Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Leslie Kaminoff Part 2 of 2: North American Yoga, Who Owns This Practice?

(Leslie Kaminoff)

"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. 

Priya: Right.

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 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 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.  

 Leslie: Well that's one of the great things from the Indian tradition, is that when you want to understand a term, look at its roots. I mean, that's a whole way of understanding Sanskrit terms. And Krishnamacarya had some unique perspectives on some of these roots. You can do the same thing with an English word, like "joint".  

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.

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.