Sarah’s Blog

Clarifying Yin Yoga by Bernie Clark

Jason Crandell recently spoke about yin yoga on a Yogaland Podcast where he was interviewed by Andrea Ferretti [See episode 147.) Several people have approached me to comment on his talk. The talk lasted about one hour, and Jason made many strong assertions, each of which I would love to take 20~30 minutes to go over in detail, but – alas, I do not have that much time. A book or two could be written (and have!) on the full breadth of this topic, but I will pick just a couple of his key points to discuss.

Early in the talk both Jason and Andrea admit that in all their podcasts, they never had a yin yoga teacher on to discuss the principles and scientific basis of the practice. This was unfortunate, because there were several mistaken characterizations of yin yoga made quite dogmatically. At the beginning they both allowed that for some people, in some cases, yin yoga could be good. Jason went on to characterize who these people might be: basically, people who are very tight because they are very strong. Everybody else, he said, should not do the practice. He admitted to not knowing anything about the energetic effects of the practices and admitted that it could be good preparation for meditation or as a meditation practice, but went on to talk about why it was not a recommended practice for the vast majority of people.

Obviously, I disagree with his assessments. While there were dozens of statements he made that I could spend time debating, I will pick out the top 5:

  1. Yin yoga is extreme! It comes from a Chinese martial arts master, Paulie Zink, and is meant to develop a high degree of flexibility in order to build a performance art (Monkey Kung-fu). Good for the Cirque de Soleil, but not for normal people.

This is misleading. Paul Grilley, not Paulie Zink, developed yin yoga as a style of yoga. I can forgive Jason for this misunderstanding as many people have made the same mistake. Paulie Zink teaches a practice derived from his martial arts background. He has called this many things over the years: Taoist Yoga, Yin and Yang Yoga, and finally (years after Paul Grilley made yin yoga well known) Yin Yoga. However, what Paulie now calls Yin Yoga is not the practice developed by Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers. Paul did study with Paulie for less than one year back in the 1980’s, but Paul never did Paulie’s martial arts practice. Eventually, Paul developed a separate yoga class focussed entirely on long-held, passive stresses complete with opening meditation and closing shavasana, counter poses, and explanations of the postures. Paulie’s offerings were never like this and still are not like this. To differentiate his offering from Paulie’s Taoist Yoga, Paul chose to use the name “yin yoga” to make sure people wouldn’t be expecting Paulie’s Taoist Yoga. Once yin yoga became more popular, Paulie adopted the same name, but he never changed his teaching: it is still Taoist yoga derived from his martial arts training. And it is fabulous, but it is not yin yoga “Grilley style”—never was and probably never will be.

Paul Grilley extracted the passive elements from Paulie’s martial arts training, added a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) basis for the energetic effects (thanks to his training with Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama), modern anatomical understanding (thanks to his studies with Dr. Gerry Parker and his own research), and placed it into a solid yogic tradition. In this form yin yoga “PG”, is far from the teachings of Paulie Zink, which is quite extreme due to its yang components. The resulting yin yoga practice most commonly taught (in the PG or Grilley style) is not extreme and never was. It is yin! Yin is mellow. Yang is extreme. In a yin yoga (PG) class, the intentions are not to go to ultimate ranges of motion, to hold beyond a reasonable amount of time, to experience pain, or any other extremism. A good yin yoga teacher would never encourage extreme attitudes or expectations. Beginners can do yin yoga and it may be better for beginners to start with a yin yoga practice than an active-yang or vinyasa practice (see my article “Can beginners do yin yoga?”)

There are only ~25 postures used by most yin yoga teachers, if even that. I use about 15. This is not an extreme number! Think of the hundreds of postures in the yang world of yoga. In yin yoga, there are no “foot behind the head” poses, or “drop back to wheel” or 108 sun salutations. The poses are seated, simply but challenging to a degree. The edge is not to be passed, but played. If pain arises, it is time to come out. Thus, I disagree with Jason and his assertion that “don’t kid yourself, yin yoga is extreme.” Sorry, it is not, at least not in the way teachers following Paul’s example teach it.

  1. I quote Jason “There is no rational world in which anyone, under any condition, should be randomly trying to stretch ligaments! … It is just literally the most unscientific, most unsound, mal-informed idea that we could talk about.” In many places he makes the same claim and cites the statistics that muscles can stretch 200% but ligaments only 10%. Beyond 10% they are damaged with severe consequences.

This is a common myth that pervades yoga. I don’t know where it came from! The idea that ligaments must not be stretched and can only stretch 10% before being damaged is patently false. However, Jason makes these (and many other) claims with conviction and authority but without citing any evidence or sources for these dogmatic assertions. Let me cite just a couple examples of where he is wrong.

THE LIGAMENTUM FLAVUM
Located behind the spinal cord is the very elastic ligamentum flavum, which is composed of 80% elastin fibers and 20% collagen fibers. The preponderance of elastin gives this ligament a distinct yellow color: indeed, its name literally means “the yellow ligament.” It spans a short distance, from the bottom of the anterior lamina of one vertebra arch to its lower neighbor’s top, posterior lamina, but while short, it is very strong. They serve to reinforce the posterior wall of the vertebral canal through which the spinal cord runs. Due to its elasticity, the ligamentum flavum shrinks during extension, so it doesn’t become bunched up and press into the spinal cord during backbends.

Due to its highly elastic nature, the ligamentum flavum can assist the spine in recovering from flexion by springing back to a neutral position. We don’t always use our muscles to change positions. Also noteworthy is the fact that in full flexion, this ligament may elongate by 50% of its resting length—so we see that not all ligaments resist being stretched! However, structural failure can occur if it is stretched to 70–80% —even stretchy ligaments have their limits. The ligamentum flavum is always under some tension, which helps it to retract (grow smaller) when we do backbends. If it was forcefully buckled, it could fold inward and press into the spinal cord. [Extracted from Your Spine, Your Yoga, page 132.]

THE INTERTRANSVERSE LIGAMENT
Connecting the tips of the transverse processes are the intertransverse ligaments. In the lumbar segment, this ligament is thin, almost membranous. In the thoracic segment, the ligaments are strong cords blended into the neighboring muscles. They can lengthen by up to 20% during lateral (side) flexions. [Extracted from Your Spine, Your Yoga, page 133.]

I could go and cite the nuchal ligament in the neck (the anti-gravity ligament that saves our muscles from doing a lot of work lifting up our head), the interspinous ligament and many others. Indeed, all ligaments and tendons stretch to some degree. This is good! Even the extremely stiff iliotibial band (IT band) is slightly elastic and is designed to stretch a wee bit. It is an important contributor to saving energy during running, much like the Achilles tendon and hamstring tendons are designed to stretch. (See “The capacity of the human iliotibial band to store elastic energy during running” by CM Eng, et al in Journal of Biomechanics 2015 Sep 18;48(12):3341-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2015.06.017. Epub 2015 Jun 27.)

To say that ligaments should not stretch is just plain wrong. They do, they should, and they must! Every time you do a forward fold, once your torso has past 45°, your back muscles (specifically the erector spinae) have completely turned off and we rely upon the ligaments and fascia of the back to control descent and to initiate returning to vertical (see Your Spine, Your Yoga, page 149). I am sure that in every class he teaches Jason has student do at least one forward fold, and when they do, they are stretching their ligaments, and far beyond 10%, without damage.

Strong and confidently asserting a fact does not make it true.

  1. Jason makes two other assertions relating to ligaments. The first is his claim that “ligaments run from bone to bone and serve to limit extreme ranges of motion of a joint.”

Prior to the discoveries by Jaap Vander Wal, this was the way ligaments were described in all the textbooks, so I can’t blame Jason for his viewpoint. However, Jaap’s work was pivotal in rewriting this understanding. Ligaments are in series in with muscles, not in parallel and do not serve to limit extremes of movement. (See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3091473/.) This was presented at the 2nd International Congress of Fascia in 2009 and reported on at the time by many people, including Tom Myers (see www.embryo.nl/upload/documents/artikelen-fascie/Dynamic%20Ligaments%20The%20Revolutionary%20Re-vision%20of%20Jaap%20van%20der%20Wal%202011%20EN%20article.pdf).

The fact that ligaments are in series with muscles means that every time you stretch a muscle you can’t help but stretch a ligament! The idea that you can avoid this by slightly contracting a muscle is false. Imagine two elastic bands looped together in series. Imagine that one is very stretchy, but the second one is stiff: the first represents your muscles and the second your ligament. Now imagine stretching them: the stretchy one easily elongates, but so too does the stiff one! Just not as much. You cannot avoid stretching ligaments when you stretch muscles. Thus tightening the muscles, as Jason suggests, actually increases the stress on the ligament, which is what he wanted to avoid.

  1. Jason’s other assertion relating to ligaments is that they should not be stretched. Here Jason is conflating “stress” with “stretch”. They are not the same things. Many yoga teachers make the same mistake.

All tissues need some stress to regain and maintain optimal health, and our ligaments are no different. Stress is not stretch, however! When we stress our tissues, a stretch may result but it may not. We do not have to stretch tissues in order to stress them. While I have discussed above that stretching ligaments is not bad per se, what we are really trying to do in yin yoga is apply a stress to our connective tissues, not to stretch them. This is an important distinction.

There are good stresses (called eustress) and bad stresses (called distress). Our body needs stress to avoid becoming fragile. (See my article “Are yoga teachers making us fragile?”.) Yes, it is certainly possible to do too much and cause damage. That is true of any form of yoga or exercise, not just yin yoga. However, to claim that we must not stress our ligaments is to invite atrophy to the tissue.

Here is a quotation from Professor Laurence Dahners: “A common clinical finding is that unloaded ligaments not only atrophy, but also undergo contracture.” This is due, in part, to “an absence of stress generated electrical potentials (SGEP) increases contracture.” Or, in other words, ligaments need stress! (See “On Changes in Length of Dense Collagenous Tissues: Growth and Contracture” at his home page.)

It is only through stresses that tissues are stimulated to regenerate. How much stress can they take? A lot more than we will ever generate in a static yin yoga posture! (See Your Spine, Your Yoga, page 136 for the spinal ligaments and Your Body, Your Yoga, page 182 for the knee’s.) Dangerous levels of stress do not come from passive positions but from dynamic movements that create transient peak stresses that are higher than the tissues tolerance levels. This does not happen in yin yoga.

  1. Jason mentions long held static stresses make the tissues weaker and thus more likely to be damaged by sports.

I agree! I often recommend athletes avoid any forms of stretching before their sports (do warm up, however!) for this very reason. Do not do yoga (yin or yang!) before sports because the creep that occurs during the practice will remain for some time afterwards and this will affect your strength, springiness and reaction times. (See my article on Creep and Counterposes.) However, this does not mean never do these stresses! Do them after your sport.

This is how training works: we stress and then rest our tissues. We know this works for muscles, but it works for all our other tissues too! Even our immune system needs stress, from time to time, to remain optimally healthy. Yes, don’t do yin yoga before sports. Don’t do yang yoga before sports. Don’t do a full a bodybuilding workout before sports either! Don’t do sports with tired, stressed tissues. But this does not mean that these other practices are unhealthy. There is a time and place for each.

Final Thoughts: As I mentioned at the beginning there are many statements that Jason made that I take issue with but don’t have time to delve into (such as his perfunctory dismissal of the effects of yin yoga on fascia or his claim that yin yoga has no backbending—what about Sphinx, Seal and Saddle poses?) Jason and Andrea admit to not knowing everything. No one does. I certainly don’t either. And I would fully agree that despite any scientific reasoning or evidence to the contrary, if a student doesn’t feel safe doing yin yoga or feels it has harmed her, she shouldn’t do it! Conversely, if after years of doing this practice a student has seen the benefits and wants to continue, she should feel free to keep yinning, despite whatever science says.

Andrea also said at the beginning that she has never had a yin yoga teacher on her podcast. It would be very interesting if she did invite one to explain the science behind yin yoga and to balance the comments Jason made. Maybe one day she will!

Cheers
Bernie

Hoffman Interview

Sarah Powers talks about how the Hoffman Process fits into a path of personal development, helping to unlock the body and still the mind.


When asked what brought you to the Process, you said that it was when you saw your husband Ty walking up the driveway after doing the course himself. What was it that made such an impact?

I’d seen everything I thought I could see in Ty’s eyes, as we’d already been together 18 years at that point. He’d shown me his strength and tenderness, his rage and fears. But that day, as he walked up the drive to greet me, there was a depth of compassionate presence in his eyes that I felt could only come from deep healing at a very subtle level.

Ty had had ‘good enough’ parenting and had also been raised by his grandparents, whom he adored, but his best friend had been to the Process years before and had continued to encourage him to go. More to put the subject to rest than to uncover any hidden childhood wounding, he finally succumbed.

I was pleased he decided to go, feeling his experience would positively affect us both and relieve me of the pressure to attend myself. At that time, I felt I had done enough therapeutic processing already.

Interestingly, although Ty uncovered subtle family dynamics, he also worked on the issue of society as a damaging parental-like influence. Having grown up in the 60s as an African American in LA, he was familiar with being treated as an ‘other’ in white society, even though his own family had many healthy interracial connections.

He found it a profound addition to help him unpack the underlying message that so many of us carry of inherent unworthiness. This is what I saw had shifted in his eyes as he hugged me after completing the Process, prompting me to simply say, ‘Do you have the Hoffman schedule?’ I knew whatever he’d unlocked, I wanted some of that.

With your extensive background in personal development, it’s hard to imagine what more you could have found at Hoffman – what was it that made it stand out?

When I went to the Process, my daughter was about 7 years old. I‘d been through lots of personal therapy by then, including studying transpersonal psychology in graduate school, and was feeling fairly healthy in my relationship to myself, and those closest to me. But I still noticed something within me that would occasionally arise in the middle of the night, or in the early morning. A feeling or habitual thought had rooted in my psyche about not feeling entirely OK inside, even when everything was pretty OK on the outside.

I had internalized a critical voice that at times left me feeling contemptuous of myself; prone to self-judgement, disappointment, and restlessness. I think all the psychological healing work I’d done beforehand helped ripen me for that week at Hoffman. I felt as if I finally got to the bottom of the lie of unworthiness, and saw it as a hollow habit with no substance except what I’d been feeding it.

Hoffman has been going over 50 years and personal growth and therapy has become much more common, yet I believe your students even get course credits if they’ve done the Process. Why do you think it’s still relevant?

I often tell people it’s not a magic fix, nor the only therapy they’ll need or ought to do, but the intensive nature of spending an uninterrupted 7 days on family-of-origin issues in such a loving and skilfully sequenced setting propels your healing forward tremendously – whatever level you’re at.

Do you feel that your background in yoga influenced how you experienced the Process and did it make a difference afterwards in how you were able to integrate it?

I’m not sure, but having a body-centered practice and inner orientation certainly seems to help allow feelings to live and move inside. After the Process, I found I could more swiftly disidentify from disturbing emotions when they surfaced, especially when holding long yoga poses. Since the Process, my yin style yoga practice has become a soft, safe place to understand and unpack habitual distorted beliefs I‘ve carried in my body and mind.

After the course I no longer needed to use my practice to run from, or sweat out, the uncomfortable emotional territory. I could turn towards it with compassion. This is something I‘ve continued to nuance and develop through my yogic and Buddhist practices, and love to offer as a gateway out of suffering for others.

Addiction is a common issue for many who come to the Process. You describe addiction as the act of looking for satisfaction in the wrong place, whether through compulsive behaviour or in co-dependent relationships. How does Hoffman help with that?

I’m interested in bringing to light the habitual behaviour that we’ve developed in an attempt to get our needs met, but which actually cause us more suffering. In doing that we often find great learning. For example, my addiction to comfort in my body meant I sought out yoga teachings, which have greatly benefited me, just as my frustration with being so easily discontented sent me to therapy at a young age. Growing up I saw people around me addicted to alcohol, sugar, exercising, food, as well as to the ideal of poverty on the one hand, and to money, power, and success on the other.

These people influenced my choices in life, some of which are healthy, and others, not so much. The Hoffman Process does a beautiful job of healing entrenched harmful patterns by helping us see this as negative love: a way we emulate what we saw in those around us (even when that behaviour is distorted), in order to get the love we crave.

I so appreciated that, instead of viewing addictive behaviour as a disease, Hoffman focuses on helping us to identify the underlying unmet need that the actions stem from.

During the Process, my angry and sad parts were given room to breathe. They were met with compassion, allowing an authentic empathic wisdom within me to be further revealed and nurtured. The course also allowed me to see my parents as the children of their parents, opening the door to greater genuine compassion for their unconscious habits. I gained heartfelt insights into the ways they, like me, are often prisoners of their own conditioning. Although there are still difficulties with my parents at times, my relationship to them both was deeply healed after my week on the course, and the addictions that I and others are prone to are now held in a much more conscious and caring inner environment.

You mentioned an inner restlessness as something that you grappled with in the past and which is something many people identify with. Where do you see Hoffman or yoga having a role in allowing someone to quiet their mind and connect to a sense of peace and presence?

Whenever we attempt a contemplative activity, any unintegrated material within us percolates into consciousness and rattles our energy body, distracting and destabilising our best intentions of connecting to the present.

Work we do to heal past wounds naturally quiets the inner terrain, allowing deeper levels of awareness to be experienced. Hoffman is a major leap in this area. But patterns live not only in our hearts and minds. They’re patiently stored in the tissues of our body moment by reactive moment.

I find yoga exemplary in this area. The emphasis on re-inhabiting our body by consciously breathing into our depths, while honouring our limitations and exploring our somatic capacities, lifts and dissipates energetic heaviness from our system. Yoga is a great way to heal past trauma, while promoting healthy conscious embodiment at every stage, and every age.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering the Process?

I’d recommend that you bring yourself fully to the Process. Don’t hold anything back. If you surrender completely there’s no way for it not to touch and unlock something within that needs release…even if you don’t feel every exercise speaks to you.

The Process is a great place to meet and nurture all of yourself, without fear of condemnation. Allow all your parts to show up, even those aspects you consider shameful or hateful. The teachers are skilfully attuned to meet everyone in a clear non-judgemental way, helping these hidden parts to begin to heal. At the end of the week, you’ll leave feeling like you gave it your all.

And lastly, trust the integration of the Process to unfold naturally. It takes far longer than the one week you’re there.

Second Noble Truth

As the first noble truth reminds us to recognize and investigate the ways we suffer, the second en-nobling truth speaks about its cause, which the Buddha suggests relates to what he called ‘all pervasive suffering’; namely the attitude of grasping at certain self identities due to our amnesia or ignorance of our Full or Authentic Self, our Buddha nature. The Buddha suggested we learn to relax and eventually relinquish our propensity for holding on to fixed views and identities, gradually removing the fixations that obscure deeper insight in the nature of Reality.

Sit down for a brief 6 minute meditation session. As you practice mindfulness of breathing, observe any thoughts that arise. Be particularly aware of those thoughts that bring tension to your belly center. Relax into the space of the abdomen on exhale, and invite any judgements about yourself or others to fall away on each out breath for now.

When thoughts arise (and they will) silently whisper ‘breathing’ and simply let the thought fade into quietude, while you ride the vibrant, untainted life force entering your system anew on the next fresh in breath…

Awareing easily replaces thinking when we are fully present. Continue this awareness practice many times throughout today.

All Pervasive Suffering

The final aspect of suffering the Buddha suggested we get to know well is called ‘all pervasive suffering’. This refers to the general distortion we view ourselves from, which is always painful, and that is seeing ourselves as separate from what we experience; assuming I am in here and the world is out there, arising independent of my mind state. This is how the basic mind perceives life, so it is tricky for us to recognize the error of perception. This teaching parallels the third mind changing, as each of us is in an interdependent relationship with reality, similar to the dream state. Although we cannot control all that we experience, we can witness the precursor to this level of suffering, which is the grasping on a sense of an isolated ‘me and mine’. When there is no grasping and something unpleasant occurs, we do not suffer.

Become a detective of your own mind states today, and when distasteful or difficult events arise, immediately observe inward and notice if you are meeting the event with an open mind and heart, or more often, if you can feel some grasping, some tension of separation, some ‘selfing’. No need to judge yourself if this arises, simply attend to the feeling tone without any agenda. Awareness naturally absorbs grasping and it gently dissolves.

The Suffering of Change Is Not Inevitable

SunsetThe suffering of change is not inevitable. When we deeply understand the nature of impermanence, we no longer feel like life has broken some unspoken promise to us when things that we enjoy change, or when things we don’t like don’t change fast enough. The two emotions that arise as symptoms of this type of suffering are craving and clinging. Craving is when we develop a tension filled hope to acquire something or someone. This grasping mood is laced with a skewed perception based mainly on seeing the positive attributes of this acquisition. While we are entangled in the fantasy of having what we want, it feels good, so it is harder for us to detect the subtle or coarse suffering involved, than for example when we feel angry or resentful, emotions which make us feel miserable right away. This type of desire is distinguished from wholesome ambition which is free of rigidity and edginess. Wondering if this thing we want will help us to be more free of suffering and/or of benefit to others is a good question to ask ourselves when we feel a strong compulsion to pursue something. Clinging is described in the Buddha’s dharma as a strong feeling of rigidity about something we already possess that we are afraid will be taken from us, which again is a tension filled state of fear, forgetting its nature is to change.

The suffering of change relates with this inevitable polarization between hope and fear, craving and clinging.

To begin to free ourselves from these ancient human tendencies, we will first need to acknowledge these feelings when they arise, and relate to them in a new way, one that is not so addictively compelled to stick to them. If we do not admit to ourselves that we are feeling this way, we will not be able to skillfully work with them and eventually become free of their overwhelming capacity to color our world.

Today, in the spirit of compassion toward yourself, make a strong resolve to recognize the flavors of craving or clinging in you (whether strong or mild), and each time, pause and take a few slow conscious breaths, imagining the out breath spreading soft radiant light throughout your body, releasing all tension within you.