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Yogi Leslie Kaminoff on Back Pain, Dr. Sarno and the Power of Breath

This interview is from the Like Mind, Like Body podcast. You can listen to the full interview below, on iTunes or Google Podcasts.

Leslie Kaminoff is an internationally recognized specialist in the fields of yoga and breath anatomy. With over four decades of experience, he is the author of the #1 best selling yoga book on, Yoga Anatomy , and also the founder of the non-profit, The Breathing Project. Leslie has done a lot of interviews, and usually people like to talk to him about his endless knowledge of yoga and specific breathing techniques. But today, we are going to get a little up close and personal. Leslie will share his own personal story of losing his breath for six months, having what he calls a "pranic breakdown," overcoming severe back spasms, and watching his hero suffer from dementia. He'll also share what he's learned about how simple breathing habits and basic yoga practice can transform the way we face adversity taking us from reactive to responsive.

Thanks so much for joining us on the show today Leslie. I know you're a busy guy so I want to just get right into the interview and cut right to the chase. We are thrilled to have you and thrilled to hear about your personal story today. From what I understand I think it begins with someone who's pretty important in your life a yoga educator that you've learned a lot of what you teach from so can you tell us a little bit about him?

My teacher TKV Desikachar… he was one of the leading authorities on the therapeutic application of yoga. I met him in 1988, after having been a yoga teacher for about 9 years at that point and he totally rocked my world. I mean literally you know, he turned my breathing upside down. The very first time I tried his method of breathing it was completely opposite of what I had originally been trained to do and what I had based all of my assumptions and techniques and in fact my entire teaching career on. And so there was a lot at stake for me, in the moment I decided to actually give his method a try. It also just kind of ruined me.

What do you mean?

Well… for about 6 months I wasn't able to take an effective breath because my system rebelled. My entire system... all of my mental, emotional, intellectual... existential, [chuckels]... identity, dynamics were very threatened by this because It was so much more effective than what I have been doing and I had kind of built a career on what I had been doing up to that point.

It would be one thing if I was just a yoga practitioner, and I was just learning this technique for myself and my own health and all that, but… When you're a teacher and you start teaching other teachers, you have a lot more invested in kind of knowing what you know and the validity of the techniques that you're sharing. Yeah, I kind of had a pranic breakdown. I blew an energy fuse. And of course, you know, I didn't stop teaching yoga, which I probably should have. So yeah, it was an exciting time to be introduced to all of this new information. It was also very disruptive to my previous existence.

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Yeah, to say the least. So I guess that's the story of how he kind of cut to your core. How did he build you back up from that because that obviously wasn't the end of your career?

Well it wasn't him directly that was building me back up. I kind of went off and put my tail between my legs and figured things out for myself. Because, at the time he was based in India I was based in New York. I couldn't just uproot my life and move to India for 6 months at a time which some of his other senior students had done.

Did you guys stay in touch? What was your relationship like after that?

Oh yeah, absolutely. No, no, I showed up wherever he was teaching when he traveled at that point. I did manage to get away for a month to visit him in India. So whenever he was doing a seminar or something, wherever he was, I would show up... for about 20 years or so.

Well it's clear that Desikachar means quite a bit to you. Now you wrote a pretty moving blog post a while back, about the first time you realized that your teacher was starting to get sick. Can you tell me a little about what that experience was like?

Well it was at the annual yoga teachers conference at Estes Park. It's sort of Summer camp for yoga teachers [laughs]. Desikachar was scheduled to lead a four-day immersion before the main conference. He seemed a little off during the immersion but he always had someone sitting next to him, either his wife or one of his senior students and they kind of kept him on track. I just put it off to it being cold which he didn't handle cold very well. For him, cold was anything less than 80°F because he was from South India. He would be walking around with two jackets on when it was 60°F outside, and it was colder than that. It was also 8,500 feet in altitude, so I figured the cold, the altitude and jetlag, whatever, he just didn't seem at the top of his game. But he was able to go through the 4 days because he had help.

Then at the beginning of the main conference he was the keynote speaker, and he was up at the front of the room on his own and that's when it was really clear he was having cognitive issues. And it was really, really disturbing to see that because I had not seen him at that point for a couple of years. It had obviously started since last time I saw him. There was a handful of people in room that knew him well enough to recognize that there was something seriously wrong. There were other people who were traveling with him, who were very close with him, who in fact were teaching with him who should have known better than to put him at the front of the room on his own.

And that's where I started to get this this resentment about him being thrust into this situation that he was clearly incapable of handling. The resentment turned into anger, and anger turned into rage, and five years later I was flat on my back with a spasm from... suppressing this... this rage, and also grief. You know, just the loss of this brilliant, brilliant man and all the years of teaching he was now clearly not going to be able to do.

His father lived to over 100! Iyengar lived to be 94. Indra Devi, another main student to Krishnamacharya, lived to be over 100 as well. So there was just this expectation of longevity in this particular teaching lineage. For him in his 70s to be taken out of the game was tremendously disturbing. So there was that, the loss, the grief, the anger and you know, that'll give you a back spasm after a while if it's unexpressed and just kinda shoved down so you can keep functioning.

So it sounds like you did pretty well powering through these difficult feelings for a few years before your back took you out. So what happened after 5 years? Was there some event that triggered all of this grief and resentment to come back or what was going on there?

So about 3 years ago a very well-known yoga teacher by the name of BKS Iyengar was dying. I never met the man, he wasn't my teacher, but you know, he was 94 and it was time. He was clearly in his last days, and this certain small contingent of people were reacting saying, "Oh these are all lies, he 's not sick, you know, he's a lion who will bounce back from anything ". And that… that did enrage me beyond all reason. To see the denial that some of his students were engaging in about the fact that he was clearly the end of his life.

The reason it was out of proportion was that it really wasn't about him is what my teacher (Desikachar). I realized that five years prior when I first found out about this, I just had no outlet for expressing... number one, how sad I was... but also how mad I was about how the people around him we're handling it. So I sort of swallowed it, and smiled, and did my best to behave without making a fuss. And 5 years of that going on was was quite a bit for me because I teach a lot, and I teach a lot of what I learned from my teacher. I was always speaking about him and I realize in retrospect that every time I mention his name there is this... twinge of something that was going on that I really didn't feel that I could talk about.

So this whole thing with the Iyengar brought it all to the surface and I started to experience this back pain. And it became worse and worse and the things I usually do to relieve my stiff back weren't working. I just got more and more in spasm and less and less able to move. And one night I went to bed, it turns out this was the night Iyengar died. I had this very vivid dream that I was pitching an article to my friend Waylon who runs Elephant Journal. And in this dream he wasn't buying it. I forgot what the idea was I was pitching, but he wasn't buying it. So in the dream, I'm kind of leaving the meeting and before I walk out the door, I turn around and say, "Well there is something I could write about "... and dream Waylon says to me, "Well what 's that?" ... "Well the fact that Desikachar has dementia and no one's talking about it. " And then he got interested and then in the dream, I tell him the story. And it's very, very vivid like in perfect, sequential, full sentence detail. And I wake up, I'm still in spasm and I completely remember the dream... and I remember everything I said.

I crawl out of bed to my computer and I basically type what I said in the dream. I was like, "Well, I got to tell real-life Waylon, because he 's dealing today on Elephant Journal with the fact that Iyengar his died. And he's got some of Iyengar 's senior students writing tributes and all that. I know it's a busy day for him, but this is an emerging thing right now as well. Because it 's the same family, it's the same teaching lineage and this is what 's happening."

Before I send anything out into the world that I write I show it to Lydia, my wonderful partner, who is a very skilled editor among other things. She reads it and says, "You can't send this in ". And... I said, "Why? " And she said "Well… because it 's full of rage". [laughs]

And I didn't think it was full of rage. I thought I was writing a very informative article just letting the public know what was going on. But it was very clear to her that it was just dripping with rage. And the funny thing is… the moment she said the word rage, and it entered into my conscious mind what was going on... my back spasm let go... it stopped. It was like turning off a switch. It was freaky. It's like one of these freaky things you hear about when you hear people talking about Sarno's book, right. And I was like, "Woah!". I was still stiff and sore, but the spasm was gone. And I swear to God the first words out of my mouth was... after she said rage... can I curse on this show?

[laughs] Go ahead.

Ok the first words out of my mouth after she said rage, and my back spasm let go was...

"F****** Sarno!" [laughs]

He was right! [laughs]

That was the first thought that came to my mind. And she laughed and I laughed and I was like, Yeah I guess this stuff really is true.

Well, let's take a quick step back because not everyone out there is familiar with who Dr. Sarno is and what he's "right about" in the situation. So can you just give a little bit of background on that?

Sure, he worked for many years here in New York City at the Rusk Institute, which is one of the top rehabilitation facilities in the country. He eventually came to the conclusion that the vast majority of pain that he saw (and it started with back pain but he expanded his vision beyond that as time went on) he came to conclusion that most of the back pain he was seeing was not really due to the structural deficit or diagnosis that people that came in with. Most notably, ruptured disc and things like that. He began to notice that what was much more significant in terms of the origin of some of this pain was people's emotional states and how they handled them or chose to not handle them as the case may be.

What he did, he basically told people what was going on. The way they were suppressing their emotional states was causing this muscle tension which was depriving the muscles of oxygen which is very, very painful. It's called Ischemia. When muscles are deprived of oxygen they hurt quite a bit. And so the pain was real, but it wasn't due to the structural diagnosis the people came in with.

I met Sarno actually, just about 30 years ago when my mother became the patient and I went in with her. She was very proud of her son the yoga teacher and of course went out of her way to tell about that to Dr. Sarno. [laughs] So I observed him doing the exam where he would do the standard series of testing where he would poke and prod various places, trigger points in the body. They would all hurt and many of them we're not attributable to the nerve pathways that came off of the disc damage that people came in with. And he would be like, "If your pain is here, that couldn't possibly be because of this disc problem because the nerve for that disc goes way over there, but you're feeling pain here." So he went through that whole thing with my mom and then he turned to me and said, "So... what do you think is the cause of your mom's back pain?"

[laughs] It's sort of like "okay wise-ass, you're a yoga teacher what do you think's going on?" It was clear at that point the wrong answer would have been, "well the ruptured disc that she was diagnosed with?" And, I don't know if he understood Yiddish, but I just shrugged my shoulders and said, "I guess it's mishegoss?" [laughs]

What does that mean?

Well um… it comes from the same root of the word meshuggah which is kind of craziness like, you know, just when someone has mishegoss it's like they've got issues. [laughs]

Don't we all though.

Well, we do! We do and it doesn't always turn into back pain. He eventually expanded his view of what this repressed rage could lead to in terms of symptoms. Into things like ulcers and... fibromyalgia and... migraines and all sorts of pains that are quite debilitating and cause enormous expense with the standard medical treatment.

So that is how I was initially familiarized with his work. I read his books and found it was very compatible in many ways with what I've been observing as a body worker and as a yoga teacher. And eventually had my own, genuine, on the floor with back pain Sarno experience. [laughs] Which is odd because somehow I assumed just because I subconsciously knew about this stuff, and I talked to people about it, that I was somehow immunized from it. [laughs]

Now the added mention that I talk about, which Sarno didn't really address so much, is how breathing is the main mechanism by which we suppress our emotions.


Yeah, it's not like you just turn off a switch in your brain and you stop feeling what you're feeling. Emotions are very powerful and they happen inside of you, they happened in your gut, they happen in your body, they happen in your lungs. Emotions are are somatic. You have to take countermeasures that are equally somatic in order to not feel them and how we do it is in the way we alter the way we're breathing. We alter our availability for feeling these things. We alter the spaces inside ourselves in which these emotions occur. And the main mechanism by which we do that is breathing.

But we've been doing that since we were infants. Everyone does. That the minute you learn how to squeeze in and push down to make a poop leave your butt [laughs], so that you don't feel that uncomfortable pressure inside, you're learning to manipulate your breathing mechanism to regulate your internal states. This is something that we do in more and more sophisticated ways as we get older and we have more and more sophisticated responses to our environment.

Basic infantile response is something that many of us carry into adulthood. Whatever we're feeling something unpleasant in our gut we squeeze in and push down and it doesn't necessarily make the emotion go away but it makes the space go away in which we can feel it. You keep doing that for long enough and you're going to end up with problems, you'll compromise your relationship to gravity and it's going to do a lot of things that could lead to the kinds of pain that people find themselves in.

Ok, so the breathing thing... How does that emotion actually go from being stuck inside of you and causing this physical pain to I guess, being expressed in a healthy way? Is breathing all that it takes to really do that? And if so, how do you breathe to do that because I need to add that to my todo list everyday. [laughs]

Okay well, it's not like, "Here's the technique for freeing up your emotions." It's not quite that cut and dry. And the only thing I would like to say which I think Sarno would want to emphasize, is that it's not the emotions that are causing people pain, it's what we're doing in order to not express them or experienced them.

What do you mean by that?

Well... think for example of... have you ever been in a situation where you were having a strong emotional reaction to something but it wasn't appropriate to express that reaction?

Oh yeah that's like everyday of my life.

Ok, well... fine. If we didn't have that capacity, we'd all be in jail [laughs] for murder or assult. All of us!

I wouldn't go that far, but yeah.

Well, I think at some point, yes, you wanted to punch someone in the face [laughs] and you managed not to right? Think of times when the emotion was very, very strong and it was almost overwhelming and yet... you managed to not let it out. You know that tightness in the throat, that we get? Because that's the last place where you can actually sort of close the valve and not let it get expressed. Because the throat structures are very much... they act like a valve in many ways, right.

So that's an obvious example where you know that that's going on. But this process is happening subconsciously much of the time. The same mechanism by which we hold back something that we want to say, is similar to the mechanism by which we hold back our ability to experience it in the first place.

So it's really about how we manage these spaces, the emotional spaces in our body. Our guts for example, where we get sort of gut level reactions to things, how many times can you think of where you had a gut level response to something and you ignored it and lived to regret it? That happens a lot.

Now maybe it's oftentimes where you went with what your emotions were telling you to do and you regret that. So... uncovering these spaces in which we can experience our emotions is really just the first step. Knowing what to do with them or whether to follow what they're telling us to do is a whole other issue. [laughs]

One of the tools in yoga that we use is called svadhyaya. Svadhyaya is self reflection. It means literally, to get next to one's self. Having this sort of introspective awareness and applying it to our personal lives is a big part of yoga practice. One of the first most basic and most powerful stages of this training is breath awareness.

So to go back to your question, how do we work with the breathing? Basically we teach people techniques and it's not so much that this specific technique has this specific effect. It's more, if I teach you a way, a method, a pattern of breathing that's different enough from the way that you usually do it... it will have the desired effect.

Because learning a new way to breathe forces you to unlearn your old way of breathing. It forces you to confront whatever habits that you may have that you aren't aware of and let go of them because unless you do that, you will be unable to do this new pattern which is the technique. And that is really where the benefit comes. Not from mastering the technique. It's not like the benefit is inside the technique and you have to unlock it by mastering it. What you have to let go of, in terms of your habitual way of operating you breathing mechanism, is where the benefit comes.

That sounds like it could apply to a lot of habits not just breathing.

Well absolutely, if the breathing is a model for how we address much of how we behave eventually on every level, on every one of these dimensions, breathing confronts us with that which we can control and that which we can not control. Because breathing is both, it's voluntary and it's autonomic. So the minute you start doing some type of breath training you are confronted with that. You may discover you have a lot more control over your breath than you realize. But you will also discover what the limits of that control are quite quickly as well.

This puts us right in touch with issues of will and surrender in our lives. And confusion about those issues is what causes a lot of suffering. We waste a lot of energy trying to changes things that are not under our control and we waste a lot of time doing that when we could be changing things that are changeable. So it's sort of like the Serenity Prayer if you think about it, the famous Serenity Prayer where you ask for the strength to change the things you can and the serenity to accept the things you cannot and the wisdom to know the difference.

That is pretty much almost a direct translation of the classical definition of yoga practice. The practice really allows us to distinguish those elements from each other in our lives. And it does play out in the bigger issues that we confront whether it's emotionally, or intellectually, or even energetically.

People talk about their boundary issues. When someone enters into their space and they have a reaction, you can track that with your breathing. If you have a little bit of breath awareness, you can start noticing things. Like, "Wow. Everything time that person enters, comes into my office, I just notice, I hold my breath. What is up with that?" You begin to notice other times when you are doing this and it really turns into almost being able to hack your system a little bit and see what you reactive nature is to things.

You begin to have more choice of how you respond to situations. We often talk about the difference between responding and reacting.

Hmm, and what would you say is the big difference between the two?

Responding is what happens when you manage to not react right away and you have like a split second of space, between what's happening, and what you doing about what's happening. If you don't have that space then you are a victim of what's happening, because you are just reacting. So these kind of practices, what they do is they open up that little crack of space, between what is going on out there in the world, or what is going on inside you, which is part of the world, and responding to it. It keeps us from mistaking one thing from the other. It just keeps us from mistaking our reactions for what's going on.

So how do you think yoga can help put people that sort of mentality all the time, where they're responding rather than reacting to everything around them?

Well, "all the time" is a stretch. We all have our moments of reacting. [laughs] Actually it's sort of simple really, if you think about what happens in a yoga class. You go into a room, you put your mat down, and you follow what's going on from the instructor and basically it's a controlled stress experience. You are being asked to do things that you don't ordinarily do with your body, which is kind of stressful. You are trying to stretch here and you don't go that way. Or you try to balance here and you fall over. You're trying to activate this muscle and it doesn't quite know how to do that. So all of these things are happening and they are kind of stressful and the person who is leading you through this is also saying, "ok now breathe." So whatever you have to do about keep conscious about keeping your breath going while you're doing all these things, is kind of the underlying mechanism of a yoga class. Which by the way is what distinguishes it from just stretching, or calisthenics, or dance, or gymnastics or any of the other things it may resemble. It's this conscious breathing element that really makes the difference in terms of beginning to notice the reactive nature of your mind and your breath to what your body is doing.

Interesting, I've also heard you talk about how yoga is focusing on what's right with your body and for some people that's their first introduction to that sort of angle. Can you talk a little more about what you mean by that?

Sure, and that also links up with some stuff I've heard Sarno say . Sometimes this conversation comes up when I'm teaching a room full of yoga teachers, some of whom are interested in going into this emerging field of yoga therapeutics, you know, yoga as a healing modality. I feel moot to remind them that the thing that distinguishes us as practitioners, when people come to us for some kind of healing is that we're the people, maybe in many people's experience, the first people that are going to focus on things that are still going right rather than what's going wrong.

It's very easy to start chasing symptoms around, but frankly there are a lot of professions out there that have expertise in that, medical professions and physical therapists and whatever. What distinguishes us as yoga teachers and sometimes yoga therapists is that as long as someone is able to breath, focus their attention and move their body even a little bit, they can do yoga. Because they can bring their body and breath together. That means we're focusing on what's still going right. If they are alive in anyway shape or form there is still a lot more going right in their system than has gone wrong. Even in the worst most dire cases. If they are still breathing, they are still conscious, they can still move, in the big picture there is still more going right in their system than has gone wrong.

And that's what we work with. We work with that energy of life, we call it prana. It's a really important perspective to maintain because it's really easy to get sucked into people's stories about their symptoms, about what's gone wrong. And people sometimes, if it's been going on for a while are very strongly identified with what has gone wrong. We listen to the stories with empathy and we connect with them and understand they have been struggling with something, and then so, "Ok, now let's see what you can do," and we just start there.

Baby steps, that's great. Do you think that your experience with your own back spasms and things like that has changed the way you teach at all?

Oh absolutely, well it gives me a good story to tell. It just reinforces something that has been my teaching style all along, which is just to be very real and very down to earth and not put on any kind of illusion for people that I am somehow mystically exempt from the usual troubles and suffering and whatever that everyone goes through. It puts it in a real context.

I'm sure, for example, that some of the stuff I've been going through recently in the last couple of months is absolutely stuff that Sarno talks about. It doesn't show up as back pain so much anymore for me but how about the fact that I have been closing down the programming for my studio, The Breathing Project, over the last couple of months and moving 14 years of stuff out of my office. We're going through a transition there where we're turning it into something else.

So where is that gonna hit me do you think? When i'm shutting down The Breathing Project?

I don't know, how about my lungs. How about the fact that I've had this cough I can't get rid of [laughs] for... for two months, you know. It's a perspective, it's like, "Ok, I know what's going on here. We've ruled out that it could be bronchitis because the antibiotics didn't work. It's not an airway sensitivity issue because, you know... we just ruled everything out!" And it's like, what's left is mishegoss. It's just that word I used before. [laughs] It's just my own craziness and issues. But it's so poignant for me just to say, "Well yeah, if you're shutting down The Breathing Project, isn't it great and ironic that you're going to be teaching your last immersion, which I just didn't last week, a week long immersion about breathing... and, um... I'm coughing." [laughs]

It's like, "Here's your breathing expert for you. He's at the front of the room. Let's take a nice deep breath and say om, [cough cough] excuse me" [laughs] And it's like, let's have a conversation about that. When you take a deep breath and you're leading a class in a chant and you can't, that's just reality showing up. You can't hide it. It's forcing you to be real. Yeah.


Well I think we are just about out of time but thank you for so much for joining us today Leslie, we had been looking forward to hearing your story and it certainly did not dissapoint.


Well that's... that's sweet. It's always great to be able to talk about this, and I'm really thrilled about the work you guys are doing. I'm just happy to be in the position to maybe help get some more of the word out. I'm looking forward to see how it turns out.

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Leslie Kaminoff
Author, Yoga Anatomy
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