Paul Grilley is a yoga instructor in Ashland, Oregon, and the author Yin Yoga, Outline of a Quiet Practice. In addition to his book, he’s produced three DVDs: “Chakra Theory and Meditation,” “Yin Yoga” and “Anatomy for Yoga.”
Grilley has practiced and studied yoga for more than 25 years and specializes in human anatomy — of both the physical form (muscles, bones, ligaments) as well as the energetic self (meridians, chi/prana). It is where these two systems of the body overlap, in the connective tissue, that is the focus of Yin Yoga, or what Grilley calls Taoist Yoga. (See last week’s article for a description of yin and yang.)
NewWest: What is Yin Yoga?
Paul Grilley: Yin Yoga is a series of long, slow postures designed to stretch the connective tissue* of the body. (See Sidebar)
[*Author’s Note: Connective tissue is the tough, fibrous network of tissue that lies beneath our muscles and connects all the major systems of our bodies. Unlike muscle tissue, which is considered yang, connective tissue is considered yin because it is deeper in the body and responds to constant, slow pressure rather than quick, rhythmic movement.]
NW: Did you come up with this sequence?
PG: It is not a set sequence. All the poses are old and the same postures that you do in other forms of yoga. I learned Yin Yoga from my teacher Paulie Zink, who was calling it Taoist Yoga. Then Sarah Powers started calling it Yin Yoga. Yin Yoga is not new, though. It is very old. Yoga in any book from before 1975 was done in a yin style, they just didn’t call it that. You’d do a long forward bend followed by another long, slow posture. There were some yang postures, of course, and Sun Salutations are very old and yang, but mostly [traditional] asana practice was yin.
What’s new is the emphasis on yang, at least in America. From a Taoist perspective, this is neither good nor bad, though. They just need to be balanced. In Taoism everything is a mix of yin and yang.
NW: What is Taoism and how does it relate to yoga?
PG: Taoism is not so much a philosophy as a perspective. You can look at anything from a Taoist perspective. Taoist Yoga is not trying to be a different kind of yoga, but rather an explanation of the yoga you are already doing. As a Taoist, I can look at any form of yoga and describe it in terms of yin and yang. Some teach a bio-mechanical yoga, some an emotional yoga, some a static yoga, and others a flowing vinyasa yoga. Taoist terms allow us to describe and include them all. There is no need to compete or to compare as to which is the best
Taoism wants you to embrace the idea that opposites are necessary. Are you inhaling or exhaling? When it comes to the body, are you trying to exercise joints or muscles? The harder you work muscles [yang], the more careful you should be with joints [yin]. The more you focus on joints, the less you should work muscles.
In a Taoist approach you need to do vinyasa [flow] as well as floor postures where you relax. In Taoist Yoga you realize that you cannot do yin and yang at the same time, yet both are essential to your health. Either you are exercising [yang] or resting [yin]. You are not resting and exercising at the same time.
NW: You mention the meridian theory in your book Yin Yoga. As I understand it, it says that the Chinese system of meridians — the pathways of life force or chi — corresponds to the connective tissue of our bodies. How does that relate to the physical practice of Yin Yoga?
PG: When you are thinking of the meridian theory, you should think of it in two ways. First there is the yin, which is the physical meridian, the actual structure. Then there is the yang, the chi or prana that moves through the meridians.
The analogy would be an irrigation ditch. The physical ditch is a certain width and depth like a meridian. This is yin. The water that moves through the ditch is like the energy, which is yang. So when you say that you are stimulating the meridians, do you mean that you are increasing the water flow [yang] or the health of the meridians [yin] themselves?
Yin is concerned with the actual physical structure and health of the tissue. In Yin Yoga, somewhat paradoxically, the chi temporarily stagnates and leaves you feeling a bit stagnate. That’s normal. But in the long run, it improves the health of the tissue. And then later in your life or that day or week, when you move around or are doing other forms of yoga, you move the chi through the meridians. In the short term, yang practices move the blood and energy and make you feel great, but in the long term they can tear tissue [and comprise health].
Saying that yin is better or yang is better is the wrong approach. Try to see how one complements the other. This is Taoist Yoga, but you can call it whatever you want. Using the terms yin and yang is a good way to communicate how to be inclusive with seemingly opposites … When adapting a Taoist approach, you can always conjure in your mind the opposite situation.
NW: What are the yang aspects to a Yin Yoga practice?
PG: There is no such thing as a yin practice without yang. Rather, it is a question of emphasis. We call something yin relative to something else. There is no absolute yin or absolute yang. Consider the effort you make when you do a yin practice: you shouldn’t make too much effort. But if I took this to the extreme, your yin practice would be sleeping on your back on your mat. You need to use effort to stay in a pose — not falling to the right or left — and that is yang.
In other poses you are told to squeeze and push your muscles, but once you reach a certain point, you relax into it. That’s yin. Once again, yin and yang are relative.
NW: What does your Yin Yoga practice look like?
PG: I choose whatever is right for me at the time. It is pretty similar day to day because my needs are consistent. For instance, I focus on stretching my thighs because that’s what I know to be tight … But I usually do a little bit of everything, I just hold certain poses longer and do them more often.
NW: That is the nice thing about Yin Yoga, is that you can really develop your own practice depending upon how you feel that day. Which is why I like to do it on my own — so that I can really listen to how I am feeling rather than being told to do a certain posture.
PG: I think that is true. The more yang your practice, the more dependant you are on others. The harder you work, the more support you need. The yin practice is the opposite. You become an independent practitioner. It is a more isolating, quiet, contemplative practice. Yang is more socially integrating and group-orientated. Again, that is the nature of yin and yang. You don’t want to say one is superior, but each individual needs a different approach at different times in their lives.
A Yin Yoga Practice
NW: Generally speaking, what kind of student is drawn to Yin Yoga?
PG: Typically, they are older or have at least three to five years of yoga experience. When you are young your body is not as tight or stiff so you don’t need a yin practice as much. When you are older you need to slow down and heal your body. Or if you practice an intense sequence like Ashtanga Yoga for a while, you start to feel beat up and sore. And at some pint you ask yourself, is this the only way? And then you hear about yin yoga and it sounds like the opposite of what you are doing — it sounds like something you may need.
NW: In my experience, though Yin Yoga is gentle and restorative, it is very intense. I don’t think we are used to being so intimate with ourselves and that can be overwhelming.
PG: That is an excellent example of yin and yang. Physically, the practice is slow and yin. Emotionally, it can be very powerful. There is always a yin and a yang and these discriminations can go on forever.
NW: Is there a certain personality or body type that Yin Yoga is especially good for?
PG: It isn’t body type so much as what a person needs. It is a question of the yin and yang balance. If you did a three hour practice one day, then you just need a little bit the next. As the Taoists say: The bigger the storm, the longer it lasts. And this changes with the season. In the summer you want to be outside and moving. In the winter you want to hole up by the fires and lie on the floor. It is about the natural rhythms … Winter is yin. Summer is yang.
Athleticism needs to be complemented with down time, but because we use artificial lights and heat, we feel we need to be yang all the time. And that leads to a breakdown. There is a time that you stop and ask yourself: “What am I chasing?” If there is no yin time—to time to stop and reflect—there will be no answers.
NW: How can someone without access to a Yin Yoga class try it out?
PG: There are several ways. I have a book and DVD on Yin Yoga. Sarah Powers has a DVD. There was a book published recently by Bernie Clark on Yin Yoga — it is a wonderful book. There are flashcards and a Yin Yoga Kit put together by Biff Mithoefer. These are the modern resources. I would also reiterate that if someone decides to try Yin Yoga and doesn’t have access to a class, they should go out and buy an old yoga book. And if you do the postures in the book, you will be doing Yin Yoga.
For more information about Yin Yoga and Paul Grilley, visit Grilley’s website. All of his products are available there, as well as information on upcoming workshops and seminars.
You can also listen to Yoga Peep’s online interview with Grilley last February at YogaPeeps.com (Episode 34).
Brooke Hewes updates her Yoga On & Off the Mat blog each Friday. Check back in at www.newwest.net/yoga.