Tag Archives: Leslie Kaminoff

Free Classes with Amy Matthews at the Breathing Project

Two free classes next week with the fascinating Amy Matthews. If you like the details of anatomy, you’ll love her. She co-authored Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff; they describe their partnership something like “Leslie is the forest. Amy is the speck on the lichen on the bark on the trees.” Highly recommended!

FREE movement clinics with Amy Matthews
August 10 & August 12

Next week I’ll be offering two free movement clinics as part of a week-long workshop at The Breathing Project.
The workshop is focused on ways to re-organize patterns in the nervous system and muscles using an approach called “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation”.

These clinics are open to anyone with movement questions, injuries or issues, and will be a chance for participants in the workshop to observe how I integrate the PNF approach with the Bartenieff Fundamentals and Body-Mind Centering to work with people. You are welcome to come with any kind of question or issue, or just to see what I do — I begin by asking what kinds of questions are in the room, and then choose a few ideas with which to work. No guarantee that everyone’s questions will be addressed, but I do my best!

Please pass the word on to anyone who might be interested – no reservations are needed.

Dates: Tuesday & Thursday, August 10 & 12, 2010
Times: 6:30 – 8:30 pm
Cost: FREE
Location: The Breathing Project, 15 W 26 St, 10th Floor, NYC
Questions: spiralamy [at] gmail.com

about Amy Matthews:
Amy has been teaching somatically oriented classes and workshops in dance and yoga since 1994. She is a Certified Laban Movement Analyst, a Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and an Infant Developmental Movement Educator. She co-teaches with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen on the Embodied Developmental Movement and Yoga and the Embodied Anatomy and Yoga program in Berkeley, CA and NYC for the School for Body-Mind Centering®, and was on the faculty of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies for 10 years. She has taught embodied anatomy and movement workshops for programs in New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, and Nebraska, and internationally in Canada, Switzerland, Ireland, England, Israel, Slovakia and Japan.

Amy co-authored with Leslie Kaminoff the best-selling Yoga Anatomy, and together Amy and Leslie lead The Breathing Project’s Advanced Studies Program. Amy also works privately as a movement therapist and yoga teacher, integrating Laban Movement Analysis, Bartenieff Fundamentals, yoga, Body-Mind Centering and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF).

Amy has studied with a range of inspiring teachers: dissection workshops with Gil Hedley, neuro-muscular reeducation with Irene Dowd, Body-Mind Centering with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, full-contact karate with Michelle Gay, and yoga with Alison West, Mark Whitwell, Genny Kapular and Kevin Gardiner.

Books: Anatomy for Yoga; Yoga Anatomy

Anatomy for Yoga; Uttanasana Spread
Anatomy for Yoga; click to view Uttanasana Spread

McGraw-Hill Publishing was kind enough to send me their latest yoga book to review. Anatomy for Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Your Muscles in Action, by Nicky Jenkins and Leigh Brandon, is a helpful guide to a personalized yoga practice. The authors provide an overview of yoga anatomy, including terminology, main systems, and breathing. They also review meditation and the chakra (or “subtle”) system, and how it might affect your physical systems.

From there, they identify four major postural types: kyphosis (round shoulders), lordosis (overarched lower back), flat back, and swayback (hips forward). Each type has a few possible causes; you might have a head-forward posture because of your computer setup, the sports you play, or the emotions trapped in the chest.

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Little Lesson: Pain Isn’t Progress

From Stephanie Sandleben, at Kula Yoga:

Stephanie: So, in my own practice, I’ve been thinking about the difference between sensation, and tapas. And realizing that they’re not the same thing.

Rough quote, I’m forgetting more of it, but her words hit the spot. It’s taken me years to realize that yoga is not the Marines, pain is not “a sign of weakness leaving the body.” Tapas, the purifying burn that is a big reason we practice asana, is achieved through appropriate challenges for the body. Not masochism and ignorance.

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Teaching, Beginning, Being One Piece

Yesterday I taught a workshop for Internet Week NY. I’d randomly decided their schedule of events needed “yoga and teatime” in addition to the lectures and cocktail parties. I set up an RSVP form, so I could gauge interest and experience levels, and had 40 people “interested”, and 14 people RSVP. Nearly all marked their experience level as “0–10 classes”; none marked “over 100″. So I got to thinking about what I wanted to teach in a true beginners’ class — the last time I taught beginners, I was still teaching the Atmananda Sequence verbatim.

I knew that Sun Salutations were a good place to start; they supposedly contain every essential alignment, and since students are forced to do them all the time in classes, they would be valuable topics to cover.

I was also thinking about the specific audience: Internet Week participants, i.e. people who sit in Computer Pose 40 hours a week. So I thought some wrist, shoulder, neck, and back movements might be good: Table Top, Locust, Rabbit, Seated Crescent, Spinal Twist, Bow. Also some stretches for the hip flexors, which sit in 90º forward bends all day: Lunges, Hero, Camel.

And I was chewing on something Leslie said last week: “the PRINCIPLE of Chaturanga is learning to hold the body all in one piece.” (Quote is approximate.) It was so interesting to think about a single lesson we can learn in each pose. And then I thought, well, this is a good thing to work on in ALL poses: finding the unity and integration of the body. On a practical level, it teaches us to avoid injury by using our whole body to lift boxes, get out of bed, stand on our heads, etc. On a mental/emotional level, it reduces the hierarchical war of head, heart, gut, and hips; we want them ALL to be happy and acknowledged. And it’s a good metaphor for the Internet: bringing vast and varied communities together in one piece. It’s kind of the whole point of yoga: union, coming together.

Finally, I was feeling like challenging Down Dog. Ever since my shoulder injury, I have been realizing how complex this pose actually is. There are a thousand ways you can arrange the shoulders in this pose, and a thousand points of emphasis. It’s a subtle balancing act of how much to widen the shoulders (or not), externally rotate the upper arms, internally rotate the forearms, straighten the arms (or not), send the sitbones or the tail to the sky, lengthen the spine or relax the neck… and that’s not even getting into the unique upper body strength one must build. (Practicing Half Down Dog standing at the wall is a great start, but still we need something to fill the vinyasa.) So, all I needed was another relevant aside from Leslie (“Down Dog, for all its ubiquity, is not really a beginner’s pose…”) to have the validation I needed to try something new. (Leslie, here’s a prime cut of someone taking your ideas and bastardizing them straight into yoga class ;) Child’s Pose is the usual substitution, but I didn’t want to lose the upper body strengthening entirely, so I played around with Dolphin, the forearm stand version of Down Dog, where I could focus on the shoulders and upper arms more clearly. So this is a full-fledged Vinyasa class with absolutely no Down Dogs.

And then I took some of my favorite poses and glued everything together in an order that flowed. Here it is. It went well enough that I got a round of applause at the end of the class :) :) :) For those of you that attended the class, I hope you enjoyed it and find a way to make it your own!

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Yoga Flexible, Yoga Strong


When I talk to random people about yoga, one of the most common things they say is, “I should do yoga… I want to be more flexible.” Then we talk about Bikram versus Hatha versus Vinyasa, and how to get flexible safely, but how it’s really about MENTAL flexibility…

Finally, I realized that yoga has an image problem. Not that it has a BAD image, but that it’s incomplete. What stands out is the contortionism, so yoga = flexibility. People don’t realize how much strength yoga requires. (Until they start practicing!) It doesn’t isolate muscles like weight training; you learn to use your whole body to support each movement. And, because yoga lengthens the muscles as it builds them, you get long, ropey muscles and a lean silhouette. People do not realize how strong you are; my last set of movers was SHOCKED at the boxes I could carry.

Muscle Contraction

Our current images of strength are Mr./Ms. Universe contestants with bulging everythings. Body building typically shapes each muscle through repeated contractions with increasing weight. But concentric contractions build mostly the belly of the muscle — the middle — to get that iconic bulge. Over time they also shorten the muscle, leading to the notorious stiffness of men and athletes. The stronger you get, the less flexible you become.

Yoga, on the other hand, tends to use a little more eccentric contraction (lengthening the fibers as they fire), and a lot more isometric (holding them still as they fire). So you’re able to maintain or even lengthen your muscles as you build them. And, over time, the poses take less and less force, as you start to stack and link the bones and muscles in an easier, more integrated way. You experience the poses, and daily life, in a lighter, less stressful way. But you’re incredibly strong, physically and mentally. When a reed is flexible as well as strong, it doesn’t break.

I think our images of yoga need to broaden and come down to earth. As mentioned in my last post Yoga for Bigger Bodies, we don’t see a lot of plus-sized yoga models. And a cursory glance at the back issues of Yoga Journal shows women on the cover 54 out of 58 times. Slender, flexible women, and those who aspire to be them. It’s the circular loop of marketing: current users = marketing targets = new users = same old same old. (And of course magazine covers are tied into the reality of media culture: what sells.) When we see a broader range of people and personalities represented doing yoga, we’ll get a broader sense of its effects. We can appreciate flexibility, but also look to yoga for strength.

I’ve really felt this personally, lately, as I’ve tried to rein in my rampant flexibility. Eight years of “going deeper” a little too literally is starting to speak up in my joints. My knees will go anywhere, my hips too, and I’m starting to hear pops not just in my spine but in my hips, sacrum, sternum, and collar bones. (They occurred over the months from bottom to top; I’ll call it my cartilaginous awakening.) Which is fine, it’s a gross party trick, but when there’s pain in the joints it’s a warning. Flexibility cannot be the be-all end-all goal of yoga; otherwise we’d practice til our heads flopped around like stroke victims. We have to draw back from pushing too far. Even though it’s boring.

Leslie Kaminoff warns of “the unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility.” He’s been beating the sthira / sukha (strength / space) concept into our heads for months now; it’s a dichotomy, where one cannot exist without the other. Each bone, each muscle, each system must have mobility and stability, in varying ratios. He pulled me up front again last week to show me that Warrior II does not HAVE to span the length of the mat; it can be built, from the ground up, as a chain of muscular actions. The joints fall more naturally into place, instead of bearing weight. A narrower Revolved Triangle woke a chorus of trembling muscles, and much deeper breathing. I have new places to go in those poses, now. (Thanks, Leslie.)

I’ve heard that flexible people get bored and quit yoga much more quickly than those who are limited by their tightness. Once we’ve gotten our heads to the floor in Full Splits, there’s nowhere else to go — if we’re focused on achieving flexibility, or achieving poses. If we learn to stay put, and work with the burn we’re feeling instead of the image we’re pursuing, there’s transformation still to be had. (The Yoga Journal blog has a great post on Ana Forrest’s approach.) Yoga is strength training, working from the inside out.

Yoga Teacher Training Licensing Hits New York

Sheriff BadgeWell, it’s happened. The New York state government wants to bring yoga into the fold of regulated industries. Teacher training programs are now considered “vocational training” and the state wants to require its own applications and fees. This would be in addition to the Yoga Alliance applications and fees.

Leslie Kaminoff warned us (in his anatomy class) about this possibility a few months ago: several states have instigated the licensing process for yoga. (Minnesota, Arizona, and Michigan, I believe.) It’s of course a new revenue source for struggling governments (and they’ll be more able to draw yoga “therapists” into the morass of health insurance providers and paperwork).

The letter was a full-out cease-and-desist order, threatening a fine of up to $50,000 for operation of a school without a license. Recipients were instructed to cease operating teacher training instruction until they complied. No matter if you’re halfway through a training, or advertising a new one. Your Yoga Alliance license? Irrelevant. You have to wait for the eight-month-plus process of state licensing to conclude; then you can finish up.

It appears that the state got their list of programs from the Yoga Alliance website, as not all programs were served with the letter (on April 16). Studios in other states could of course preemptively remove their teacher training programs from this website, without losing their Yoga Alliance certification… Also, programs advertised and focused on personal enrichment, not providing actual teacher training certificates for their graduates, would probably be exempt.

One problem is that the state board is pushing a one-size-fits-all vocational training application, while the range and methodology of programs is vast. A license to teach “yoga” is like a license to teach “science” — it’s a huge topic. Even Yoga Alliance has famously broad guidelines. It’s up to the student and studio to clarify their expectations. But the state sees vocational licensing as part of its mission. Exemptions seem unlikely; even if a school offers “only language, religion, and athletics”, the director of the State Education Department insisted that “If the student would expect to learn skills which may be used in an occupation at a later point, whether employed or self employed, then the training needs to be regulated by our bureau.”

If you’re a yoga student, this means your local yoga studio might go under. Teacher trainings are generally the main source of revenue for studios — even $20 classes are no match for New York’s five-digit rents — and additional costs of hundreds or thousands of dollars might be impossible. Especially for smaller studios. So, what to do?

Jo Brill has compiled a resource page including PDFs of both letters, resources for studios, and contact information for the state regulators.

Yoga City NYC has a great article on the topic. (Thanks, J. Brown, for the link.)

Yoga Journal is holding a Business of Yoga Workshop tomorrow and Friday (May 14–15) — I’m sure this topic will come up.

And you can use the hashtag #NYSYogaReg to post or follow the topic on Twitter.

Does anyone know if there’s a senator or congressperson that it would be appropriate to contact?

Light on (the) Feet

Your lower left hand
Your lower left hand

Another interesting day in Yoganatomy today… and of course I had to write about it cause Leslie (hi, Leslie!) pulled me out and changed my posture…

Today we learned about the feet, everyone’s favorite body part. The cool thing about Leslie’s class is that he focuses on the WHYs and HOWs of anatomy, instead of the WHATs. Meaning, I still can’t name the muscles in the feet, and we didn’t review a laundry list of bones, but I could now tell you how the load-bearing system distributes weight throughout your step. More on that later.

Most people have foot problems. And we usually blame our shoes. Which is legitimate, but not for the reason you might expect. Leslie says that foot pain is caused by the increasingly uniform surface of the Earth, combined with the binding technology of our shoes. Our feet evolved to move over irregular surfaces: rocks, roots, pebbles, mud. Sidewalks and gel-aero-spring-max shoes take away the challenges for the feet, and so their muscles weaken. Fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, and all sorts of other pain result.

My sister has plantar fasciitis, which ended her glorious Division I soccer career, so I’ll just tell you (the Internet) what I tried to tell her voicemail today:

When muscles are not challenged, they become weak, and atrophy. In the foot, this leaves space between the bones of the arch and the connective tissue (plantar fasciia) beneath. The space calcifies with heel spurs and inflames the tendons, aka plantar fasciitis. Typical treatments like stretching the calves, to reduce the pull on the heel from above, don’t address the pull from below. Rebuilding the muscles of the foot, by walking barefoot, or standing on wobbly surfaces, will treat the real source of pain. Orthodics and other shoe devices might help manage acute pain for a short time, but as long as the foot is weak it will have problems. A year or two of strengthening and rebuilding the feet will do wonders for the whole body, since each step ripples up the skeleton.

A side note: Dr. Scholl’s sandals, flip-flops, and even Birkenstocks are not so great, if they make you grip your toes to keep the shoe on. Tai chi slippers, sandals with ankle straps, and anything with a flexible sole will allow the whole foot a stronger relationship with the earth.

Elite runners have known this for years, and often run in little more than socks. The big shoe companies are finally catching up — Nike Free offers three stages of shoe that actually move you away from technology and towards barefoot. (The stages let you gradually rebuild your foot muscles, you can’t jump your poor weak feet straight into a barefoot marathon.)

So, back to the movement of weight through the foot. Ideally, it travels from the strike point in front of your heel, down the lateral side and across the ball, spiraling out between your big and second toes. Leslie had us walk around to feel this pathway, with two points to work on:

  1. Move from your center of gravity, with the body as a whole unit (as in Chaturanga) instead of flicking the legs out in front to lead. This translates to a little forward lean, a little weight in the toes, without sticking your butt out to counterbalance.
  2. Keep the point where your foot leaves the ground (the ball of your foot, between your first and second toes) on the earth a little longer. This creates a little more spring in the step.

The combination of all three was too much for me, and Leslie called me out for a curious “skating” gait I’d modged together. I tend to lean backwards and rest my weight in my heels, and apparently I lead with my legs, so when I kept the back foot a bit longer on the ground, there was kind of a slingshot effect as my whole body-and-then-leg had to move forward. Leslie had me stop, and lean forward. My heels came off the ground. He said to ground the heels, and lean my sternum into his hand. I hesitated. “Like Chaturanga,” he said. (The yoga pushup that builds great core strength.) I had to kind of think through those alignments, and what they’d be like perpendicular to the ground, and then I leaned forward. My toes activated, but with my center strong I felt it all the way up the front of my body! And when I walked forward it was all one piece, not my loosey-goosey floating flock of birds. Very cool.

So, sorry Leslie, I spilled my guts about your whole class, but you do give people their first visit free so here it is, with a Thank You!  :)

Class Notes on Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Leslie Kaminoff, owner of The Breathing Project and my current anatomy teacher, just shared some notes from his workshop at the SYTAR (Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research) yoga conference in Los Angeles:

Some Suggestions for Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Finding our individual form of asana practice is something we all need to do, even the most strict Ashtangi. Our body proportions are all different, so we can’t force ourselves into our image of the pose. If your femurs have short necks, you won’t reach Lotus easily or at all. (And if you keep forcing it, you will wreck your knees.) If your spinous processes are long, your backbend will be limited to the space before they touch. Certain shapes can only be made by certain skeletons. This doesn’t mean we’re not “doing” the pose if we vary from its most popular depiction; the DIRECTION of our limbs and centers creates the space or compression that defines the asana.

This relates to one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Leslie: work from a SPINAL perspective, not a SPATIAL perspective. The silohuette of your pose doesn’t matter; the inner relationships do. Are your vertebrae actually rotating in your twist, or are you just moving the arms and shoulders to appear more rotated? I’d say asanas are an arrangement of joints more than limbs. Work from the inside out, and let your breathing evaluate the “success” of a pose.

Shoulder Pain, Part 3: Tendonitis, Ergonomics, and Space

Leslie and not-me
Leslie and not-me

On Friday I went to see my anatomy teacher Leslie Kaminoff, who noticed my blog posts bemoaning my injury and kindly invited me to come in to his clinic. Yay for blogs! I sit in class every week and watch him fix people, but I kept thinking my shoulder would be better tomorrow, or tomorrow, or maybe tomorrow…

I did my little demo of snap-crackle-pops around the left shoulder blade, which he said was probably tendonitis (inflammation of the tendons). I told him about the pinch in the upper arm, and how I’d tried to treat it according to my trigger point book, which pointed me to a big painful knot on the back of my shoulder blade. He said that the spasming muscle was probably the teres minor, more than the infraspinatus, since I felt the knot better with the arm over my head. He asked about my job and computer use, so I described my work station… turns out that elbows on the desk is “really, really bad. There’s your problem.” Villain!

Then came the treatment. It’s like a bit of chiropractics, a dash of Thai yoga massage, and a pinch of Shiatsu all mixed up as a breathing lesson. He found a rotated vertebrae in my neck and fixed that. He found all the “stuck” vertebrae in my back, and popped them. He stabilized the center of my diaphragm (aka “pushed on my tummy”) to force my ribs to expand upwards as I breathed. And he cranked me into this one twist that I swear popped the fused vertebrae in my tail. Then he stretched out my hip flexors, my hip extensors, and my neck. We hadn’t even gotten to my shoulder yet.

All these adjustments were like adding an extension onto my house. When I sat up, it was like I had a third lung; I just kept inhaling. He said that when we have an injury, we have to look at what’s supporting it. So, a neck or shoulder condition can result from tightness (or collapse) in the ribcage. When we have good support below, we can have full mobility above.

Then we adjusted the shoulder a bit. He pressed his thumbs into my back as I moved my arms from side to side, up and down. I felt the knots underneath squirming and trying to escape. He popped the humerus back into its socket a bit, I don’t know how. And then we were done!

I can’t get over the fact that the solution to this is breathing better. It makes sense; if I loosen up my ribcage, I can stretch my shoulders from the inside, too, 24 hours a day! But it seems so easy. As with my meditation, and asana practice, I’m going to have to beat myself over the head with the “secret”: it’s all about your breath! Maybe I’ll take it literally, Monty-Python-style. That’ll convince the masochist in me. I will still be squelching the knots under my neck with my tennis ball; it’s a new favorite sport, and I have to undo all my computer poses. But it’s amazing how posture — the way we align ourselves in the 22+ hours OUTSIDE of yoga practice — will make or break our health.

So. Next step is to rearrange my whole computer setup, ugh. (And up my olive oil intake, it’s the best anti-inflammatory and that should help my tendonitis… along w/the icy New York weather.) I guess I need a higher chair, or a lower desk. But I already went today and bought one of those ugly laptop stands, so my computer is floating six inches above my desk (like a good yogi) with a new keyboard underneath. My big head is no longer looking down at my screen, pulling on the back of my neck. My elbows are opening downward, and my wrists are flat. And my shoulders are relaxed.

POSTSCRIPT — I forgot an interesting part. Leslie said that the infraspinatus (or was it subscapularis?) and rhomboid muscles work in opposition, and while we do a lot of rotator cuff strengthening in yoga (chaturangas and other “pushing” movements), we don’t have a lot of poses or movements where we “pull” our arms back or shoulder blades together and strengthen the rhomboids. So he said I could loop a strap around a door handle, hold it with straight arms, lean back, and pull from the shoulder blades in little pulses to strengthen the rhomboids. Without overdoing it, of course. I think I might try to get myself back onto an erg

Free Asthma Workshop at The Breathing Project

If you know anyone who suffers from asthma, there is a free workshop this Friday at The Breathing Project. It’s taught by Leslie Kaminoff, a well-known body worker with about 30 years experience. (The catch: you have to be on TV — it will be filmed by ABC news.) I’m currently taking Leslie’s Yoga Anatomy course, and have seen him treat various conditions with great success. You will definitely see improvement with this workshop.

10am this Friday, January 23rd at The Breathing Project. (15 West 26th St, 10th floor, at Broadway.) Please contact Leslie directly for more info. leslie @ breathingproject.org (remove spaces)