I have a confession to make. When I first started studying yoga formally, I was for some strange reason very anti-anatomy. It just seemed dull and boring to me. So I had known about Leslie Kaminoff for years, but just thought of him as that "yoga anatomy" guy. I figured he was also going to be dry and boring, and so while I meant to get his book, I just never got around to it.
But as I matured (as in, I got older!), I realized that my body was, in fact, aging, and certain symptoms of my chronic fatigue syndrome were becoming suspiciously similar to fibromyalgia. Suddenly, anatomy - and, in particular, the muscles and how muscular knots and "trigger points" can cause referral pain - became a lot more interesting.
So I signed up for Leslie's Yoga Anatomy "Principles" online course. (I am still in the middle of the program - it's very rich and something you really need to study, and I love the challenge!) I then had an opportunity to see Leslie Kaminoff in person in Austin last weekend and took it.
Let me just say, formally, my apologies to you, Leslie, for assuming you were some dull and academic anatomy drone.
Thankfully, the way Leslie teaches anatomy (both online and in person) actually makes it interesting! (Jokes help!)
I have seen some of the best national yoga teachers start spouting off parts and names of muscles in a serious tone like they were doctors on a television soap opera (or worse, CSI-type show). I'm not stupid, but I'm also not one for rote information (I resonate more with ideas and concepts).
Not only do the names of muscles not "stick" easily in my head, when a yoga teacher provides instruction that is too technical, I have never known what to do. I am not naturally kinesthetic. I'm in my head a lot and I have to work very hard to get in touch with my body. So to tell me something as ubiquitous as "rotate the thigh muscles inward" truly puzzles me and ends up causing me to tense up, because I'm trying to figure out what the heck is going on with my thigh muscles. How on earth am I to isolate them enough to "rotate" them without moving my entire leg? What does it mean to "rotate" a muscle anyway? Can it do that?
Leslie Kaminoff tends to toss a wet blanket on a lot of this standard yoga language, and for that I am grateful. One of my big pet peeves has always been the yoga instruction: "draw the shoulders down the back." As if I could even do that! My shoulders want to stay where they are, thank you very much! It is a relief to hear Leslie explain why these types of instructions are not only often unhelpful but sometimes even counter-indicated.
To me, the idea of focusing on the movement of the sternum vs. the shoulders (which for me, tend to tense up the more someone tells me to relax them!) is a revelation.
In breaking down these sacred yoga cows, Leslie invites us to explore and get in touch with our bodies, in a way that focuses less on parts and more on the whole.
Central to this exploration is the breath, which was a major focus of the weekend Yoga Anatomy workshop. For me to fully explain Leslie's theory on breath (and how we've been taught many myths about it) would be a whole other article. Or two. Or three.
I'll just say briefly that belly breathing has also become a sacred cow, and it is just one of a myriad ways to take a full breath (because, for example, the lungs are actually bigger in the back than they are in the front). Wait - you mean I can inhale into the back of my lungs while in flexion? Wow.
This holistic approach to breath and anatomy was the focus of the weekend workshop, and then a two-day intensive workshop followed where Leslie demonstrated how he works with private yoga clients in his clinic. (He prefers not to be called a "yoga therapist" but a "yoga educator.")
The clinic was particularly interesting, in that it showed that very simple movements and breathwork can lead to profound shifts. Seeing an 80+ year old man benefit from yogic breathing is very inspiring.
Let me take an aside here and give some credit to Lydia Mann, Leslie's partner, who supported the entire workshop by not only providing assistance, but also sharing her experience with her own physical challenges. (She was also the tech guru of the workshop, taking photos and posting links and images on a webpage set up just for the weekend workshop in Austin.)
The two of them work so well as a team in part because they are down-to-earth, genuinely nice people who can relate to folks with limitations and disabilities. They aren't striving to be modeling airbrushed asanas on Yoga Journal. For far too long it seemed that the yoga community was focused too much on perfect poses instead of meeting people where they are at. That trend is shifting in a positive way, and I am happy to see such mindful yoga being taught.
(It may also partly be that I started doing yoga in image-conscious Los Angeles. I took my very first yoga teacher trainings with Shiva Rea. She is brilliant and sooo charismatic as a teacher, but back when I trained with her, she was all about going for the amazing super pose - some sort of arm balance with splits I could never do even when younger.)
I'm also glad to see anatomy taught in an accessible format. After the weekend workshop, I pulled out a yoga video I had of another national teacher explaining sequencing. Holy cow - the overly detailed explanations of muscle actions was just overwhelming. The teacher in question is clearly knowledgeable but no wonder I was put off about yoga anatomy before. I don't think I will ever experience my muscles on that micro-level, no matter how much yoga I do.
So after a weekend with Leslie Kaminoff, I'm still trying to assimilate all that I have learned both online and in person. I am grateful for the online course so I can review. (Definitely worth it!) While I am in no way an anatomy expert after taking part of the online course and a weekend workshop, I am getting a much better picture of functional anatomy and how things work together in a concerted whole. It has helped my personal practice already, and I hope it makes me a better teacher too.
If I had a complaint it would be that I'd like to learn what Leslie did in his clinic demonstrations. Clearly, there was not enough time for that. Perhaps a future online course may be in the works?
Photo credit: Lydia Mann