The Essence of Yoga with Leslie A. Kaminoff


In Power Living® with Dr. Terri Kennedy, explore the essence of yoga with Leslie A. Kaminoff, co-founder of The Breathing Project. Leslie has 30 years experience in yoga, breath technique and anatomy, and is the author of the popular book, Yoga Anatomy.

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Terri: I started practicing yoga when I was four years old. My mom was always upside down in a Shoulder Stand and I thought it was cool. I seriously got into the practice about 15 years ago and it has transformed my life. What is yoga really? I asked Leslie Kaminoff, yoga educator and co-founder of The Breathing Project.

Leslie: Yoga is - It's not as complicated as a lot of people would have it be.  You know you don't have to be a Sanskrit scholar. You don't have to be Indian. It's what happens when your body, your breath and your mind are doing the same thing at the same time. 

Terri: At his New York-based studio, Leslie offers advanced training on breath, movement and anatomy. His book, Yoga Anatomy, is a favorite among yoga teachers.

Leslie: You know at an anatomical level, we go a little further and say that it has to do specifically with how the movements of the breath are coordinating with the movements of the spine.  And that's an anatomical detail. Now, whether you even know that or not as a yoga teacher or practitioner, simply by asking someone to inhale as they're doing spinal extension - a backbend - and exhale as you're doing spinal flexion, which is a forward bend. Just that simple act that you do in the very first class, probably in the very beginning of that very first class that you take when they're asking you to do a Sun Salutation, you're already bringing the mind, the breath, the body, including the spine, into a state of  coordinated activity. A lot of back pain clears up. A lot of emotional baggage gets released. A lot of the struggle that we've had with gravity and our own bodies disappears when they get more coordinated. And on a practical level, that's what it is. Now, as it turns out, on the deeper more philosophical and even spiritual levels the exact same principles apply.  There is no difference. 

Terri: So, are you really doing yoga?

Leslie: Some people, they're in classes that are called yoga and they're doing their practice that they're told is yoga but if it excludes the breath maybe it's not. And then they're maybe people who are doing something entirely different that could be called dance or Pilates or martial arts or whatever but if it - if it really encourages that integration of mind, breath and body, then on a very practical level I'd say that is yoga. 

Terri: Leslie believes that yoga should be accessible for everybody.

Leslie: No matter how screwed up you think you are, okay - if you got in the door, if you're able to breathe, if you're able to take your shoes off, put on your yoga pants - okay, and lie on the mat and get up and down, no matter what else you think is wrong with you, there's more going right in your system than wrong - physiologically, structurally, anatomically, okay? You may be more conscious of the things that you can't do. It's the teacher's job to remind them of the things they can do. And that's your starting point.

Terri: Leslie sees yoga as a tool for learning about yourself - for building self-awareness.

Leslie: Yes, you experience obstructions, obstacles, areas of stiffness, weakness, and, and - but the yoga makes you aware of all that. You know? That's important.  It's the stuff that you don't know that you don't know that screws you up. Unknowingness of the unknowing that is the most dangerous and I think we all know people that kind of live in that place, um and have a very sophisticated way of avoiding that knowing. Uh - and they usually don't show up to yoga class. 

Terri: Yoga is so much more than the physical postures. It is a way of looking at the world. Leslie often references the philosophy of his teacher T.K.V. Desikachar.

Leslie: You know, if there is no recognition of Duhkha [suffering], there can be no yoga. You know? In fact, another favorite saying of Desikachar's is that the - "The recognition of confusion is a form of clarity." And that's very important to remember. If you're clear that you're confused you're clear about that. That's never a problem. Because nobody's omniscient. Nobody knows everything. You know? Except maybe Patanjali or you know Buddha or you know? Dr. Phil - I don't know. But uh - us average people, you know uh - if we can be more aware of the things that we're not aware of that's a very important powerful place to be.

Terri: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explains Raja Yoga. I asked Leslie about one of the key sutras.

Leslie: The second chapter is about practice and it defines it right there.  You know? Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidihanani.  We keep coming back to that because it's the breath. You know? And by that I mean this idea of Tapah or Tapas - Tapah means to - to change something out of it's habitual state into a different state. It's changing the things you can is what it really is. And Isvarapranidihanani is the complementary principle which is - it's about the things you can't change. It's about the things you're not in control of. It's about the things you're not the master of. There are things in the Universe clearly that you're not in control of. What should your relationship be to those things. Well, that's called surrender. Now, the third principle, svadhyaya is about self-study. It's about introspection you know and - and that's really what's necessary uh - in order to determine the things you can change as opposed to the things you can't change. What are the things we should be trying to change in our practice? What are the things we should be surrendering to? That's not immediately obvious. It requires some thought - some introspection. I see you're shaking your head. You've heard this before. haven't you? Everyone has. It's the Serenity Prayer.  You know? You want the - the courage and the strength to change the things you can and serenity to accept the things you can't and most importantly, the wisdom to know the difference. And that's Patanjali. That's Kriya Yoga. That's Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kruya Yogah. That's the sutra and - and it's the breath. Because the breath is voluntary and involuntary. You can change certain parts of the breath. Certain parts you can't.  And the remarkable thing is when you finally let go and surrender to the aspects of the breath over which you have no control, the things you thought you couldn't control all of a sudden start transforming. You see because what we can change always is our attitude towards things. And - and that's something we're in control of.

By the way folks, the woman that I'm speaking to used to be the President of the Yoga Alliance - just so you know that! Just a little context for you. Yeah! That's her. There she is (turning the camera on Terri). Isn't she beautiful? Yeah.

Terri: Yoga is about transformation. What are the things you want to change in your life? Take time observe yourself. The power is in your hands.

Copyright Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy. Photo credit: Pexels.

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is a Harvard Business School-trained Strategist, Mind-Body Expert, Award-Winning Author, Keynote Speaker and Activist.  She is Founder & CEO of Power Living and creator of Elder Dignity.  Selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, her mission is to unleash human potential and create a more just and sustainable world.

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