Karin Sang met with prominent yin yoga & yoga philosophy teacher Bernie Clark in summer 2013 while they were both attending a Yin Yoga Teacher Training with Paul & Suzee Grilley at The Land of Medicine Buddha in California. She took the opportunity to talk with Bernie about his journey from rocket scientist to internationally renowned yoga teacher.
K. What has your journey been with yoga?
B. That’s a long question! (laughing)
K. I know, huh! (laughter)
B. I didn’t know it at the time, but I probably started yoga in my early 20s. I took up meditation. My job was fairly stressful so I asked one of my managers how he dealt with stress and he said he meditated.
So I got into Zen meditation.
It wasn’t until my mid-40s that I actually joined a Zen center and studied with Asanga. It was a Zen and yoga center and the owner of the center kept telling me I should try yoga too. I kept resisting ‘cause I saw all these flexible young girls there and I had the flexibility of a tree at the time. But one day, she said to me the magic words - yoga will really help your golf game and I was an avid golfer as golf to me is a very zen like game and so I said – ok, I will try yoga!
So I got into yoga that way. Now I don’t play golf, I don’t play hockey, I don’t play tennis. I just do yoga. So it actually killed my golf game. That’s when I added asana to the practice. So if you define yoga as my interest in meditation, I’ve been doing it since my early 20s. The asana practice, the last 16 – 17 years.
K. And did that start off being a Hatha yoga practice – as in a yang form of yoga?
B. Yes, my teacher was a Sivananda trained, developed her own philosophy, basically hatha. Then about 2 years afterwards I discovered Ashtanga yoga and I really resonated with that. I’m a kind of Type A personality. I took three teacher trainings in Ashtanga, was doing a Mysore practice every morning at 6am 6 days a week and I did that for about five years. Then I was introduced to yin yoga.
K. How did you get introduced to it?
B. That was a bit by accident. I was taking a Thai yoga advanced massage training and on the last day, the instructor offered to the class to give a yin yoga practice. So he offered a yin class. Nobody had heard of it at the time. It was around 2003 – 2004. I loved it. It was great! That was the last day of the training. Next day, I had a few hours to kill before flying home and I was just walking down the main street of Santa Barbara and there was a little yoga store. I went in there and there was a little video – a VHS by someone named Sarah Powers that said Yin Yoga. "Oh, we just did this yesterday", so I bought the video and I did it every day for about three months and I really fell in love with it and discovered it had a big influence on my Ashtanga practice.
Yin Yoga actually got me more flexible, more quickly then Ashtanga did.
I resolved to meet this woman Sarah Powers. She was doing a conference in Seattle, very near Vancouver where I live. So I met her and through her I met Paul and I studied several times with Sarah and Paul (Grilley) and it took off from there. So it’s an important balance to my practice – the yin and yang.
K. How did Paul’s beliefs on skeletal variation affect your Ashtanga practice? Did you go through a period where you asked yourself – oh my God, how am I going to practice this now?
B. It didn’t really affect my practice very much. It did give me the realisation why I wasn’t very good at lotus pose. I could start to tell the difference between tension and compression. From that, it didn’t affect my alignment so much but it did tell me when to stop pushing. It was very good to know that as I would have kept pushing and pushing until I probably would have hurt myself unnecessarily.
Paul’s teachings on skeletal variation did however affect my teaching and the way I chose the classes and the options I give the people are no longer dogmatic. It did change the focus from the aesthetic point of view to, as Paul calls it the functional point of view.
K. Were you a panda bear or a black knight?
B. I was probably more on the black knight side. (laugh)
K. Ashtanga, huh?
B. Yes. I’m still a recovering Ashtangi. (laugh)
K. Yes. That comes up in me too sometimes. It comes from my dance background. I’m used to pushing. It is easy not to push in a yin environment like here – in a Buddhist center during a Yin Yoga Teacher Training - but as soon as I get into a yang style class, I still have to keep reminding myself not to push.
It depends who’s in the class and who the teacher is! (laugh) I’m still fighting that one!
So what does your practice look like now?
B. Well as I age, I find I can’t do what I used to do. I’m 59 years old now. I’ve discovered that Ashtanga is really for younger people. Once I turned 50 I really had to back off my Ashtanga practice. I may do the practice once every month or two now.
I do other things like The Dragon Dance (http://www.yinyoga.com/newsletter9_the_dragon_dance.php). I find it gives me as much aerobic and sweating as Ashtanga did, but it’s more accessible. It’s not as rigorous and maybe harmful for the body. So I have tapered down my yang activity. I do about 50 / 50 now.
One of the things I really like to do now is just to go for walks – walking up and down hills for maybe an hour. I find that works the body beautifully and I can come home and do some yin after that. So half the time I will do a yin practice with walking and half the time I will do yang flow.
K. That’s what one of my first yoga teachers Bryan Kest said – if you just do ½ hour of walking every day, that would be the best training and medicine for the body.
B. A lot of scientific studies have shown it is as good as any prescription drugs. Of course it is depending on the situation, but most of the time if we can get body to heal itself by stimulating the body’s own inner wisdom, that is all it takes.
K. What does yin yoga mean to you?
B. I like to say it is the other half.
Yang is great. It helps the muscles. It helps the heart. We need that flexibility and strength.
Yin yoga is more for the stability – in just avoiding that shrink wrapping that inevitably happens with age.
Studies have shown that 42% of what keeps us stiff is muscles been short and tight but 47% is the connective tissues shortening and tightening. So really if the objective is to maintain the range of motion, yang yoga is less then half. Yin yoga is the other half. We need both.
K. As our company is called Yin Therapy, I wanted to ask you what you feel are the therapeutic qualities of yin yoga?
B. You can always look at these things in different modalities.
You can look at the physiological benefits, the energetic benefits, mental and emotional benefits, spiritual benefits. Yoga helps us in all these different areas. You really want to look at where is the injury, where is the problem I am trying to “fix”.
Yin yoga can help in all these modalities.
As David Williams (Ashtanga teacher) once said: Yoga will cure anything except for problems caused by yoga. (both laugh)
So if you have done too much of something in a yin class, then obviously yin is not going to resolve that. You need to back off. So you have to pay attention. I like to warn my students:
You have to be your own doctor!
A good example was given by a doctor Bruce Lipton, the author of the book “The Biology of Beliefs”:
He had a friend of his who was a medical doctor. After talking with Bruce for many years, the doctor said: You know Bruce, I’ve come to realize that through my whole years of med school and internship, I never heard the word “health” or “healing.
Bruce asked: well, so what’s your job then?
He answered: Well my job, I discovered, is to maintain lifestyle. People come to me, with whatever ailment and I tell them, if you change your lifestyle, your diet and get exercise, you will get cured. But people don’t want to hear that. They want to say “give me a pill, so I can keep doing what I am doing.
So people have the ability to heal themselves most of the time. But a doctor is not you. A doctor is a consultant.
Lipton also said:
There’s a difference between a pilot and a doctor. When you are flying from here to Munich, the pilot has a huge checklist of things he has to do before he can taxi away from the gate. Now doctors also have a checklist of things that they are supposed to ask you, but they only have 10 minutes or so, so they don’t.
The difference is – the pilot is on the plane with you. The doctor is not!
So the doctor can be as caring as he could possibly be, but he’s still not you. Now if it were his son, he would probably take more then 10 minutes with you. He would probably do lot more research. He would go through the checklist. If it were himself he would probably do all these things – just like the pilot. He’s going to make sure that flight is as safe as possible.
So no matter how good your teacher is, your doctor is, they’re part of your consulting team but you’re flying the plane. You have to take responsibility for your own health.
Yin yoga can be a great tool for that, but you have to pay attention.
Is this too much? Is it not enough?
Don’t let someone else tell you. And that is where yin is so great, because you spend so much time observing the sensations. Yang yoga you are in the pose for 5 – 8 breathes and then you are in another pose. In yin yoga you are in (the pose) for 5 minutes. It gives you lots of chance to notice:
What is this? What is really happening? Should I stay? Should I come out? What is the skillful thing to do here?
K. What are you currently working on?
I have a couple of projects on the way. My partner and I are putting together a workshop called “Meditation Revealed”. It’s a 40 hour meditation workshop which gives both practice in mediation but also understanding the theory and benefits and a history of how meditation evolved. How does it work for some people? How does it work for other people?
Through all the theory, there is a strong emphasis on the practice, we still have to do it. It’s like reading a book to learn how to swim (both laugh). It’s great but you still have to jump in and learn how to swim!
(Bernies aktueller Workshop- und Ausbildungsplan unter http://www.yinyoga.com/upcoming_events.php)
Also in the short term I will have my new book coming out in January 2014 called “From the Gita to the Grail – Exploring Yoga Stories and Western Myths”. And it is to try to help us understand the maps we live by, the cultural maps that we have, right from the child, where our parents inculcate into us certain behavioral patterns, to our schools, to our society. We all have these maps.
We don’t really realize that we are following these model or maps.
When we try to understand the maps from India or from the East, we listen to these with western heads. So when they say in the East “kill your ego”, in the west, what we know as the ego is something very different to what they meant in the East. So this book is to try and explain the difference in the myths and the maps of the East and West, so we can shine a light on to the maps we are using and if we discover that they are not useful, then maybe choose a different map. Maybe there are some things in the East that would be more beneficial but maybe there are some things in the East that we just don’t understand because we’re not eastern.
So this book will come out in the next few months. (Released since 2014 - http://www.yinyoga.com/index.php)
I am starting to work on another book that will come out in two or three years down the road called “Your Body. Your Yoga” and it will look at more of a functional discussion of:
What should your yoga practice look like?
Is there a reason to focus on alignment?
My basic philosophy is there are no universal principles of alignment. There are principles of alignment but they are your principles of alignment. So what works for you?
A doctor may say take aspirin for your headache. That will work for, say 90% of the people but for some people aspirin is going to make their ulcer worse. So even something as innocuous as aspirin doesn’t work for everybody. In alignment, when we say your feet must be pointing forward, that may be good for most people but not for everybody.
So how do we discover what our map, what our yoga should be like. Well that depends on your body.
K. That’s going to be a huge project to cover all the variations and working out how to present the material.
B. Yes. It’s taking a while to wrap my head around it all. There has to be a lot of pictures.
K. Can you tell me about your upcoming workshops and teacher trainings?
B. It has grown over the years and I now give five yin yoga teacher trainings a year.
K. These all take place in Vancouver, your hometown?
B. Yes. They are in Vancouver. I have travelled enough in my previous life, so I like to stay home. I will travel for the occasional vacation or training of my own interest but to teach, I don’t travel anymore.
All teacher trainings happen in Vancouver, there are five a year, basically every quarter. Once a year I will do a retreat. Again near Vancouver – it’s a smaller group, 22 people maximum.
The teacher trainings are 50 hours. They’re not as intense as Paul’s is. It’s very much like my last book “The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga”.
The first goal goes as to why would people do yin yoga.
We look at the benefits – physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically.
Then understanding why we do this practice we talk about how we to do it.
- Which asanas?
- How to get into the asanas?
- Who should be careful?
- What are contraindications?
- What are the options?
And in the end, the students actually teach each other because it is a teacher training, so they will do a class on each other.
So that is the kernel of the teacher training that we offer.
K. What is your belief on stress being a large cause of illnesses?
B. I like to talk about something called the Goldilocks principle.
If you remember the story of Goldilocks, she found the porridge - papa bear’s was too hot, mama bear’s was too cold and baby bear’s was just right. The chair – papa bear’s was too hard, mama bear’s was too soft and baby bears was just right. Then the beds, and so forth.
So I always like to think of that. You can do too much of anything. You can overstress the body in yang yoga, yin yoga, at work etc. You can definitely overstress the body.
But the alternative is not to not stress the body and go too far the other way. Because no stress at all leads to atrophy. The body degenerates that way as well.
Life needs some stress.
So you have to find that Goldilocks position – somewhere, where it is not too little, not too much.
K. And that refers to mental stress as well?
B. It refers to stress in all areas.
In yoga we think of physical stress, but this principle applies to, for example, the immune system.
A friend of mine is a doctor who works with cancer patients and he told me of a study that shows that cancer patients don’t get colds. I thought that was interesting – once they get cancer they don’t get colds!
He said, no, no, no – before they contract cancer they didn’t get colds. It turns out that a cold is Mother Nature’s way to stress your immune system. You are exercising your immune system by having a cold once or twice a year.
When he told me that, I hadn’t had a cold for about four years. I thought I had a great immune system. Now I thought, oh my God, I’m going to die of cancer. About six months later I got a cold and I said YES! Finally!
That completely reframed to me what a cold meant. So instead of taking lots of drugs so I could go to work and give my cold to everyone else, now when I get a cold I go to bed, I watch Lord of the Rings again, it’s a nice long film and I let my body deal with it. I let my immune system make me hot, make me flush, because that is exercising the immune system. You need that.
Relationships need exercise. If you know anyone that has been married 30 – 40 years, they have been through a lot of stress, but they also know how to rest (both laugh).
A relationship needs both – stress and rest.
The Goldilocks theory applies in all facettes. You need to stress, but not too much – that creates a divorce, but not too little because then any little thing will break up the relationship – there’s no commitment.
K. It wasn’t on my list but what were you in a previous life?
B. I was in the business world – I was part of an executive team of Canada’s largest and oldest high tech space company. My degree was in physics. I have a science degree. Although I never practiced as a scientist, I had lots of scientists and engineers working with me.
I ran the space and defense division of our group. We’re not too widely known outside of Canada, but within Canada we’re famous for building the Canada Arm that goes on the shuttle. It’s the system that moves the cargo from the payload and out. I was dealing with rocket scientists all the time, very bright people. It was very stimulating and intellectual type work. I’ve always had this drive for science. I’ve always been a nerd when I was growing up - I was in the computer club.
It’s always been a big interest to me – understanding how the universe works. Whether it was biology, chemistry or physics.
I’ve always been driven to know how do things work. So for the first part of my career it was all about - how do things work? The science.
Once I got into management, I also got more into philosophy and psychology. I wanted to know – why do things work?
Then once I got more and more into my Zen practice, I realised it’s not important how things work or why things work. What’s important is – things work! (both laugh)
And that takes a huge stress off. And that’s yin. It’s just accepting that this is the way things are.
K. That makes sense in your approach to yin yoga and to your book “The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga”. It is full of scientific facts and does explain a lot how things function.
B. Yes. I like to build the bridge between the West and the East. I couldn’t resonate as a teenager to a lot of the poetic things from the East – the New Age stuff. I scratched my head wondering how could that be? And since there was no logical answer I just dismissed it. But later in life I kept coming back to this stuff and now I can see how some of the poetic descriptions were just maps.
There is a term Psychonauts. Psychonauts explore the psyche, the inner space, like the cosmonaut explores outer space. So these early psychonauts – these Rishis and Yogis, they would go inside and have an experience. They would come back and try to describe how to get to that experience. They would create a map.
Now science also creates maps, so that another scientist could redo the experiment and get the same result. Only here (in the West) we have technical language and over there (in the East) they have very poetic language. So if someone is looking at a very poetic, Eastern map with a Daoist or an Indian, it wouldn’t necessary resonate. But now we can see how someone like Einstein comes along and says: well this map and this map are actually describing the same territory but if we just see their explanation a little bit differently we can start to understand maybe what they are experiencing.
K. Which is what your book is about…
B. Right. We try to explain, what they experience but from a Western map / point of view.
K. To my last question, you have come full circle, not quite, because you started with Sarah, but what brought you back here to come and do a further teacher training with Paul?
B. My next project “Your Body. Your Yoga”. To do the book, I realized I have a certain understanding of anatomy. But what Paul has, is a great facility for explaining what the implications of the anatomy is for a person’s yoga practice.
The fact that your tibia maybe shorter or longer then your femur – for some people it is longer, some people it is shorter is all well and good. I know skeletal variation has that, but how does that show up in a practice?
What I really like with Paul, is that he has had so much experience just observing people in the practice that he can say:
No wonder that person can’t do that. Look at their anatomy. And no amount of yoga is going to change that fact. No amount of yoga is going to stretch the tibia or compress the femur.
It’s just getting new ways of understanding the implications of our own unique skeletal variations.
K. Thank you very much Bernie for the interview. I am looking forward to both books coming out.
B. Me too! (both laugh)
For more information about Bernie Clark und his extensive website about yin yoga: www.yinyoga.com