Who is Leslie Kaminoff?
Leslie is a yoga educator with 40 years of experience in sharing yoga teachings inspired by T.V.K. Desikachar, the son of Triumalai Krishnamacharya, often dubbed “the Father of Modern Yoga.” He also founded The Breathing Project in 2001 as a non-profit dedicated to the sharing of educational, community-based programming related to yoga, anatomy and health enrichment.
When I heard that Leslie was coming to London in December, I booked up all of his workshops and hopped on the train to Mission E1 – a luxe studio just along from Spitalfields Market.
Leslie wrote Yoga Anatomy: a book which features drawings based on photographs of real yogis practicing asana, with the anatomical detail drawn in – showing which muscles are actively and passively working and which joints are involved.
Yoga Anatomy came out in 2007 – the first year of my first accredited yoga teacher training. I immediately loved this book. It was like having x-ray vision or a portal into the body – making the unseen available to work with.
As a trainee yoga teacher, one of my primary concerns was how to support students to work safely into poses and this book helped me to see what was anatomically possible and sane for humans to attempt and what considerations there might be based on that student’s history of injury or current conditions.
What I also like about Leslie’s book is that all of his adjustment cues or advice for entering, holding and exiting poses are based on the knowledge that there is enough diversity in human structure to affect how we individually function.
Saturday morning’s class was centred on this philosophy: In “Bones, Muscles and Structural Diversity” Leslie reminded us that people come in different shapes and sizes and this affects how they move. The length of a thighbone and at what angle it inserts into the pelvic girdle will have a huge impact on someone’s capacity to fold forward.
(see the picture for an example of difference in pelvis/femur arrangement)
Once someone has reached the movement limit of their bony structure no amount of stretching for your toes is going to get you any closer. You can’t move bone through bone, once the turning angle of the joint is maxed out you have to stop - unless you’re in the market for broken bones or torn ligaments – which we are all certainly not.
This knowledge informs Leslie’s teaching and enables him to use yoga therapeutically, continuing the teaching tradition that he learnt from his teacher, T.V.K. Desikachar who developed the breath-led practice he named Vini-yoga which was, uniquely, tailored for each practitioner and informed by their individual needs.
In the second workshop ‘Reimagining Alignment’ we looked at some key principles that inform this therapeutic approach to yoga practice and how the adoption of these ideas can support us to reimagine classic yoga cues.
▶ Asanas don’t have alignment – people do.
Yup! Following the logic of structural diversity, it figures that a one-size-fits-all approach to foot, hand or pelvis placement isn’t going to work. We need to consider what is going to make sense given an individual's condition that day. My Alexander Technique teacher friends will like this too – as it chimes well with the first mental discipline of “considering the conditions (of use) present” – before embarking on a plan for movement.
▶ An asana only exists when an individual places their body into a shape.
Similar to the above idea – it’s not like there is a yoga pose (asana) silhouette superimposed into the air above our mat which we can slot our body into – we create the asana via kinetic chains of movement in our system following our plan. Many joints and muscles work together, directed by our conception of the pose and how we put that into action.
▶ Healthy movement is well-distributed - a little bit of movement coming from a lot of places.
▶ Unhealthy movement is too much movement coming from too few places repeated too many times (repetitive stress).
These ideas again reminded me of FM Alexander’s work – in his description of a coordinated condition being, “a number of things going on, many parts moving at the same time and converging on a common consequence.”
If movement comes from one particular joint disproportionately, then that one joint and the muscles that move it have to do more than their fair share of work. Instead, we can distribute the effort but creating a chain of movement using many joints to a lesser degree.
Do an experiment: take your hand in front of you, and draw a figure eight – you probably used your wrist, elbow and shoulder in a series of combinations. Imagine just trying to use your wrist – it might be possible but it would not be easy – or efficient – and that’s exactly the kind of movements we are after. Easy + efficient = yes please.
▶ Skeletal Alignment is a clear pathway of weight passing through balanced joint space.
▶ Muscle Action in asana is effective when it positions the bones to produce functional skeletal alignment.
The way I interpreted the last two ideas is that when we use our structure to bear our weight well – ie the weight travels down through bone to the ground, we can use less muscular action to create stability – the stability comes from our bones and we get the natural rebound of energy which Newton described in his third law – “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Finding the sukham (ease) by finding the sthiram (stability).
The last point – slightly sets my Alexander Technique alarm bells ringing because it seems to distance the muscular action from the person … I think I would rewrite this
“A plan for creating an asana (yoga pose) is effective when it involves using the appropriate joints in an efficient sequence with the minimum possible effort. “
In the light of the above concepts, how might we reimagine these classic alignment cues?
▶ Stand with the feet parallel
▶ Square the pelvis
▶ Tuck the tail
▶ Always lengthen the spine
▶ Draw the shoulder blades down the back
▶ Always place the bent knee over the ankle
▶ “Open” the hips
▶ Heart opening
▶ “Knit” the ribs together
These cues have often grated against my own experience of applying them to my practice, watching how they are received in class, and against my understanding of anatomy through the lens of the ITM Alexander Technique. The question often on my lips when I hear this in a group class is WHY? and FOR WHICH STUDENT?
Here we venture into the territory of the correction model which is so ubiquitous in the world of fitness and health.
The correction model works like this:
Say the student / patient / client is leaning forward at the hip joint while standing.
This is causing them trouble –– their muscles are having to do more work to keep them upright because their skeletal alignment is not “efficient” - plus they are creating that lean using muscles - and now they are tired - their muscles are sore and one or more joints are feeling the strain.
Using the correction model the remedy is LEANING BACK. Now the student is indeed upright and ‘aligned.’
Job done? Well… Not really. Why?
Because they are still leaning forward but now, they are also leaning back too. And remember “leaning” in the body is caused by muscular effort so we have two sets of muscles working to create opposing leanings = stillness but a lot of muscular action = more muscles getting more tired.
Using the ITM Alexander Technique methodology instead of creating an opposing force we instead ask – what if you were to just stop leaning forward?
Make a plan which does not include the lean forward. Then the student never leaves the efficient alignment so they don’t need to put themselves back there.
Sounds great but it's really very unpopular! Why? Because we are all such good students... and we often equate being a 'good student' with trying hard and doing all the things.
So, when we notice we are pulling our shoulders forward – or if some helpful soul points it out – what do we do?
We pull them back of course, or someone might cue that “Draw the shoulder blades down the back”
…but do we stop pulling them forward first – no sir-eeee … that would be too easy- so now we are pulling them up and pulling them down and eventually our shoulders get more tired than they need to more quickly than is necessary. Which I’m sure we can all agree is not representative of the ease we are after – and it certainly doesn’t help when you are doing very many downward dogs per day.
Or for that matter even one downward dog per day? Are you? If not access this playlist of last term's classes HERE and get your downward dog on in the simplest way you can imagine!
Join me next term for more Vinyasa Krama Yoga classes at the Scout Hut and YogaFurie: Spring Term 2024 starts:
-Tue 9th Jan: 9-10am @ScoutHut6388
-Wed 10th Jan: 8-9pm @YogaFurie
Plus, register your interest in a 6-week Alexander Technique course to learn how you can move with more ease and efficiency.
or email: email@example.com for more details.