Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Gary Kraftsow. Gary has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation for over 30 years. Gary graduated with a BA, Magna Cum Laude, from Colgate University in 1976 and received his Master’s degree in psychology and religion from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1983. At this time, he opened the Maui School of Yoga Therapy. Since then, he has become a renowned speaker and teacher of the viniyoga methodology at many conferences and schools nationally and internationally.
He is the author of the book Yoga for Wellness and with Sounds True he now has available four different DVDs: a DVD on Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Sacrum, and Hips; Viniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck and Shoulders; Viniyoga Therapy for Anxiety; and Viniyoga Therapy for Depression.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Gary and I spoke about a breath-centric approach of viniyoga. We also talked about the field of yoga therapy and various protocols Gary has developed in the field of yoga therapy and the statistically significant results of some of these studies. We also talked about the true purpose of yoga and Gary’s vision for how this purpose can become a focus for how yoga is practiced in our contemporary world.
Here’s my conversation with Gary Kraftsow:
Gary, to begin with, I’m curious if you can introduce me a bit to viniyoga. It’s a type of yoga I’ve never heard of before. What is viniyoga?
Gary Kraftsow: Well, viniyoga—let me contextualize it. A lot of the names of traditions of yoga—modern yoga traditions—are from the name of an individual, like Mr. Iyengar—Iyengar yoga—or a name like ashtanga yoga, which is actually being used as a brand name to describe the teachings of a particular teacher. Back in the 1970s, some of us who were students of Krishnamacharya and his son Desikachar were trying to figure out, as the Iyengar world was growing, how we would identify the yoga that we do.
We asked Krishnamacharya—who was Mr. Iyengar’s teacher and also the teacher of Pattabhi Jois of ashtanga yoga—how we could identify the work that we do that’s distinct from just the generic word “yoga.” He recommended viniyoga. Viniyoga is a term that is in Patanjali’s yoga sutras and used in Hindu culture and Hindu religion. It was a term that described the procedures for ritual activities. It’s also used in Ayurveda as a term to describe how to select the appropriate remedy for an individual condition, respecting an individual’s constitution and the nature of their problem or their condition. So, viniyoga is appropriate application.
In the ninth century, Krishnamacharya’s ancestor, named Nathamuni, wrote a text called Yogarahasia, in which he also used the word “viniyoga” to describe how to appropriately adapt yoga techniques and apply them to the unique needs of the individual. So, there’s a lot of historical antecedents of the word “viniyoga,” meaning sort of to differentiate the context that you’re working in to adapt the tools appropriately and then to apply them in a correct and relevant way.
That name was given in the early 1970s to some of us students of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar to identify our work and also because the methodology of the way we teach is that we adapt—it’s not about teaching, for example, the ideavasana. We’re not really teaching postures; we’re teaching people. We’re not contorting their bodies to achieve the postures; we’re adapting the postures to suit the needs of their body.
Viniyoga is really a brand name, but it is also descriptive of our methodology in practice.
TS: That’s interesting to me, this idea that the individual has to apply or adapt whatever it is that you’re teaching. How does that work when you make and publish videos, or you teach a class of 50 people and can’t exactly tailor it to each person in the room or who’s watching a video?
GK: No, of course not. It’s a very common question. The idea of viniyoga is that you adapt to the tools that you’re using to fit the context in which you’re using them. So, if I’m teaching a private session with someone, it’s obvious how to adapt—I have to assess what is going on in that individual, what their needs are, and what their interests are. Then I can adapt appropriately the tools of practice to help them achieve what they want to achieve.
But, if I’m teaching a group class, then I don’t think of that group as the individual and I’m teaching a group class, maybe in the morning, is different than if it’s in the evening. If it’s a class of people with back pain, high blood pressure, or anxiety, then that’s the individuality of the class. It’s not just about individuals, it’s about the unique context in which you’re teaching.
TS: Help me understand, as someone brand new to viniyoga, what’s unique, special—the most important attributes of this style of yoga?
GK: One thing that I already said is that when we teach yoga, it’s not about the practices, whether we’re talking about asana, pranayama, chanting, meditation, or ritual. It’s not about the practices or the methods. It’s about the individual or group that we’re working with. We adapt all of the tools of practice to suit the needs of that individual or that group.
There are some things that we can say that are distinctly different about viniyoga in, for example, asana practice, besides that we don’t just teach postures—but the way we do the postures is quite different. The emphasis in our approach is what I would call “breath-centric” rather than “form-centric.” Our focus is on the relationship—the inner asana practice—between the flow of breath and the movement of the spine.
Our job is not to teach students to do the postures correctly, but to empower them to use the postures as tools to help them understand their own bodies and the needs of their bodies and to affect change in their bodies. It’s not about mastering the form of postures. It’s about using movement to affect functional change in their bodies.
There [are] other things about the way we practice—how we teach the ways in which you can regulate the flow of the breath. There are different ways of adapting the breathing—not only adapting the breathing, but as I said before, the forms of the postures to produce different effects. The art of combination—how we sequence postures in different ways to produce very specific effects.
Beyond those kinds of ideas relative to asana, viniyoga is not unique, but one of the traditions that emphasizes pranayama—breath adaptation in asana to prepare for pranayama. Ritual, mantra, and meditation. So it’s an integrated approach to practice that uses asana, pranayama, chanting, mantra, and meditation.
Another thing in viniyoga that we—this is actually a living tradition of yoga therapy. This is not a made up—like a lot of yoga therapy in the West today is Western health care providers who love asana and say, “Well, there are therapists, therefore I love yoga so I can be a yoga therapists.” Or, “I’m a yoga teacher and yoga is therapeutic, therefore, I’m a yoga therapist.”
But actually, in the ancient tradition of yoga, with its own unique texts, practices, and methodology—and this viniyoga lineage is an authentic lineage of yoga therapy. A lot of the work we’ve been taught is the tradition of therapeutic application.
TS: You’ve said several things that are really curious to me. Let’s start with the idea that it’s a breath-centric—this is the phrase you used—approach. Is there a breathing technique or an approach to working with the breath that is the central beginning point—how you work with the breath and the postures?
GK: In fact, in the yoga world, there’s sometimes some dogma about, “This is the right way to breath,” or, “This is the classic yogic way of breathing.” Often that’s actually just a misunderstanding. What we’re taught is that there are many different ways of regulating the flow of the breath—what I call the directional flow of the breath. The common example is: do you inhale from othe chest to the belly or do you inhale from the belly to the chest?
Certain traditions will say the classic yoga breath is belly to chest or the right way of breathing is chest or belly. Actually, what we’re taught is that every different way of regulating the flow of breath has a different effect. Our job is to understand the different effects of the different ways in which you can regulate the flow of breath and then choose the way of controlling the breath that’s going to be most relevant to the intention of the practice or the needs of the individual that you’re working with.
Rather than saying there’s one beginning step, there’s a way of understanding that breath is the medium for movement and asana. A different way of thinking about breath for pranayama—certainly a different way of thinking about breath when you’re doing chanting or mantra and meditation.
Then, having said that, somebody that has high blood pressure would work with the breath differently than someone that has pathologically low blood pressure. Or somebody that has inflammatory disease would work differently than somebody who has emphysema. There’s both the methods themselves—different ways of breathing produce different effects—and then with individual therapeutic needs, we adapt the breath differently.
TS: It’s good. It’s helpful. It makes sense to me, especially as you’re talking about people [with] different health conditions—low blood pressure, high blood pressure, or whatever. I’m curious still, if someone is listening to this and they’re a yoga practitioner and they’re thinking, “OK, there’s not one way to breathe, but is there a viniyoga instruction that would help me understand a couple of the key different ways of breathing that I can incorporate right away?”
GK: Yes. Of course, part of the way I’m trained—part of my dharma and my—this is almost a joke—my mission impossible—is to continue the work of educating people in the West that yoga is not asana—that asana is just a small part of yoga. When you say someone listening to this who is a yoga practitioner, most likely that means they are practicing asana.
What I would say is that when there is not a contraindication—in other words, high blood pressure or cervical disc problems or glaucoma or something like that. [When you’re] really using the asana practice to have functional benefit on the spine, then the way that we control the exhale is from contracting the abdominal muscles below the navel. And that level of control of the exhale will give you control over the pelvic-lumbar relationship and help you stabilize the pelvic-lumbar relationship in asana. The inhale is more focused in extension of the ribcage, which promotes the maximal axial vertical extension of the spine, creating intravascular space.
When there [are] not other contraindications, we usually use control the breathing in asana practice in such a way that we get maximum benefit on the spine. Therefore, in most asanas, the expansion of the chest and the vertical extension of the spine is the primary focus of inhalation. The contraction of the belly to create the stability in the pelvic-lumbar relationship is the primary way we would control the breath on exhalation.
But with certain postures, we would modify that. Then, if you’re practicing not for anatomical effect, but more for energetic effect—if you’re trying to relax your nervous system or sedate parasympathetic agitation in the late afternoon or because you want to sleep, then we wouldn’t emphasize chest inhale. We would emphasize belly inhale. It goes on and on like that with detailed principles for adapting the breath in different ways.
TS: That’s helpful. You also mentioned, in talking about the unique contribution of viniyoga, this idea of yoga therapy as an ancient tradition, not necessarily a tradition that’s just come about in the last couple of decades with yoga teachers offering private sessions. Tell me a little bit about yoga therapy. What is that as an ancient tradition?
GK: First of all—and just to qualify something you said—yoga therapy is certainly not a unique contribution of viniyoga, but it’s a particular focus. Any other ones of the few traditions—not the only one, of course—that has antecedents in an authetic ancient transmission of the yoga therapy idea.
Yoga therapy—ancient yoga—is really about—and you can describe it variously—self-realization or God-realization. The source teachings in yoga, of course, [are] the master. All of the tools of yoga are designed to master the mind, to help bring your unconscious patterns into your conscious awareness so you can become freed of them, and then realize a meaning and purpose in life and actualize your potential as a human being. That’s the traditional, ancient yoga.
Long ago, the Charaka Samhita appeared, which is the first text of Ayurveda. It is considered one of the great source texts on yoga therapy as well. There has been—for a couple of thousand years—an application of yoga therapy that is a kind of amalgam of yogic teachings and Ayurveda and Jyotish, which is vedic astrology. From ancient times, the great masters would be yoga masters and Jyotish masters—that is, great yogic astrologers—and Ayurvedic physicians. It’s very common that a great yoga master was also a great yoga therapist.
This has been going on for several thousand years. In that time, there have been many texts and practices that were evolved that were specializing in the therapeutic application of yoga techniques that were used in combination or in conjunction with various forms of Ayurvedic medicine—cleansing exercise, nourishing herbs, purification processes, et cetera.
TS: When you use a word like “therapy”—“yoga therapy”—you’re talking about when somebody has a set of symptoms or they’re working with some physical challenges and that they need some specific remedial yoga. Is that what you mean by yoga therapy?
GK: Yes. The word in Sanskrit is chikitsa—yoga chikitsa. As I said, it’s not a modern thing. It’s an old idea. Yoga chikitsa is a method of helping reduce symptoms from health conditions or eliminate them, where possible, to eliminate pain—or if you can’t eliminate it, to reduce it, to manage it [in order to] shift one’s perspective about it. This is true about all kinds of symptoms of disease.
The therapy is designed—therapeutic tradition implies that someone has a combination of problems. It could be structural problems—combination pains or disc problems—or it could be chronic disease processes, which manifest in symptoms like pain, sleeplessness, and digestive distress—physiological conditions. And then, mental health as maybe classically the proper field of yoga therapy, which is fundamentally about the mind. So, you can see the spectrum of anxiety and depression as an example.
People that have combinations of them—my typical student I have will have some kind of a back problem or a neck problem. They’ll have some digestive issues or some cardiovascular issues. They may have cancer. Then they may have some kind of emotional depression, anxiety, or psycho-social isolation. [Maybe] they’re going through some grief. This is an example. You have a complex manifestation of a lot of different symptoms.
Yoga therapy is the science and art of how to understand who the human being is, what the symptoms they are manifesting are, how can we help the human being realize who they truly are, help them reduce the suffering from their symptoms, eliminate what’s possible. As I said, reduce what we can reduce, and shift our perspective on themselves in relation to their condition.
I don’t know if that explains it to you, but that’s sort of what I would describe.
TS: It’s helpful, I think. A further question that I think might help eliminate this for me is that I was reading online that you’ve developed protocols for two different National Institute of Health studies. One of them is “Yoga Therapy for Generalized Anxiety.”
GK: Yes, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, GAD is the technical [term].
TS: How can yoga therapy help us with Generalized Anxiety Disorder? What specific aspects of yoga would you apply in that situation?
GK: These are not simple questions. But, I can try and help you understand the yoga perspective on this. If you think about a human being—a human being is a multidimensional being. We have the idea of anatomy, physiology, psychology, and Western science. In Vedic India, the ancient model coming from the Taittiriya Upanishad that is pretty well-known in the yoga community—mostly it’s known as the “Five Kosha” model. The text calls them the pancha maya—the five dimensions of a human being.
The idea is that they recognized we were multidimensional. If you have, say, a condition like anxiety, anxiety will have a physiological response. It will have a cognitive response. It will have a emotional or feeling response. And it will have a behavioral response. A person who is suffering from a mental symptom like anxiety, it’s really a multidimensional thing. Your anxiety will cause a sympathetic activation—worry, obsessive thinking, it could be anxiousness, feeling of overwhelm. It could be compulsive or excessive behavior. What I’ve looked at is that there’s physiological response. By the way, that physiological response that activation can create—that chronic sympathetic activation can create not only digestive distress, but also neck tension.
A symptom like anxiety is a complex thing that can affect the physical structure, the sympathetic-parasympathetic regulation in the autonomic nervous system and create cognitive distortion and thought issues and emotional or feeling problems and then behavioral problems.
The way that yoga therapy works is that we’ll use certain kinds of movements to release neck and shoulder tension, certain kinds of breath adaptation to calm or sedate sympathetic over-activation, certain systems of meditation to begin to change the cognitive self-inquiry to change cognitive distortions—maybe chanting or mantra to shift the mood symptoms, the feeling symptoms. Then, some kind of regular practice, whether it be on the mat or off the mat, to help shift behavior.
So, it’s not a simple answer, because human beings are complex. Any kind of a symptom, whether anxiety, depression, or emphysema or cancer, we have to work with the human being at a multidimensional level. We apply multiple tools to help that individual work with their condition.
TS: I appreciate the nuances of how you’re answering these questions, so don’t shy away from that, Gary. It’s quite welcome. I’m appreciative. I think people can care about what you’re saying. It makes sense that we can’t just throw one simple system—one simple approach—to something as complicated as a generalized anxiety. So, thank you.
Now, you developed a protocol for the National Institute of Health studies related to yoga therapy for generalized anxiety. Can you tell us a little bit about the protocol, what’s being discovered, and what this the results might be?
GK: In that particular study, there was a funding problem. We got to the point where we were advertising for—you know how studies work. You get the grant and then you develop the protocol, which is the intervention. My job was to develop the intervention and train the faculty who would teach it. The next step is that they advertise for test clients to come and in that particular study was never completed, because of funding issues.
But, I got to the point where we developed the intervention and I trained a therapist—two of them actually—hat were going to apply it. We had done that with a back pain study. We did that with a stress-reduction study with Aetna. The generalized anxiety was never activated just because of funding issues, which may be more information than you’re asking for. The principal researcher also got transferred to a different location. So, that one never went through to completion.
TS: Have you had a study that’s gone through to completion?
GK: Yes, the back pain study went through to completion. It was written up in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2005. The stress-reduction one was completed two years ago with Aetna insurance company.
TS: I’d love to know about those, just because I’m curious as to how you structured the study and what the results are.
GK: We also did a study on lung cancer with the University of Michigan. So, there are several that have gone through.
Basically, the system for doing these kinds of research is to create uniquely for the yoga groups or the yoga therapy groups. There’s a kind of system of doing research on these kinds of interventions. They begin with a pilot study, where you have one or two or three groups of about 20 to 30 people who you meet once a week for 12 weeks. Is that what you’re asking me about?
GK: OK, so we meet—in most of these studies, there [were] one, two, or three groups. In the Aetna study, we actually had four groups. There was about 80 people all together that we worked with in two different regions—one on the east coast and one on the west coast. The back pain study was only in one region, but there were three different groups.
We meet these people—I developed a protocol that was 12 weeks long. The way I developed in all of them was that there were basically six programs. We taught a program. The first week and the second week, it was just refined and modified. Then, on the third week, we would add or just change it slightly. Then on the fourth week, we would refine it. Every second week, we would add something new so that there was never too much learned by the students in any one session, but there was an ongoing refinement of what was done.
The classes are one hour long. That’s another thing. A typical yoga class is an hour and a half, but with these studies—and ideally in the yoga environment or yoga therapeutic environment, someone’s doing something everyday for themselves. If they’re meeting a teacher or a therapist in a class, they’re meeting them twice or three times a week, depending on how severe the problem is. But for these studies, they only want to do it once a week for one hour. We tend to follow that.
There were exclusions. If you’re doing a study on stress or back pain, [we had to] eliminate certain kinds of conditions, like discs, although it doesn’t mean the protocol wouldn’t have been effective. They want to eliminate—as much as possible—things that are so particular that it may influence the end results of the study. So, there’s all kinds of exclusions that they work out. People are interviewed and they come into the program. Then, they go through the program and there’s different kinds of both objective and subjective measures that they use at the end to crunch the data and come up with the results. The results that we’re looking for [are] what they call “statistically significant results.”
TS: So, tell me, what was statistically significant? What were the statistically significant results?
GK: The statistically significant results would be phrased in their language, and I’m not a researcher. My job was to—people on the AVI—American Viniyoga Institute—team are research people. My job was designing the yoga and training the therapists to apply it. They would say stuff like “a significant reduction in back pain,” “improved function,” “less absenteeism from work.” Sleeping better, feeling better, less neck problems. That kind of thing.
In the stress-reduction program, they used a technology to measure cardiovascular respitory coherence—which surprised them how powerful—that we could have objective measurements that really demonstrated that this stuff really works. Then, some of them are subjective. They have these forms that they fill out that are subjective reporting about how they feel.
TS: I think, Gary, part of the reason that I’m interested in these studies and pressing on this point is [that] we’ve seen now how the world of mindfulness has changed so much now that there are ways to measure the impacts on the brain of what mindfulness practice does. It seems like we’re right at the beginning of being able to measure statistically significant results from yoga practice and how this might change the field of yoga. I’m curious to know your thoughts about that.
GK: I actually have quite a few things to say about this—and, again, I don’t know that the context of this response will make sense to you or your audience. But, one of the things that—there’s some problems and some benefits in our work. The problem is, of course, that most researchers haven’t differentiated between yoga and yoga therapy. So, a lot of the research has been generalized yoga programs applied to all different kinds of conditions. Rather than like with yoga therapy—the viniyoga therapy in particular—and not just in yoga, but real viniyoga therapy—someone who’s really trained in the tradition of yoga therapy is able to do is make condition-specific intervention.
Our studies have all been condition specific interventions and all of our results have been statistically significant in every program that we’ve studied.
Whereas some of the generalized yoga program research that’s been done on different conditions has been effective and some has not been. But, most of it has not been condition-specific interventions, just sort of generalized yoga. Mostly that means generalized exercise—asana practice. In our interventions, there was a lot of breathwork and even meditation. That’s something that we’re a little behind in.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs, have gotten [many] more research dollars and they’ve done a lot more work than we have in the yoga world. It’s interesting for me also to know that when we did the Aetna study, we worked against MBSR and we beat them in every metric but one—because our work is breath-centric and that has a much more profound impact on the autonomic nervous system and those objective measures to cardiovascular respiratory coherence. For example, we’re really signifcant—really showed the power of this work.
I think the implication for research going forward is that we need to train—and we were just at a conference in Boston with Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, who’s a research doctor at Harvard who is into the yoga research as well. We’re slowly educating the researchers on the distinction between yoga and yoga therapy and getting them more excited about doing actual yoga therapy research—condition-specific interventions adapted to the unique needs of that particular condition.
We expect, as a result of that, to have much more significant results. And the work with Aetna was really the first step in that, because the medical doctors at Aetna were very much already involved and believers in MBSR and they were skeptical about the yoga. But the CEO of Aetna is a big proponent of yoga and yoga therapy, so he pushed the doctors to do this study with us and the doctors were pretty much blown away when they saw how significant our results were.
TS: That’s all very helpful and it’s very interesting to me, actually. I’m curious to know if there are specific conditions that you think yoga therapy is particularly well-suited to address—like this is the bullseye of yoga therapy.
GK: Yes. That’s a great question. We do a lot of good work. In December 2005, there was written in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that back pain study, that me and one of my students did with the National Institutes of Health. That was the first big one. Clearly—although for me there’s been a reductionism in the West of yoga to asana and the equivalent a bit of a reductionism of yoga therapy to structural therapies. Having said that, we do a lot of good work with all kinds of structural problems. With disease processes—with physiological conditions—we’re more or less like doctors and more like nurses in the sense that yoga therapy doesn’t treat disease, it treats people who are suffering from illness or disease. Our emphasis is not to cure disease, but to help someone.
For example, when I work with cancer patients—and there’s a lot of good work we do with cancer patients—but it’s not to attack cancer cells. It’s to help them sleep better, help them feel better about themselves, help them function in the world in the face of their condition, help them shift their perspective about themselves. To stimulate their immunity, certainly. Obviously to sleep better, digest better—because they have reactions not only to their disease, but also to their medication. But, we’re not thinking about curing.
We do a lot of good work with people suffering from asthma, from different kinds of cardiac arythymia, high blood pressure. All of it is really helping an individual manage their condition and reframe their perspective about themselves and shift their lifestyle so that they can reduce their symptoms, manage them better, actually have less of them, and support a natural healing process.
The proper field of yoga therapy, which I said before, is mental health. Patanjali, the source of yoga, is fundamentally about transforming the mind. So, I’m not talking about psychiatric conditions like severe cases of psychosis or schizophrenia, but for the normal kind of emotional suffering that healthy human beings—and even people with psychological conditions like anxiety and depression—we do very, very good work. If there’s a deep physiological imbalance, these kinds of clients really should be seeing mental healthcare professionals and maybe getting psycho-pharmacological help. But even in those cases, we’ve seen that if they begin to do self-care and breath practices, their dependancy on psychiatric medication actually is reduced as well.
Really, yoga therapy goes across the full spectrum of human suffering—structural, physiological, and psycho-emotional conditions. It’s not limited to one thing.
TS: You mentioned yoga therapy for back pain, specifically—for chronic low back pain. I’m curious. I’ve heard people describe how much low back pain can be caused by emotional issues—worries, concerns, stress. I’m curious what your view is of that.
GK: There’s a lot of—this is a bit of a tricky business in the New Age community, so a lot of times people buy into the idea that they create all their own problems and that their conditions are the result of their own emotion. So, I’m very careful about that.
I’ve worked with people that are having back pain. When I was young, I had a lot of doctors who wanted to refer patients to me, and I was encouraged to get some kind of a license so that they could refer people to me. I was living in Hawaii and the easiest thing I could at that time was to get a massage license. Then, we would use codes to bill neuromuscular reeducation. One of the things that I noticed is that when people were waiting for settlements, they really didn’t get better until they either got their settlement or they found out that they weren’t going to get the settlement.
Clearly, there’s a mind-body connection. Clearly, some conditions—some back problems—are either sourced in mental or emotional problems or held in place by mental and emotional problems. But, many back problems are the results of dysfunctional moving patterns, accidents, or injuries.
So, yes, there’s a relationship between some structural and even physiological conditions and emotional stress. Clearly, anxiety can be a major causal factor in irritable bowel syndrome. It’s unlikely to be the major causatory factor in inflammatory bowel disease—although mental stress and emotional anxiety can be a factor that reinforces the problems from inflammatory bowel disease.
I guess what I want to say about this is that it’s tricky. You don’t want to project on people that their problems are really in their minds or that their emotions caused their problems. But sometimes, the emotions do cause a problem. Oftentimes, the emotions perpetuate a problem or make a problem worse that had a different cause.
TS: Gary, you’ve said a couple of times that it’s part of your manifesto, if you will, to disabuse people of the notion that yoga is just about asana or postures—that there’s so much more to it. That there’s this specificity in yoga therapy. As you’re talking, I’m seeing what we could say might be a vision for the future of yoga and the way yoga is taught and practiced and the role of a group of people that could be yoga therapy practitioners. I’d like to hear from you, what do you see as—let’s just pretend this is Gary’s manifesto. Gary’s vision of what’s possible for yoga in the West, ideally. What might it be? What might it look like?
GK: What a funny question. I’m really emphasizing differentiating yoga from yoga therapy. Yoga is a spiritual discipline. What’s happening in yoga in the West is yoga has become a kind of form of exercise. Now you have the whole sort of yoga tribal culture with music, good feeling, sangha, and community. It’s taking its own shape today.
I think that the traditional yoga, which is about—it’s not really traditionally about feeling good and having fun. It’s traditionally about awakening and self-realization and breaking identification and attachment in the world and awakening to your true nature. My vision of yoga is that it continues to provide a path for that level of awakening and that yoga therapy is a subset of yoga, but really it’s got a different kind of goals. The yoga therapy goals are more like the goals of Ayurveda or even Western medicine or psychology—that is, helping individuals who are suffering feel better about themselves and work to improve their condition, heal, and get better.
I would like to see a community of yogis and practitioners of yoga going deeper into inner practices and continue that inner journey of transformation. While at the same time, there would be either some of the same people or a different group of people who are interested in the therapeutic application—get trained in yoga therapy, so they can actually help in this health care crisis to empower people to take more control over their own condition and their own health care. I don’t see them as incompatible at all. But, I see them as two very different kinds of ways that yoga can penetrate into the Western society more and more.
TS: That’s clarifying. Thank you.
I was reading in a book of yours, called Yoga for Wellness, this quote. The quote was, “Liberation from the effects of conditioning on all levels is the purpose of yoga.” That was a profound and strong quote. I was wondering if you would comment on it. “Liberation from the effects of conditioning on all levels is the purpose of yoga.”
GK: A lot of the structural problems that people have—even in the yoga classes in the yoga world—in fact, I began making my living from refugees from ashtanga and other traditions. I began my career on Maui in the 70s when ashtanga was beginning there. A lot of what happens when you’re doing any kind of strong physical exercises—if you’re not critically self-conscious of your movement patterns, your exercise will reinforce them. So, a lot of the people that came to me were people that got injured from their practice, because their practice reinforced their dysfunctional patterns.
Being liberated from your dysfunctional movement patterns is called neuromuscular reeducation. Behavioral patterns—the way we eat, the way we act emotionally, the way we were raised as children and our parents related with each other, the way they related with food, the way they related with money, and our childhood trauma. All of [these] dramas they create what we call samskara patterns. Samskara are conditioning and that are—our action comes from our thoughts and our thoughts come from our desires and our desires come from our conditioning. So, it’s our early childhood conditioning—maybe conditioning from past lives if you want—that move us into the world, into action. And our action reinforces our condition.
Becoming liberated from our condition really means becoming critically self-conscious of our patterns—our movement patterns, our thought patterns, our emotional-reactivity patterns, our dietary patterns, our behavioral patterns. As we make them conscious, we become more free of them. Then, we can make choices that are really freed from not just being influenced by our patterns, but conscious free choices that then actually can be the foundation of new and more healthy patterning.
I don’t know if that’s clear. I hope it’s clear.
TS: It is clear to me in terms of a directionality. The process of becoming free of all of that conditioning seems more the question. That’s quite a tall order.
GK: That’s what sadhana is about. That’s what personal practice is about. That’s why, like what I said, it’s not about mastering postures—it’s about exploring movement and discovering what your pattens are so that you can be free of them. It’s about sadhya, which is a Sanskrit word that we use in terms of self-reflection in the context of modern application. To analyze your thoughts, why are you thinking the way you’re thinking? Why are you reacting emotionally? Why are we behaving the way we’re behaving? What do we really want? Why are we attached to these things?
Self-investigation so that we can see. Do I really want this? Do I really need—how do I become free of my desires and attachments? By analyzing. By investigating. How do I become conscious of my patterns? Not just by me acting mechanically, but by stopping and looking at what is underneath the choice to act a certain way, to talk or to react emotionally, or behave a certain way.
This is self-awareness—practice of presence and self-awareness.
TS: What’s your personal sadhana? Sadhana you could define for us. That would be helpful as well. But, what is your personal sadhana practice these days?
GK: I’m in the human body—in the gravitational field in a world where there’s stress. I’m always doing some movement and some pranayama. I’m always attending to the needs of my spine. I’m always attending to the condition and the needs of my nervous system, always moving towards what’s called sympathetic-parasympathetic regulation. I’m very careful or alert to not only the choices I make in my diet, but how it influences my nervous system—measured by how I sleep, how I feel. And I’m doing an ongoing self-reflection and meditation.
If someone were to ask me what are the most powerful parts of personal practice, it’s involved with prana, pranayama practices—breathing practices—and mantra. A mantra is a very powerful tool for transforming the mind. Pranayama and mantra and self-reflective meditation—all of that is supported by ongoing study. I studied Sanskrit for years—decades, actually—and am constantly engaged in some work with some text or other.
TS: You said [there is] one part of your practice—that I found curious—that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else say quite in that way: attending to the needs of my spine. What are the needs of your spine?
GK: I’m 58 years old. I was a gymnast in high school. When I went and I met Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, I was 19 years old. So, we’re talking about almost 40 years ago. I was a gymnast. So for me, I’m not really practicing asana in a traditional sense. I’m using asana to help me keep my spine aligned and to help me build prana shakti—the energy in my system—so that I can live my life and really liberate the energy that I can generate through asana and pranayama to do the hard work of mastering thought and emotion.
I use asana to prepare my breath for pranayama. I use pranayama to prepare my mind for meditation. Asana and pranayama give me the energy to do the inner work of yoga, which is mastering thought and emotion and reactivity. That manifests in my behavior.
I said “attending to my spine,” because when I’m practicing asana, I’m really listening to my spine and my nervous system. Asana and pranayama is really, for me, about the spine and the nervous system and as tools to open me to—I’ll just keep going and say that, for me, the big meditation from asana and meditation is something that we call “the central channel,” or the sushumna. I don’t know if that makes sense to you or your community.
TS: I think I’m following you, yes—the central channel in front of the spine.
GK: For me, I’m attending to that so that I can open that inner space inside of myself. Attending to my spine and my nervous system so that I can come into deep, present awareness and do that inner work, which is through mantra and meditation.
TS: Can you explain the relationship between coming into presence and the opening of the central channel—or what you’re referring to in yoga language as the sushumna?
GK: The awakening of the central channel happens when the mind is still and present. It can happen when the mind is still and present. If you’re distracted, if your mind is busy, it will not happen. In a way, that is like—it’s what we call purvanga. It’s the preparation for opening that space inside—asana and pranayama—and bringing the mind into that state of alert, present mindfulness.
You said, “What is the relationship?” I’d say that it’s the essential preparation.
TS: Gary, I just have one final question for you. Our program is called Insights at the Edge. I’m always curious to know what someone’s personal edge is. What I mean by that is not so much the edge of your work or research, but kind of what you’re working with personally, if you will, that’s your growing edge.
GK: Interesting question. I think it’s this issue of external versus internal orientation. I have some worldly dharma, like sharing yoga. I was a religious studies major, but I received all this yoga therapy and here I am involved with all this research with medical people, National Institutes of Health, unversities, and Aetna. There’s this kind of sense of responsibility that I have to give back what I’ve received in yoga therapy, educate the community, and build the American Viniyoga Institute as a freestanding organization that can do that work independent of me being there present all of the time behind everything. So, there’s that.
Then, there’s my inner orientation. I was a religious studies major when I was a kid. In the 1970s, Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, said to me that I was too young to study religion. He was joking and he said that I should study Western sciences. This was in the mid-‘70s. I said, “Why should I study science?” He told me, “You’re going to be bringing yoga therapy into the context of Western health care.” He told me that in the mid-1970s. It was very prophetic. So, I feel like I have to do that.
My inner orientation is really that I was a student of religion since I was a kid. For me, this inner journey of yoga is what my deepest interest is. So, my edge is dancing between fulfilling my worldly kind of responsibilities—also, I’m a dad, I support a family, I have this organization, I have a lot of students that I’ve trained that now work for the organization, so I have this external responsibility and inner sort of—I’m not a renunciate exactly—but this inner journey . The edge is to try and dance in the world while at the same time not losing that inner orientation. If that makes sense to you.
TS: It’s a beautiful answer. Thank you. I’ve been speaking with Gary Kraftsow. With Sounds True, we now have available four DVDs of Gary’s teaching work: Viniyoga Therapy for the Low Back, Sacrum, and Hips; Viniyoga Therapy for the Upper Back, Neck, and Shoulders; Viniyoga Therapy for Anxiety; and also a program on Viniyoga Therapy for Depression.
Gary, thanks so much for all the good work you’re doing on the inner and external planes. Thank you so much.
GK: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here on your show.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.