Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project
Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

I just had to make a quick post about the open house I attended Wednesday at The Breathing Project. Leslie Kaminoff gave an amazing lecture on breathing and anatomy in yoga, I’m seriously considering signing up for his anatomy classes instead of heading for the Iyengar Institute. His approach is less detail-oriented than Iyengar’s; he says it’s “impossible” to manage a laundry list of alignment instructions while you’re doing a pose. “As soon as you’re focused on your right pinky, your left eyelid goes out of alignment.” So at the end, he says the guidelines for each pose have to come from inside. After all, “There’s no such thing as an asana where are they right now? where are they stored? there’s only people. Individuals. There’s Amy’s Down Dog, or John’s Down Dog, but there is no universal Down Dog.”

I think this approach is much more in line with the book I’m working on with Sabina Stahl, which is called Intuitive Lifestyle. It’s more about finding your intuition in asana practice, eating, and general life. So I’ve been reviewing a lot of anatomy notes, but wondering how precise and thorough we’re going to get. Also, in the four years since I did my teacher training, I’ve encountered some conflicting directions on anatomy, so I’ve been wondering how we’re going to reconcile those.

Leslie has a really interesting background. He started out at Sivananda in the seventies, when his father invited him to a class over on 25th Street. He ended up becoming a swami and heading up the LA center. “The early eighties were an interesting time to be a swami on the Sunset Strip.” Jane Fonda had her studio just down the road, it was the birth of the aerobics and body building movements, and the Nautilus machines allowed people to weight-train safely for the first time. He ended up leaving the ashram and working at a Sports Medicine center. There, they treated all the injuries associated with the exploding popularity of high-impact aerobics etc.; they treated Jane Fonda herself. He saw hundreds of x-rays of spines, and was startled to realized most spines don’t look anything like the nice straight columns we see in the books. The idea of asking these spines to do these yoga poses was terrifying, and he stopped teaching yoga for a few years. Eventually he went back to New York, to work for a famous osteopath, and then to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in India. He would ask Desikachar WHY these poses had such profound effects, but no one there could answer his questions. So he began researching the anatomical basis for yoga’s benefits, and that study culminated in his book with Amy Matthews, Yoga Anatomy. The book is in its fifth printing in one year; there was “a real hunger” for this type of information.

It was also interesting to hear “you know, the study of yoga anatomy is only 30 years old. At Sivananda, it was ‘Now we will do Shoulder Stand. Do it.’ Maybe they would say ‘work the hands towards the middle back’ but that was it. Only when Mr. Iyengar landed in Ann Arbor did we start to get details.” Likewise, “the study of Bandhas is only 12 years old. Ashtanga was the first system to really make a big deal out of them,” so the precise study is still young.

One last nugget: “As a teacher, you can focus someone on a spatial goal, or on a spinal goal.” The former is trying to push them into a particular shape, the latter is more about the relationship between the parts.

Or one more: “Either we’re doing these postures to get them right, or to be free.” Eventually, we will lose any pose we’ve achieved (to age or infirmity), so we should aim for freedom and not achievement in the asanas.

Amy Matthews also taught a wonderful class about anatomy according to the Body-Mind Centering principles of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Jill Satterfield led us through a deliciously slow, mindfulness-meditation-oriented hatha class. Is New York City finally slowing down?

PS All quotes are approximate.

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