Yoga Cowboys & Indians

Yoga Cowboys & Indians; Diaphragmatic Tension, Pain Science, Yoga Education, Core Stability & Anterior Knee Pain.

YOGA COWBOYS & INDIANS

I’ve recently enjoyed the entertainment provided by a disagreement between two published ‘Yoga Anatomists’ Leslie Kaminoff (LK) & Raymond Long (RL). It's spread out over several pages and groups. And apart from some name calling and logical fallacy debating, it's been pretty educational on many levels. From both sides.  I’m not even sure the name calling and disagreements are real.  I think its just some good showmanship from both sides, and rather than getting invested in one side winning or losing, I’ve been sitting back with my metaphorical popcorn and watching the show.  

I’m not a great side taker.  I’m more of a Devil’s advocator; conditioned as I am through my training as a secondary school science teacher.  Although I do back away from people who take my Devil’s advocacy personally and start having a go at me because they think I have invested in the side that opposed them.  I haven’t.  I am the child who tried to hold together arguing parents.  I don’t take sides. But I do critique to better understand stuff, thereby furthering my own learning, and hopefully that of other casual observers.  So to all the folk mentioned herein, I love you all!  Indeed I didn’t set out to write about your argument.  It was some articles posted along the way that really got me wanting to write.  I’m just feeling a little ballsy and so may even post this somewhere and therefore need to give context…

COWBOY CORNER

LK is a self identified yoga cowboy, in the sense that he is an actual cowboy, shooting guns whilst riding horses and all that.  My favourite bit of the debate was when Long called Kaminoff a cowboy and the onlookers jumped in to defend him, whilst LK took it as a compliment.  This led me to believe that, at least to begin with, the whole kerfuffle was slapstick with some good camaraderie on both parts.

Kaminoff seems to be saying that we should be cautious about using the term ‘Diaphragmatic Breathing’ because, well, all breathing involves the diaphragm.  Sounds sensible. Although this is hard to verify because LK is not interested in confirming or denying his position to me, and so anything I write about him here is my own perception of his position. Indeed all he said to me about it was that he has not given me permission to represent his position. Which of course I couldn’t, but I require no permission to have my own opinions on anything!

I have learned much from LK over the years. Through in person trainings & his online offerings. And one thing I learned from these was that Christopher Reeve, after his accident, once unhooked from his respirator for effect in a film to demonstrate that even though his diaphragm was paralysed, he could still breathe using his accessory muscles.  I’m sure he couldn’t have sustained that for very long, but nevertheless the film clip of this event I was shown by LK suggested that it can be done. So my curiosity was piqued to read LK’s statement that no breathing was possible without the use of the diaphragm. Perhaps I’d missed something? I read on…

INDIAN CORNER

Long, I am calling the yoga indian, because it justifies my title, and also because interestingly enough, when accused of hiding in his word of medicine, Long actually claimed authenticity to comment on yoga by stating he spent 2 years in India.  It interests me how Long can claim authority from both the medical camp and the India camp, in the same argument that he brings into question Kaminoff’s authority because Kaminoff does not have medical training.  

Kaminoff has however written 2 editions of a book called ‘Yoga Anatomy’ and has studied under Desikachar for an undetermined length of time.  But then Long has also written a few yoga anatomy books in a series called ‘The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga’.  So they both have skin in the book writing game.

In the debate at hand, Long was claiming that it was foolish to not call diaphragmatic breathing diaphragmatic breathing, because diaphragmatic breathing is an actual medical term that describes a thing that helps people.

Kaminoff was saying that the term is misleading to those who do not fully understand the mechanics of breathing, such as yoga teachers, who then start saying silly things like ‘breathe into your belly’ and spread ideas that breath can indeed go into the belly when we do diaphragmatic breathing.  I see his point there.  

All this fluffing up of feathers reminded me of myself this morning claiming to have a degree in Environmental Science whilst debating the best way of saving the planet.  Is it a defence mechanism?  Or is it important to know a little about the background and qualifications of the people you are engaging with, so that you discern for yourself whether they are indeed an authority on the topic at hand or not?  In any game, its always a good idea to learn as much as you can about the other team before starting the play.  But within a neo-liberaleral framework where authority is being conflated with power and any claims to authority are thrown back at you, it is always risky to throw down the gauntlet of your credentials before you engage.  They can just as easily be used to undermine you as they can strengthen your hand.

So Long, the medical doctor who has spent 2 years in India vs Kaminoff the Desikachar student who has broken away from lineage and turned to anatomy.

Do we need to pick a side? Feels like we need Harry Hill…

Lots of people want you to pick a side so that you buy their books. Hell, lots of people manufacture sides to encourage you to buy their books!

CORE STABILITY, EDUCATION & KNEES

I’m not sure that there are sides to be picked for many things. In my experience, I find when I get attached to any particular idea, things can go a little wrong, a little out of balance.  This point was brought home to me when the Kaminoff vs Long thing descended into the part of these arguments I most enjoy; a rapid fire shoot out of people posting links to articles and studies that back up what they are saying.  In the middle someone posted an article (1) that dissected a study (2) which pitted the following camps against each other:

Camp 1. Educating people about pain helps them better understand their pain & therefore reduces their catastrophism about it. Because pain occurs in the mind and not the body, changing the way we think about pain can help us ease it.

Camp 2. Core stability can fix lower backs.

By the way, I’d be really interested to hear about the results of the following little experiment, if you care to indulge me…

  • Which camp are you in before reading the article, the study and this?

  • Are you in the same camp afterwards?

  • It's ok to change sides!

Indeed, I'm not sure there is a side to be had. Both viewpoints are correct in different contexts. It depends where you are starting from. Or if you are a yoga teacher, where your students are starting from. You do not have to teach your students the things that you practice. What is good for you is not always good for them.

Personal Disclosure: From my perspective, it seems like Peter Blackaby & Lorimar Moseley are in camp 1. And if you know me at all, you know I love both their work. And yet I'm not sure I'm 100% in camp 1. And I'm not sure PB or LM are either, 100%.

Another work I love is Eyal Lederman's 'myth of core stability' (3).  This is sometimes cited by people in camp 1 seemingly as ammunition, or defence against people in camp 2. 

Not that I'm sure there's anything in either camp that needs defending. Nor am I sure that the sending ammunition or defence is particularly antagonistic. Again, I think there's a lot of good showmanship happening on both sides of the debate.  And although this is rather entertaining, sometimes individuals can get caught in the cross fire by one of these ideological bullets.

GETTING CAUGHT BY THE IDEOLOGY OF CORE STABILITY

When I was attached to the idea of core stability being the saviour of my low back issues, I found that it did help my back up to a point, because believing in the myth of core stability have me a map of my body that was slightly different to my previous map so it helped me to do something different to what I previously did. And in doing that different thing, the relationship between the different parts of my body changed and that shift took some pressure off my low back. 

But then I got to the point where my back was ok but I was still doing the core stability stuff. That didn't take too long to be honest. But the core stability myth was not only helping me it was helping my students so i persisted with it for longer than i perhaps should have in my personal practice. And that led to some pelvic floor & breath dysfunction. I even had a few panic attacks. And at one point doctors couldn't remove a speculum I was holding onto it so tightly with my over toned pelvic floor. It's ok, it's not still up there, they eventually got it out. Surprising how many doctors it takes to remove a stuck speculum. I'm not sure that helped!

GETTING CAUGHT BY THE IDEOLOGY THAT CORE STABILITY IS A MYTH

But then I went to the other extreme of believing camp 1 & vilifying the idea of core stability. Not good either! Vilification is just another form of attachment. Back pain that I hadn't experienced in over 20 years returned. And I started to get pain in the inside of my left knee. Something I'd never experienced before.

THE BEE’S KNEES

Of course I was blaming lotus & yoga for my knee thing. And it's tempting to blame yoga & lotus because there is so much dysfunctional movement in yoga & lotus is part of that. But something also told me that there was something that I could do about this rather than just give up on yoga completely. 

That something was a long term love of yoga as a form of self enquiry. So I simplified my practice so that I could better observe it's effects, and I set about looking for correlations between my knee pain and lotus. There was none. Ok, I know that's doesn't mean there's not a long term causation here. But it does mean that in the short term my knee is not affected by lotus. So is there anything else that does affects it in the short term? 

Yes, turns out that stillness affects my knee. And not just stillness in lotus. Stillness in any position affects my knee adversely. Is there anything that is short term beneficial for my knee? Yes, hyperextension! What? Yes, hyperextension! 

Maybe I had been too afraid of taking my knee through its full range of movement? 

But I don't want to practice hyperextension in a haphazard way that lets me collapse into my knee joint. So as I explored ways of hyperextending safely, I found myself doing some of the same practices that I did when I was stuck on core stability previously. And some practices that I did when I was stuck in alignment previously (although that's a different can of worms to open). 

In this way core stability has helped my knee joint. Something I had supscted, but which was highlighted to me by a 2017 study (4) shared by Dr Long during the aforementioned link shoot out. Thanks Dr Long! My knee is not totally there yet. But it's so much better than it was. It doesn't seize up so much at all, unless I've been sat in the same position in a camper van for a 16 hour drive back from France. Or if a cat falls asleep on my knee whilst looking particularly cute so I don't want to disturb them. Ideological domination can come in many forms, even feline; even of our own.

NOT GETTING CAUGHT IN THE IDEOLOGICAL CROSSFIRE

From my experience, I concur with Lederman that it is a myth that core stability is a cure all. I'm not even sure it's a useful concept as a preventative measure for anything. However, I'm not sure it's a concept that requires vilifying. Although I appreciate that in order to loosen one's attachment to anything, a little critical thought is a good thing. 

And someone needs to set that ball rolling, whether it be Lederman with core stability, Long with his defence of core stability or Kaminoff with his recent stance against 'diaphragmatic breathing'. Or with his assertion to me in person at a workshop of his in Barcelona a few years back that my knee would one day regret lotus, despite my assertion to him that I would be ok because I’d been doing lotus every day since I was a child and could get into it without having to pick up that second leg at all.  

My knee did regret lotus for a while.  But after some experimenting I realised that the correlation in my mind of Kaminoff’s previous assertion about my potential future pain with my actual past knee pain, does not mean that causation of my knee pain was lotus and that Mr Kaminoff is capable of imprinting feelings into my body, or telling the future, or of any other siddhi.  It just means that when looking for meaning or cure, sometimes we make leaps of judgement.  At these times, when we are in physical or emotional pain, we can become more suggestible than we might normally be.  We get caught in the ideological crossfire.  You’ve seen the videos of auto suggestive healing. You know how placebo works.  Do you know there’s such a thing as nocebo also, that works the opposite way?  

So, we need to be careful not to lose our own critical faculty in all this especially when we need it most, which is unfortunately always when it fails us most. My longest term teacher, Godfrey Devereux often says that ‘our need to know gets in the way of our ability to know’.  Similarly; our need to think logically, always gets in the way of our ability to think logically. This is when the meditative aspects of yoga come in handy.  But not if you interpret meditation as something during which you need to make your mind quiet.  That need to quieten the mind will just get in the way of your ability to allow the mind to calm so that you can loosen the last attachments to any dominating ideologies that you might have picked up and without their placebic nor nocebic influences, relax deeply into your ability to perceive what is actually happening at that particular moment in time in, and as the totality of your bodimind. 

Yes, some people are very good at constructing convincing critical arguments, and they need to be. But so do we all! Sometimes we need to get on our own soapbox and stand up for what we believe in too.  Devil’s advocacy taken too far can descend into a form of equivocation that means we end up spreading confusion rather than being open about our own stance which actually helps others contextualise us, use their own discernment and come up with their own stance too.  

By all means try on some of the arguments from any ideological shoot out and test them out in your own body. But please don't take them on completely or vilify them completely. 

HEALER, KNOW THYSELF

And while I’m on the soapbox; be aware of your own personal bias.  Well, as aware of it as you can.  Especially the embarrassing bits of it that you don’t like.  Because ideas that align with your personal bias will have more gravity for you, whether you are aware of it or not, those ideological arrows are more likely to have your name written all over them.

Take me as an example.  My personal preference in terms of asana, nay, life, is to use the minimum necessary muscular or mental effort to do stuff. Another concept from the Sutras, via Godfrey Devereux, that I have found helpful.  Sometimes I get that wrong and do too little muscular effort. Sometimes I do too much. Sometimes I get it wrong and do too little mental effort. Sometimes I do too much. But more often than not I forget the word necessary. because I have an embarrassing tendency to be very lazy.  I’m sat in bed writing this now.  And with my hyper mobile joints, I really should not forget the word necessary. 

But for anyone, there is always going to be some effort required to do anything. And sometimes the effort required to do what seems to be less than is required, is actually more effort than the effort that was required to just do the thing that needs doing in the first place. 

And that is the line that we all walk between camps 1 & 2; in every single muscle in the body; for the support of every single joint in the body; for the support of every breath we take. Every move we make. I'll be watching, and enjoying, me! 

by Debbie Farrar 

  • BSc (hons)

  • PGCE

  • BWY Yoga Teacher

  • IYN Yoga Elder

  • Feel Now Yoga Director

  • Sensible Yoga Teacher Training Director

  • Has been to India a fair bit. Not sure how long she spent there in total. Maybe a year or 18 months? Obviously not as long as Dr Long or Mr Kaminoff. But then time operates differently in India…

  • Once got given a Sanskrit name that she no longer uses.

  • About to start teaching anatomy on a teacher training course in an Ashram.

(Just in case you were wondering about my qualifications)


Bibliography

1. Core Stabilization Versus Education for Low Back Pain. Hargrove T. Better Movement Blog. 2012. 

https://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2012/core-stabilization-versus-education-for-low-back-pain

2. BRIEF PSYCHOSOCIAL EDUCATION, NOT CORE STABILIZATION, REDUCED INCIDENCE OF LOW BACK PAIN IN THE MILITARY. George SZ et al. BMC Medical (2011)

https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-9-128

3. THE MYTH OF CORE STABILITY. Lederman E. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies. 2008.

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Eyal_Lederman/publication/40684089_The_Myth_of_Core_Stability/links/5c3b70d8299bf12be3c52333/The-Myth-of-Core-Stability.pdf 

4. POSTURAL STABILITY AND KINETIC CHANGE IN SUBJECTS WITH PATELLOFEMORAL PAIN AFTER A NINE-WEEK HIP AND CORE STRENGTHENING INTERVENTION. Carry PM, et al. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2017.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28593085/?fbclid=IwAR13SpkylGLSmN9TJwSbliVFH41lp7rMUyHVodoQ1ApCnQeqj5j_KNtb9jg


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