Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Two-Part Interview with Leslie Kaminoff: Making Space for the Universe in the Depth of our Breath

T wo nights ago, I watched a dissected human body, "breathing" - the lungs like a tender anemone, delicately billowing, assuming strange, unpredictable shapes...and I cried. Then I wrote to the front desk at the Breathing Project to ask about it. Is Leslie Kaminoff's online anatomy course supposed to be moving? Because I'm on lesson four, and I feel like I've been struck at the core.

"Breath is about freedom; not about getting it right. The first thing we need to be free of is that idea that we need to get it right". (Leslie Kaminoff)

Leslie Kaminoff, Feb. 2010. Photo: Lydia Mann

I t was a fall day in NYC, the pale wind was picking up as I struggled up west 26th to Leslie Kaminoff's studio. I waited inside on a bench thumbing through my jumble of papers, looking through the door to Leslie's office, opened footwide enough to see the a figure seated in an office chair, facing away from the door, forearms square at a computer. I was early; and Leslie Kaminoff was obviously punctual. He worked right up to the scheduled minute; and then when I politely knocked and entered, he slid the chair away and got up to shake hands. I turned around to fumble through my things and hit record on the iphone. He asked a few questions about the blog and its readership; and my plans for monetizing it. I told him I didn't know; but that this blog was forcing me to read more....He kicked his legs up on the table, ankles crossed one over the other, and leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head.

Leslie Kaminoff is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar. He is an internationally recognized specialist with over thirty-one years’ experience in the fields of yoga and breath anatomy. He has led workshops for many of the leading yoga associations, schools and training programs in America. Leslie has also helped to organize international yoga conferences while serving as Vice-President of Unity in Yoga, and has actively participated in the ongoing national debate regarding certification standards for yoga teachers. He currently practices in New York City and Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Leslie is the founder of The Breathing Project, a New York City yoga institute dedicated to the teaching of individualized, breath-centered yoga. Leslie is also the founder of the highly respected International Yoga list, e-Sutra, and is the co-author of the bestselling book, "Yoga Anatomy."

(Leslie Kaminoff, photo: Lydia Mann)
Far from being ponderous in this interview, Leslie Kaminoff speaks to us in brief and precise language about his colorful three decade history as a pioneering practitioner/educator who has studied in India, was ordained as a swami in the Sivananda tradition, and later renounced his robes for the world of bodywork and sports medicine. After a period of study with T.K.V Desikachar, he went on to test his understanding of the principles of yoga through a systematic study of anatomy via cadaver dissection and textual exploration.  The circuitous trajectory that has formed Leslie Kaminoff's substantial knowledge is testament to the power of svadhyaya (self-study). And as you will see, if there's a wrangle or a squabble to settle, Leslie Kaminoff certainly has the cowboy bravado and sense of adventure to join the fray. Outspoken, individualistic, and a rationalist, the yoga he loves is one that breathes with a specifically American tenor.

"when you resist the change that's inevitable, you miss the change that's possible" - Leslie Kaminoff
 Priya Thomas Interview with Leslie Kaminoff, NYC, October 22, 2010

Priya: We just finished using your book as our textbook, our anatomy text for our course.

Leslie: Oh now which course is this?

Priya: A teacher training up in Toronto at Kathryn Beet's studio, YogaSpace.

Leslie: I taught in Toronto a few years ago actually. I remember I was flying home on Superbowl Sunday. that was bad timing. Yeah, I watched the Giants beat the Patriots at baggage claim in LaGuardia! (laughing)

Priya: (laughing) So how did you come to yoga?

Leslie: How did I come to yoga? Just remind me where this is  being published? I just need a little bit of the context of who might be reading?

Priya: A blog called Shivers Up the Spine; readership of yoga practitioners, teachers, artists... I just started the blog a few months ago. It was originally meant to be something I would do because it keeps me reading. It's largely comprised of interviews, and the articles are quite long; which really goes against the medium of the web! So it's a specific kind of readership. 
And you have time to say what you like...

Leslie: Well I always do! I have been for years. Saying what I like is not an issue for me! (laughing). But my first yoga class actually, was here in New York City, just a few blocks from where we're sitting now, on 24th street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. That's where the Sivananda Centre is. And the year would have been 1978. So I was twenty years old. So that means that I've been involved in yoga for 32 years.  

Priya: So why twenty? Why that age? Any reason? 

Leslie: Yeah, actually. I had just begun to notice my body, and my posture. I think the original thing that I noticed was sort of a contrast between how I realized I was moving around the world and how the people I admired were moving around the world. And the people I admired, back then, were dancers. So the first thing I actually signed up for was some basic ballet instruction at the Joffrey school here on 6th Avenue; and, I discovered very quickly that I would probably never be a proficient dancer. 

Priya: (laughing) oh?

Leslie: It comes from being somewhat of a klutz. You don't mind if I use technical language!

Priya: (laughing) Sure, thanks for clarifying.

Leslie: Yeah. So right around that time, my father had begun to take yoga classes over at Sivananda. And so, he invited me. And I took my first class; and the only thing I really remember is what I experienced in the final relaxation, in savasana. And, it was relaxation. Not just like being tired at the end of the day, lying down and falling asleep. But, lying down in the middle of the day, consciously relaxing, intentionally relaxing, with awareness of all the parts of my body. It was a revelation. So I signed up for a beginner's course. And by the following summer, I was hooked enough that I decided to take the teacher training course. This would have been the summer of 79; and that was up in Canada, up at the headquarters, in the Laurentian mountains, north of Montreal..in Val Morin.

Priya: I remember. I'm pretty sure I might have gone there as a child with my dad.

Leslie: Did you? Did your parents drag you to an ashram?

Priya: My dad was a philosophy prof...

Leslie: And so he was hanging out at the ashram? Well, it's conceivable that he was there when I was there. I did the teacher training there in the summer of 79, and I helped stage manage what we called, "The Festival of Inner Light", that summer which brought in a lot of people from a lot of different disciplines. And I continued working in that capacity for Sivananda for the next couple of years. The following summer we had a festival in the Bahamas, which I was on staff for. And eventually, I got shipped off to Los Angeles. This was after having been in India in January of 1981. And that was where I took sannyas. So I came back a swami; and I was immediately shipped out of my hometown, to Los Angeles, which is the policy. So by spring, March of 81, I was directing the Sivananda Yoga Community in Los Angeles on Sunset Strip. So early 80's, Sunset Strip, brand new swami, I was 23 years old by then...it was quite an environment!

(Leslie Kaminoff, right, performing marriage ceremony)
Priya: Can I ask why you made that decision to become a swami?

Leslie: Because at the tender age of 22, I decided I experienced enough of life for me to renounce it.

Priya: Right. Of course. (laughing)

Leslie: In other words, I was an idiot! But I was sincere. I was a sincere idiot.

Priya: Yeah, I get it.

Leslie: And there were longings there that I still identify in myself.

Priya: And that was despite your inclinations towards rational yoga?

Leslie: Well, I didn't really understand the tension between rationality and mysticism at that point. For me, it was just about exploring things I was interested in, and yoga was the vehicle that encompassed all of my interests. And the Sivananda organization was the vehicle for me exploring yoga. Becoming a swami within the Sivananda organization was a vehicle for me going further; and making more of a committment. And of the three vows, of celibacy, poverty and obedience; ultimately, it was obedience that got me out of the organization.

Priya: Interesting way of looking at it..

Leslie: It was celibacy that got me out of the robes (laughing); but it was obedience that got me out of the organization. Because I stayed on as director there after I stopped being a swami. By then, it was towards the end of 82, and I moved in with a woman whom I was seeing, whom I'm still friends with, and who was an athlete...and got me involved in sports medicine. And that's where I really started learning about anatomy.

Priya: So what was the issue with obedience, if you don't mind my asking?

Leslie: I disobeyed Swami Vishnu. He told me to come back to New York. At that time, if you were bad, if you had fallen from grace, you were sent to the ranch in the Catskills to farm sprouts at 4 in the morning. So his insistence that I leave Los Angeles and come back to New York to take up residence at the ranch was like being exiled to Siberia. And I basically said "no." And, as soon as you do that, you're gone. So I moved in with Lynda Huey (my girlfriend at the time), and I started working with sports medicine and learning a whole lot. And it was a really good decision for me...

Priya: So do you still have a relationship with the organization, or with Canada?

Leslie: Just this year, this January I was invited for the first time since I left to teach something officially within the Sivananda organization. When they initially contacted me, I believe the people who were contacting me had no awareness of my history with the organization. I sort of had to remind them. But it was nice. It was a nice little homecoming. You know, it's not my yogic family anymore, but I have history with it. In fact, I'm going to have more history with it because my oldest son, Shaun, who is twenty, is going to Kerala to do the teacher's training there this January! We've already signed him up. He gets to trunk off from his freshman year at college to go and do something, so he decided he wanted to do this! And so he'll be setting foot on that ashram EXACTLY thirty years to the day after I first set foot there!

Priya: That's a very unusual coincidence. And your son is involved in yoga as well.

Leslie: He's taking some classes. He took a year off before college to live in Portland, Oregon. And a good friend of mine there Jody Kurilla runs the shalas in Portland, so I arranged for him to have unlimited access to as many classes as he wanted. He took advantage of that; and I think he really connected with it. His mom is a yoga teacher as well. My first wife is a yoga teacher, and a body worker. So it's kind of in his blood.

Priya: That makes it three generations on your side as well.

Leslie: Well my father, and us, and now Shaun.

"I look for these principles in reality; in our bodies, in what we have here...And amazingly, we find the support for the deepest teachings there. They're consistent. Whatever truth has come to us over the centuries, is true because it's true. And it's true because it links us to our living, breathing reality, of being in these bodies, on this planet, in a gravitational field. For me, that's how we support our perspective, and our teachings." (Leslie Kaminoff)

(Leslie Kaminoff,  photo and Yoga Anatomy cover designer: Lydia Mann)
The Shift Towards Rational Yoga: 

"Philosophy is a manifestation of what's already in the body". (Leslie Kaminoff)
 I have to admit, I had trouble at first really comprehending the depth of Leslie Kaminoff's committment to the idea of "rational yoga". And I didn't quite understand whether this was a kind of yoga that denied the validity of philosophical/psychological/religious inquiry. But, in fact, Leslie Kaminoff's vision of yoga is that there is no need to search for metaphors to corroborate the human condition. While there may be other ways of knowing, ie through religious symbol or ritual, or philosophy, it is the human body's structure, and its very architecture, that is primary for Kaminoff. The blueprint for an intimate relationship with the universe, for yoga, is contained in the human body; and by knowing our bodies, we can understand and better connect ourselves to our lives, our cities, our planet. What this means is that at a very deep level, Kaminoff sees yogic philosophy as an expression of human anatomy. So, the philosophical principles and religious symbolism that may appear arcane in translation across cultures is no longer necessary. We can observe the body and find the same truths.

"The energy that brings the air into the body is outside the body. It's pressure dynamics. Air pressure causes breathing. Air weighs a lot; and we make space that the air rushes into. But we have an equal amount of pressure within our bodies. We just make space in our cavities to  bring the air in. We make the space, the universe fills it." (Leslie Kaminoff,  from lesson 1 of his online anatomy course)

(T.K.V Desikachar)
Priya: At what point did you meet Desikachar?

Leslie: I met him in the States. It was long after I left the Sivananda organization. I worked in sports medicine in Los Angeles until after the Olympics. So in the fall of 84 I moved back to New York, and started working in dance medicine. And then shortly after that, I started on my own practice. You know, I'm not a good employee...I guess it's the obedience thing! (laughing) So, I decided to be my own boss, and I have been ever since. This is the only job I've ever really had. So I had my own practice; and I started my own yoga studio in the east village around the beginning of 1987.
And it was in the summer of 87 that I first met Desikachar. That was at Colgate University, up in Hamilton New York. And that turned things completely on their head. Literally, upside-down.

Priya: Why?

Leslie: Because all the breathing patterns are different. It really threw me for a loop. I was already interested in anatomy and breathing, and had been teaching from that perspective, and had developed, you know, a little bit of a following. People were doing training with me and all of that...But it really changed things so dramatically when I got some exposure to that teaching tradition and that methodology that I really wanted to know why it was working so much better, and so differently than the way in which I had originally trained to breathe. And there was really nobody, including Desikachar, who could give me anatomical explanations for why this way of breathing worked better than that. Why moving the spine this way with that breath worked better than this way or that way. And this is in spite of the fact that Desikachar is an engineer by training. He knows and does understand the body from that perspective; but he doesn't explain it anatomically. It's just that the teachings aren't encoded in that kind of language.

Priya: The iteration of the tradition doesn't include anatomy as we know it...

(TKV Desikachar, left and Leslie Kaminoff, right)
Leslie: Yeah, and so I started annoying Gary Kraftsow with lots of questions. And you know, he has more anatomical perspective than anyone, but still, not enough for me. So I just began developing and exploring the information on my own. And the anatomy course that I teach here, which is now online, in 17 countries around the world, and nearly 200 online students, all of that information was generated out of this need for me to understand. And it continues. I'm still learning...I'm going to learn a lot this weekend. Because Tom Myers is coming tomorrow, and we're going to teach together. So that's going to be fun.

Priya: Now I came across a quote where you said, "The ancient scriptures don't form the basis of authenticity, so I was wondering..."

Leslie: For me, they don't...for me...Well, it's a simple enough thing. The appeal to authority is a logical fallacy. You know, if the only way you can support an argument is that it has previously been given by somebody else. Regardless of who they are...he, she or your teacher or their teacher, or teacher's teacher or whatever, that's no way to support an argument. And in essence, the whole Vedic canon is based on an appeal to authority because ultimately, it goes back to the Veda, and the Veda goes straight to god. It's like it came from God, it came into the rishis, and they gave it to us, case closed. It's authoritative. That's not enough for me. So I look for these principles in reality; in our bodies, in what we have here...And amazingly, we find the support for the deepest teachings there. They're consistent. Whatever truth has come to us over the centuries, is true because it's true. And it's true because it links us to our living, breathing reality, of being in these bodies, on this planet, in a gravitational field. For me, that's how we support our perspective, and our teachings.

Priya: Do you think there's a reason you feel more comfortable with that way into an understanding of yoga?

Leslie: Well sure because I'm an anti-mystic.

Priya: Ok. Were you always like that by nature?

Leslie: No. no....But I was pro-curiosity... and I was pro-understanding.
And...understanding down to the roots of something. And to his credit, Swami Vishnu for whatever else you could say about him, he was a big proponent of the Socratic method. When he taught, he would present a logical series of arguments to support his point of view. And that was one of the things that really struck me about him. You know? Of course, when you asked him where he learned his asana, he'd say, "my guru touched me, and I remembered from past lives!" (smiling)

Priya: (laughing)

Leslie: That's the actual story!! (still grinning) That's how he became a Professor of Hatha Yoga at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy in Rishikesh. He remembered! It's not exactly the same kind of discipleship that Krishnamacarya went through in 7 and a half years in a cave in Tibet, learning from his master. You know?

Priya: Ok I hear you. In my reading I came across your ideas regarding including yoga in the educational system, and I was curious about your thoughts regarding accredited standards.

Leslie: You've done your homework, I'm impressed! Sure. It's all tied up in the perspective I've come to realize is true for me, is that we are not therapists, even when working therapeutically with people. We are educators. Because I have this whole issue with what we call this field, yoga therapy, and the way it's headed, with developing standards of accreditation and so forth. And I've had this conversation, just endlessly with Gary (Kraftsow), who is spearheading, in many ways, the drive towards accredited standards, which I feel will eventually land us in the whole licensing insanity....which I am opposed to.

Because I think fundamentally, yoga is not a medical system. Ayurveda is a medical system. And there is a relationship there in the history, in the teachings; and, if in practice, you know, certain yogic people like Gary and people who agree with him want to hitch their wagon to health care delivery, I believe they should do it under the auspices of N.A.M.A, with the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. As far as everyone else is concerned, yoga is a much broader field than that. It's a field of education. And just as I don't link my knowledge to the Veda, I wouldn't even say that yoga as a field necessarily needs to gain its authenticity from this feeling that it was invented by Indians. I mean, there's a difference between inventing something and discovering it. I believe of course, that yoga was discovered in India; but that doesn't mean that Indians own it.

This is the end of Part I of Making Space for the Universe in the Depth of our Breath.
Part Two, to be posted later this week, continues with Leslie Kaminoff on North American Yoga and Proprietorship.


  1. The Leslie I have known and loved for almost 30 years. And, Shaun following in your footsteps, BRAVO. New dimensions. Thank you for sharing this interview.

  2. So nice to sit back and enjoy the acceptance you are receiving in the Yoga Community. So very proud of all your accomplishments. Mom

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