Sebastian Pucelle and Muriel Burellier interview Yin yoga teachers Paul and Suzee Grilley on the origins of Yin yoga, teacher training, yogic wisdom, and life in general.
Sebastian Pucelle: Hello Paul and Suzee Grilley! You are both renowned yoga teachers now, and known as the initiators of Yin Yoga. Muriel and I would love to ask you a few questions.
Paul & Suzee Grilley: Please do, we are listening…
Muriel Burellier: Suzee, you have been teaching next to Paul all those years—could you share with us, what are the major changes that you have noticed from your practice and teaching?
Suzee: I have danced and taught dance nearly all my life, so it is natural for me to lead movement. What has evolved over the years of teaching with Paul is my ability to convey concepts using words. I am a dancer who is slowly learning to speak.
Muriel: Very well, you are already very articulate, and also you have a very good projection of your voice. Do you still perform?
Suzee: I study Taiko drumming for artistic nourishment.
Sebastian: So do you carry the big drum around ? [laugh] Do you carry it?
Suzee: Yes, if you are playing it, you have to carry it—from your studio to wherever you are playing it, yes! Lifting that drum is a huge part of the art of Taiko playing.
Sebastian: You roll it?
Suzee : No Sebastian, you do not roll it! [laughter] You have to carry it. I should have stayed with dancing, because you only have to carry your banged-up body around! [laughter]
[Suzee has to leave us, she has an appointment]
Sebastian: Paul, you are distinctly known for your expertise on anatomy, and you are now offering 200- and 500-hour Yin yoga teacher training. So how did those different levels come about and how did you finalize your teachings on chakras and meridians?
Paul: There are two questions you are asking: how did Yin yoga come about and how did the teacher training come about?
Yin Yoga came about because we were teaching (we meaning Suzee and I) yoga at another studio many years ago. Studios like to give different classes different names, so called it Daoist Yoga. This is because I had learned these long stretches from Paulie Zink and he calls his yoga Daoist Yoga, so I thought this name would very clearly alert potential students that what we teach is different.
Sebastian: So you were actually practicing a form of Yin yoga, but called Daoist yoga for 10 years?
Paul: Yes, but when I started to get invitations to travel and teach, the students knew nothing about yin yoga, so I wanted to provide them with a manual to read. When it came time to publish the manual, it did not seem right to call it Daoist Yoga because Paulie’s Daoist Yoga is much bigger than just Yin yoga: it has martial art forms, it has movements like Qi Gong, it has many more elements than just floor postures. It did not seem correct to call our yoga Daoist Yoga because it was incomplete—that is why we changed the name to Yin yoga.
As far as creating the Yin Yoga Teacher Training program, we were reluctant to do that for a long time. We didn’t want to create a “style” of yoga that was in competition with other styles. We thought of ourselves as hatha yoga and anatomy teachers. We didn’t want to compete with other styles, we just wanted students to expand their style to include both yin and yang aspects of yoga practice.
We used to promote ourselves as teaching “Anatomy for Yoga.” We wanted to teach students of all different styles of yoga the basics of skeletal variation, tension and compression. But we found that people were reluctant to invest time and money into just an “anatomy program.” They were already investing time and money getting a certificate in their style of yoga and usually found the anatomy part of their program boring. But when we advertised our weekend programs as Yin yoga programs, people were very interested in attending. And when we introduced them to the anatomical ideas behind the practice, they got genuinely excited.
So when it came time to create a teacher training program, it didn’t seem like a good marketing plan to call it Yoga Anatomy Teacher Training, so we called it Yin Yoga Teacher Training.
We taught the basics of anatomy and Yin yoga for over 10 years before we decided to formalize the program. We originally marketed ourselves as a component of other teacher training (TT) programs, studios would hire us to teach the Yin or anatomy component of their TT program. But as Yin yoga slowly became more popular, people started contacting us and asking if they could get a teaching certificate from us. So the time came to create certificate program and the Yin Yoga Teacher Training program was born.
Sebastian: I guess that was what people were after.
Paul: It’s funny, Suzee and I are teaching the same basic anatomy ideas that we have for 10 years, but now that it is called Yin Yoga Teacher Training, our courses are much more popular. We hesitated for a while to create a TT program named “Yin Yoga” because we had tried for years not to create the image that Yin yoga is in competition with other styles. So we had a little bit of a conscience: was it the right thing to do or not? But we eventually decided, “oh, just let’s do it” and I think it has been very successful!
Sebastian: Yes, it has!
Paul: We think much of the success of our TT program is due to teachers like you, Sebastian and Muriel. Teachers all over the world who have embraced these ideas and inspired their students. And also, years ago a student did not need a certificate to teach. But now a certificate is becoming a requirement, so we are glad we can give them one! [laughs]
Sebastian: Paul, you mentioned on your website that “you do not need to be certified to teach yin yoga.” Is that right?
Paul: That is correct.
Sebastian: Have you come across Paulie Zink’s latest statement that he is the only source of a Yin Yoga teacher training certification?
Sebastian: What are your thoughts on that?
Paul: I do not know, I have not… is that his statement? Well you know I learned Yin yoga from Paulie, actually Daoist yoga. So he certainly has the right to teach and to certify people, so I do not see a problem.
Sebastian: But he was not calling it Yin yoga, he was calling his style Daoist yoga at the time.
Paul: Yes, but everybody evolves, changes their names. In Suzee’s and my opinion, Yin yoga is not a trademark—it is just a description. All of our students teach it slightly differently, some are more Hatha yoga in background and others are more Tai Chi in background, and all of them are teaching some form of Yin—we do not want to restrict them or limit their interpretation. And there are many other teachers who have never studied with us but have discovered Yin yoga on their own, why should they not be allowed to call their yoga Yin yoga? It does not seem fair to trademark names like yin or yang or yoga or Daoism—these are ancient, descriptive terms that belong to everyone.
Sebastian: But people get easily attached to the names.
Paul: Yes. We do not want to be attached to the names.
Sebastian: Thank you.
Sebastian: The Yin yoga practice may appear as basic and simple at first glance, but as we know this is the tip of the iceberg. Can you share some insights on the depth of a Yin yoga practice?
Paul: I think that if you approach Yin yoga as a physical practice and you are used to hard, physical exercise, then it might seem a very simple thing. But if you think of yoga asana as a continuum, with the rhythmic movement of ashtanga vinyasa at one extreme and stillness of meditation at the other, then think of Yin yoga as a bridge between the two.
The goal is stillness, and Yin yoga is a way to practice stillness five minutes at a time. Some people find it very difficult to sit still for a long period of time, but they can do a five minute Yin pose. Yin practice slowly changes their nervous system and it gradually becomes easy for them to sit in meditation. Meditation is scary for many students. They think, “oh, I cannot sit still for 10 or 20 minutes, my mind will explode!” But after they have grown accustomed to five-minute yoga poses, meditation seems a natural extension of their asana practice. Yin yoga is a practice of being calm but alert to what is going on inside, so it is a nice transition from physical movement to meditative stillness. Yin yoga is a kind of a half-way house.
Sebastian: Thank you, this really opens the debate for the need of Yin yoga!
Sebastian: You refer a lot in your teaching to Doctor Motoyama and Paramahansa Yogananda. What attracted you in the first place to those two modern spiritual teachers and how have they influenced your personal teachings and practice?
Paul: What attracted me to them was that they write from first hand experience—they say, “I experienced this.” Both of them talk about history and theory they also say, “I experienced this.” Now even if they are wrong, even if they are mistaken or are deluded, I respect someone who says, “here is the system and here is my experience of that system.” I respect that, I respond to that.
I believe in the theories of yoga meditation and I put much time into them, but I have not reached the end point of those theories. When I wrote my book I was quoting theories, but when Yogananda and Dr Motoyama wrote their books they were relating their personal experience of those theories. That was what inspired me to think, “this is not mythology, these are living ideas.”
Yogananda died in 1951 and Dr. Motoyama is still alive: they are modern authors and their experiences confirm what is written in the ancient books. When you read their biographies you discover they were both objective in their approach to yoga, they had a good balance of spiritual devotion and objective assessment. This is important: each generation has to test all these yogic theories—otherwise they are just mythology, just a story.
Muriel: That is what was pushing them into that deep research.
Paul: Yes, and that is what drew me to them and what I try to be like in my work. I explain the theories, I am enthusiastic about them and I think they are important, but I try not to take offense if someone else does not believe in these theories because I could be wrong. I think that keeps a healthy emotional balance.
Sebastian: Would you like to share some of your favorite quotes from those two spiritual giants?
Paul: [laugh] This is my favorite quote, and it is not actually from either of them: it is from a poem by Kabir.
Sebastian: From Sufism tradition?
Paul: Yes. Kabir says, “if you have not lived through something, it is not true.” [twice repeated]
Sebastian: Food for thought indeed. You already partly responded to this… so the stillness in yin yoga is very conducive to meditation. Would you mind sharing some experiences you may have had during your personal practice? Talk about some spiritual insights or realizations?
Paul: I have had no visions or revelations of wisdom, or clairvoyance about the future or discovered if there is a God. My progress is primarily that I enjoy sitting, I enjoy being calm, I can hear the subtle sounds of the inner world. Meditation used to be a labor for me, a discipline to do. Now I find it fulfilling, and as I get older I seem less and less affected by desires for this world.
Sebastian: Like disenchantment?
Photo credit: Michael Grab
Paul: I am not pessimist, but I am no longer as ambitious. I used to say, “oh, I want to be a great scientist or a famous novelist.” But those things do not affect me the way they used to. I still admire scientists and writers, but there is no envy. I do not think I have arrived at a high spiritual state, but it is an improvement from where I was.
Being married to yoga practitioner like Suzee has been a tremendous help. We talk about yoga philosophy every day. We examine our actions and thoughts. We encourage each other in the habits of meditation and self examination. When you compare the calmness of meditation with the feelings that follow wrong behavior and wrong thoughts, and you do that a thousand times, you eventually drop the bad behaviors and strengthen the good ones. I do not think this would have happened just by aging, I think it is due to putting yoga theory into practice.
Sebastian: So no siddhis, very down to earth…
Paul: No siddhis.
Paul: I am still waiting….
Sebastian: Any plan of a second book at some point in the future, or a DVD regarding the new meridians theory?
Paul: Anything is possible, but we do not have any plans. I think the new scientific theories about chi and fascia are very interesting but there better qualified people to write about them—people like Deanne Juhan, Gerald Pollock, James Oschman, and Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama.
Sebastian: But these theories are not related to yoga…
Paul: Hmm… well these theories are intimately related to yoga: related to the theories of chi, prana, meridians and nadis that are fundamental to yoga theory. There are several acupressure and shiatsu books that demonstrate the relationship between energy movement and body positions. Sarah Powers has written a book that illustrates how meridians are affected by the yoga postures and Biff Mithoefer has created the “Yin Yoga Kit” that illustrates with flash cards which meridians are affected by which yoga postures. I do think the new theories about water and fascia are exciting and will impact the future of yoga theory and practice, but I do not think that I am the guy who should write a book about these subjects. But perhaps I could compose an introductory article for our webpage.
Sebastian: Certainly looking forward to it. Last but not least, who is Jimmy Changa? [laughs]
Paul: He is a famous Mexican yogi. [laughs] I heard he is a very sweet guy…
Sebastian: For us Europeans it does not ring a bell, we do not know…
Paul: Chimichangas are a Mexican dish, [more laughs] so that is our joke about students wanting more “Chimmy Changas” during their vinyasa practice.
Sebastian: Thank you very much.
Paul: You are welcome!
With extensive trainings in yogic disciplines and interest in Eastern philosophy, Sebastian Pucelle’s teaching blends both Yin & Yang sequence with guided breath-work and meditation to create sessions that range from intense and vigorous to relaxing and deeply meditative. Sebastian’s devotion for yoga is infectious, he inspires all levels from newcomers to teachers with his insightful and original approach. Based in Asia, Sebastian gives workshop throughout the continent and has now started teaching since the Summer 2012 in Europe to familiarize people with the practice and teaching of Yin Yoga. Sebastian can be reached via his website, Facebook, or at [email protected]
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Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer/Kate Bartolotta