyaya that willingness to look at yourself from a certain perspective that is outside of whatever ways in which your genetics and your upbringing have programmed you to be. And that what, as humans, we all struggle with. I think that's ultimately what the practice of yoga is about. So I think the ultimate discipline there in that perspective would be the svadhyaya. Asana practice is the most accessible way to get at that. Because you get to look at how your body is patterned. Where are you comfortable? Where are you uncomfortable? How do you react to stress? Can you react differently? Can you make different choices under stressful situations? That's asana practice. And yeah, that's incredibly transformative.
Priya: Do you want to talk to me about the anatomy of breathing?
Leslie: I can try and say a little bit in our last few minutes. The way that breathing has been taught by anyone that teaches breathing, not just in yoga, but otherwise, - including voice teachers, acting teachers, whatever - is so bound and limited by tradition and habit that when we get a fuller perspective on the diaphragm and its anatomy, on its connections, it really blows out of the water a lot of what has been passed along as traditional knowledge. Speaking strictly within the yogic tradition, there's this idea of the 3 part yogic breath where you initiate the inhale in the belly, and then you bring it up to the ribs and then up to the top of the chest. So this is what is also sometimes called "bucket breathing", because the idea is that you pour water into a bucket and it fills from the bottom to the top. It's a lovely image to produce that breathing pattern. The anatomical problem with that image is that air is not water, and your lungs are not a bucket. The lungs never fill from the bottom to the top, they can't because your bronchial tree is what fills your lungs. And it's distributed all through the lung tissue.
From the centre to the periphery, branching in all directions three-dimensionally, that's how the air goes in and out of the lungs. When they talk about the three part breath they're not talking about the movement of air, they're talking about the movement of shape change, and the movement of muscular activity that changes the shape of your cavities.
And that's one particular pattern of shape change; lower, mid, upper. The pattern that Desikachar is famous for teaching is the reverse of that; you start at the top, then to the mid, then to the belly. And that just so happens to be a pattern that coordinates much better with postural support, and with integrating spinal movement. And that's a lot of the anatomy that I explore in the anatomy course, and what really formed the basis of my investigations. But more than that, understanding the breath, is about understanding yoga. It's about understanding that our breath is both voluntary and autonomic. And that we have some choice, we can control it up to a point, but there's also this vast area of breath over which we have no control. But you see, here's your tapas, and your ishwara pranidhana...The principles of yoga practice are embedded in the way we breathe as humans...as air breathing mammals living on dry land...
Not all mammals breathe this way. Whales, for instance, they're air-breathing mammals living in water, they don't have an involuntary breathing mechanism. They don't have a mechanism that forces them to take a breath. If they did, they could drown. So, this is a very specific human thing. So there is something unique about this human situation we find ourselves in that allows yoga to happen. And it's there embedded in the way our bodies breathe.
|(Leslie Kaminoff, Photo: Lydia Mann)|
L eslie Kaminoff has spent more than 30 years searching for just the right words to articulate his ideas about a transformative journey through yoga; and finally found the most potent metaphors in the language of human anatomy. And yet, debates continue to arise about the authenticity of new iterations of yoga in North America.
Is American yoga specifically indebted to orthodox Hinduism in translating its purpose to new practitioners? And does yoga belong exclusively to Hindus, Buddhists or Jains? Does democracy belong to the Greeks?
Is yoga beholden to Sanskrit, the language of its original flowering? If we say yes, then we have to acknowledge that all translation results in a changed vocabulary. We have to accept that meanings change, and collect nuances in every new context. Is yoga in North America no longer "real" if its vocabulary has shifted?
My thoughts, after talking to Leslie Kaminoff, and more importantly, after having experienced Leslie's online anatomy course, are simple. I wouldn't underestimate the existential significance of the "yoga" of your blood and bones. Words like diaphragm, lungs, sternum and navel have a relationship, and a unity, a "yoga" that communicates with a subtle part of our being. The very shape and stability of our bodies and our ideas about life are rooted in the realities of these words about the body. How we understand the functions of the body has an indelible impact on our relationship with the larger world around us.
|(Mary and Krishna by Orbital Arts Toronto)|
Is there a generational, geographic or cultural distance from Hinduism in this approach? Well, that would depend on whose Hinduism you are considering.
That religion called Hinduism, that has been known to readily embrace multiplicity citing, "as many gods as there are people", would never have us believe that yoga was rigid or culturally myopic. And while healthy debate is always welcome, it would be good to remember that yoga tells us that flexibility is a good thing:
it's the tree that does not bend that breaks.