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Master Teacher: Leslie Kaminoff

This week I talked to Leslie Kaminoff who has nearly four decades of experience as a specialist in the fields of yoga and breath anatomy. Kaminoff is a yoga educator inspired by the tradition of T.K.V. Desikachar. He leads anatomy and yoga methodology workshops for

yoga associations, schools and training programs around the world. His book Yoga Anatomy, (co-authored with Amy Matthews), sold out its first print run of 19,000 within a month.

He is also founder of The Breathing Project, a non-profit educational corporation dedicated to the teaching of individualized, breath-centered yoga practice and education. He helped organize international yoga conferences while serving as Vice-President of Unity in Yoga, and was part of the ad-hoc committee that established national standards for yoga teacher training. Prior to the formation of The Yoga Alliance, Leslie was a strong voice in the ensuing national debate regarding the application of those certification standards.

Sadie Nardini, creator of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, said, “I've studied with Leslie for years and his knowledge remains absolutely pivotal for the creation and continuation of my own yoga style. His wide-ranging scope of understanding turbo-boosted me light years ahead in the understanding of how to evolve and refine, and I believe--improve upon--the existing Vinyasa yoga practice. I don't know what compelled me to walk into that first "Core Strength" class of his--but I thank my lucky stars I did.”

Kathleen Kraft: What does your yoga practice look like every day?

Leslie Kaminoff: On a daily basis I’m not the guy who puts downs his mat and does asana and pranayama at a certain time. That was part of my life when I was younger when I was working at ashrams and running the Sivananda Center. Having gotten a lot busier—having a family, multiple jobs—what I found was that especially with the job of bodywork, I have to have a continual awareness of what I’m doing with my body, and my breathing… and my mind, in order to do that job effectively. So all of the practice I did when I was younger set me up really well for a certain kind of ongoing body awareness that lets me do a lot of things without building up a tremendous amount of tension that needs to be released through daily practice. That said, when I do feel something that needs to be worked out, I have the means and opportunity to do that.

It took me a while to be comfortable enough to be able to admit that in public because there was that nagging feeling of “What right do you have to teach yoga if you’re not practicing every single day?” and so I had to come to terms with that. But also it was a function of recognizing that in my students—they didn’t have a whole lot of time.

For me it’s much more of a mental and emotional practice of staying on balance, of finding the places where I get derailed either within myself or between myself and others.

KK: What do you do for that?

LK: I’ll give you one example from my bodywork practice when I was working on several clients, sometimes 12 a day, and then tendency for the mind to wander was natural, so I developed what I called the “freckle principle”—I would find a freckle on the person’s body and I would start noticing it, everything about it—the color, the variations of color, shape, how it moved when they breathed—it was a way of becoming one-pointed again. I extend that principle in other realms, there’s always a point of focus that keeps me present.

KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?

LK: First of that it’s free, direct and unencumbered. That’s as much a political statement as it is anything else. I’ve been involved for a few decades in the struggle to keep the field of yoga and yoga teaching free of interference from government or other entities that would interpose themselves into the student/teacher relationship. But that extends into other areas, like who is paying for the session—whenever there’s a third party, like a parent or workers’ comp, it complicates it exponentially. It might not be the person’s motivation, on their own, to be there.

The other thing I would say is that the quality of the relationship—particularly since I do a lot of therapeutic work with people—that the nature of it is very unique. A person may have been dealing with people right up to that point whose sole job it has been to focus on what has gone wrong with their body—where is this pain coming from, what is the disease—our role is to focus on what is going right.

KK: What Sutra is guiding you?

LK: Considering what we just talked about regarding the regulation of yoga, I’d have to quote the one that’s carved over the entrance of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram which is: heyam duhkham anagatam (Sutra II.16) which roughly means: The suffering which has yet to occur can and should be avoided. That should be the sutra that’s guiding the yoga regulation discussion.

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