Paul Grilley - Yin Yoga "Guru" about his personal yoga journey

In summer 2013 while participating in a YYTTIII Teacher Training with Paul & Suzee Grilley at the beautiful Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California, Karin spoke with Paul about his personal yoga journey.

Karin with Paul and Suzee Grilley during her Yin Yoga Teacher Training III at the Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California.

Karin with Paul and Suzee Grilley during her Yin Yoga Teacher Training III at the Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California.

K: What has your journey been with yoga?

P: My journey started with “The Autobiography of a Yogi”, so my journey started with a very spiritual and philosophical slant to it, but then soon thereafter I got involved with Hatha Yoga because I wanted anything to do with yoga and at that time pretty much the only books that were readily available on the market were a handful of Hatha Yoga books.  And the Hatha Yoga books of that era in the early 80’s were a blend of asana, philosophy, pranayama.  There weren’t any DVDs or videos on asana practice.  Iyengar’s book was around but I took a look at that and said “I can’t do all those poses” and so I was always involved with coming from the philosophically angle first. But just about coincident with my interest in yoga, a general interest in yoga started to slowly, slowly rise up in certain pockets of the United States.

I just happened to be down in LA at that time and so I started taking Hatha Yoga classes.

I was kind of shocked to see that there were a handful of studios, I think three at the time and they were dedicated to yoga!  That was mind blowing to me that they could have such an interest in yoga that you could have an entire studio dedicated to it.  And so, slowly that became my profession and I always sort of had a parallel relationship with yoga.  I was inspired originally by the meditative and spiritual aspects.  I love to read the philosophy and esoteric philosophy in general but my profession was crudely physical.

I saw myself as an exercise instructor. 

I know Hatha Yoga today is a pretty big tent and people see themselves as life coaches and semi spiritual advisors and philosophy teachers.  A lot of people perceive their job as a yoga teacher as being all of these things, being a spiritual guide in a sense or at least bringing to people’s attention deeper, religious and mystical philosophies. I never did.

K:  Even though you were interested in the philosophical side of yoga?

P:  Yeah.  I was just uncomfortable with myself talking about those things in an asana class.  I just sort of felt - I’m comfortable and confident with what asana is and what it does. It leaves you in a calm and relaxed state and I think it improves health. But all the other aspects of yoga…I didn’t hide in a closet about it. 

I was glad to talk to my friends about it and I was a member of an organization that practiced meditation all the time but I kind of always kept it separate from my hatha yoga.  I don’t know why.  I just made that presumption about it.  I just felt more comfortable in the health exercise realm/profession because I just saw people getting into trouble when they would try to bring in these other things.  People would project all kinds of things on to their yoga teacher.  It wasn’t like you were at a dinner party and you talk about these things.  When you’re in a yoga class as a yoga teacher talking to people in a vulnerable state I saw all kinds of projections been thrown on to the teacher. “Oh he’s so wonderful and wise because he’s talking about these things” and for the most part I saw that that didn’t lead to any good.  Not in the relationship between teacher and student and not to the benefit for the student nor the teacher.  The teacher suddenly became subtly more authoritarian because the students would just willingly ask advice about more and more intimate and personal things and it would happen very subtly and very slowly and I was witness to it.

Most people in LA have private clients in addition to group classes as a sort of a balance they strike and I think that’s is true for now as it was then.  You know, I would be teaching people in their homes about how to do yoga and they would start opening up to you about their relationship with their spouse, their kids, their life and you’re like “wow”.  I’m not qualified to even be a therapist, much less a spiritual advisor. 

So to me there are a lot of traps in Hatha Yoga about being pushed into positions we may not be qualified for and so I always kept it separate.  It was just the easier resolution for me.  “Look. My job description is physical types of therapy that has a calming mental effect as well.  If you want to talk chakras and meditation, spirituality, reincarnation, karma – you want to talk all that, we should be friends somewhere” and then I made it a policy, that I didn’t want to be friends with clients outside of work so much as it muddies the relationship.  It just turned out that the people that I shared the spiritual interest with were not the people that I was sharing my hatha yoga work with.  They were two different circles of friends (people).  That’s my relationship with yoga.

K: How did you end up going into yin then?

P: I tried several different styles of yoga and I plateaued in my flexibilities.  I was making micro improvements in my abilities to balance or to move from one balance pose to another without falling over but none of that included an increasing range of motion and at that time I also naively believed, you just have to stretch enough and burst through your karma and you should be able to do anything. 

So at some point, I’d sort of exhausted the archetypal forms that were around then. 

I had done hundreds of hours of my own experimentation and teaching and then I saw Paulie Zink on a public talk show. The interview was really talking about martial arts but he brought up yoga all the time and when he demonstrated his yoga and talked about his yoga he demonstrated a paradigm I hadn’t been exposed to yet, which was holding poses for a very long time. 

Everything else I had done was a certain form or style of hot, sweaty do this or that yoga.  And so here was sort of my last grasp at why am I not as flexible as my students. I work hard.  Why am I not as flexible as them?  And I thought, well, maybe this is it.  Maybe this is so different from what I have been pursuing for the last 7/8 years that maybe that’s why I didn’t make any improvements because these were all variations on a theme. 

This is something very different, very complimentary. 

So I studied with Paulie for about a year and I soon came to understand that I’m probably not going to get much more flexible.  I was already getting that figured out but it felt really good to do that practice.  I really liked it. 

“I was in my late 20s.  I’d been doing yoga for 7 or 8 years and it really felt great to do this practice and so that’s how I sort of got into yin.  I had a yang practice and a yin practice.  But eventually it was sort of like, you’re in a market place in a sense competing for people who have an interest in yoga products or yoga things and no one was teaching yin. “I find it a really great practice so I’ll just start teaching yin.”  So it was a very pragmatic approach.  “This is what I’m in to now and I’ll share it with others as it’s pretty unknown, unemphasised and that’s how I came around to the yin style of Hatha Yoga, but that didn’t change my approach to keeping in reserve my spiritual/psychological interests.  It just added to the repertoire of physical therapy, exercise, mental health.  It wasn’t like “now I’m going to talk about karma and recarnation”.  I always kept it to myself. That’s not a platform I chose to speak upon in a public or professional way.  It was a personal interest.  So going to yin was both a personal, I really liked doing it and it was a smart move professionally, simply because you were the only fish in the market place that’s advertising that.  I’m not in competition with anybody else about what you’re selling or what you’re doing and so it was very pragmatic to go that way.

K:  You told me previously that you were a little bit of a Black Knight before.  Did you approach your yin practice like that as well or had you already changed your mindset by then?

P:  I had Black Knight expectations.  Black Knights are goal orientated people and the idea that here’s a challenge.  Can you hold this for five (minutes)?  Can you hold it for ten?  Can you hold it for fifteen?  Can you do three sets?  So in a sense…I didn’t approach all of my yin yoga like that but the Black Knight spins it into how can this be a challenge that I can rise to and I had some of that still.  “OK.  If I do five minute sets all the time, then eventually I will do ten, then fifteen?  And I did that.  We experimented, my friends/students with all kinds of routines.  Do the same pose back and forth five times or do just the one pose for 15 minutes.  We played with it like we had done with all our yang things and that’s kind of a yang thing in itself.  Looking for change.  Looking for what’s the best way - five minutes was good, was ten minutes going to be even more amazing?

K: So what does your practice look like now?

P: I practice primarily yin yoga, if you are asking me about my physical practice.  My hatha yoga practice is 90 – 95% yin.  When I do yang things, they are much more conventional – I hike in the hills, I live in the hills, it’s right outside my door.  I swing a kettle bell out my back deck – it is the antithesis of yin.  Moving with momentum, throwing your weight around.  So I don’t look to my yoga to fulfill much of my yang health regime.  When I need to work my muscles, my heart rate, my aerobic capacity I’m blessed to live in an environment that is not urban.  Last thing you want to do is go inside to a gym where I live.  You want to be outside.  …….I don’t look to my yoga to be my yang vitamin. Yoga is my yin vitamin.  In other circumstances if I didn’t have such easy access to the outdoors, I’m sure I would do some type of yang yoga.  It’s just much more fun to be outside where I live.


K: How do you incorporate yoga in to your daily life?

P: Well mostly it has to do with managing your thoughts and your reactions.  We meditate every day, Suzee and I.  So we have our disciplined practice that we do.  We do yoga pretty much every day unless something weird comes up in the schedule but we meditate every day, so that’s the very pragmatic thing that we do but if you are talking about yoga in mundane life - when you are cooking, shopping and cleaning - to me it really manifests in managing my reactions, to being objective about a minor irritation that comes up and you ask yourself why  you are mildly irritated.  Why would you let these things bother you?  Or tracing your thoughts why something bothers you or why you are upset about something and reflecting on how we sabotage our own day most of the time.  Again, I’m very fortunate because in my environment where we live is a small, safe, liberal-minded community in beautiful settings and you have to ask yourself if you’re having a bad day, it isn’t usually coming from what’s outside. It’s usually because your mind is involved in ruminations about the past or anxiety about the future.  Mainly of which aren’t unnecessary. Some are, but many of the ruminations about the past or anxiety about the future are not productive and so you find yourself if you aren’t happy, if you aren’t content, which to me in my life manifests as a type of rudeness or indifference to the people around you.  It’s like, you find it irritating to go to the store or you find the every day life things that we all have to put up with are just too much, that’s a sign that your spiritual life is a little out of whack.  Your spiritual life, I think, should make you so resilient in your emotional reactions to life’s inevitable and endless irritations that if your practice hasn’t put you in touch with I can control, I can influence a great deal how I react to these inevitable things and so being irritated, being annoyed, being less then courteous, being less then kind in your every day affairs you’ve got to reflect on those things as to why because circumstances of my life are fantastic.  I can understand someone who is divorcing or divorced or has kids and no money. There’s a stress there that doesn’t put them at their best.  I don’t have any of those excuses.  I’m happily married.  I love where I’m at.  I’m not in debt.  I don’t have a child on life support.  My external circumstances almost every day are like “this is great”.  Most people in the world would love to be in my position. So why am I not bubbling happy all the time?  Why do I let things bother me?  So that to me is, when your question is what is my every day manifestation? The every day manifestation of being calm and patient and relatively unruffled.  Wake up calm and happy.  Go to bed, a little tired but calm and happy.  That to me would be an ideal.


K: So you still get caught out, it’s still a work in progress?

P:  Oh yeah.  Sometimes I look at my life and basic personality and very little has changed.  I’m just able to keep in check inner reactions, but those inner reactions in many instances are still there.  Just that before they would flash forth into expression, before any reflection.  So now, the impulses for these inappropriate responses are still there but I’m calm enough to catch them before they’re expressed but the next step is to unearth why those reactions are still there after all this time.  Why does this or that bother you?  Why do you react that way?  Why do you have these anxieties about those things and that’s all basically there.  Sometimes you can look at it and go man I haven’t really moved very far.  I’ve only checked or inhibited the expression but as my teacher says, very generously, it’s very difficult to make real progress in your life, to really alter your fundamental temperament or nature so you can’t look at it as a short term “once I do that, then…”  It’s kind of like you’re chiseling at that rock until you die.  It isn’t “once I have perfected my personality, then I will…” that, I think, is the wrong attitude.  It’s like, you are going to chisel on that rock.  First the big ugly knobs come off and then the less obvious sharp points come off and then there’s just more to do, you get to peel back until you are a genuinely soft, genuinely compassionate, genuinely calm, not practiced discipline.  But that doesn’t bother me any more.  I can see now, that that will go to my grave, the project will be incomplete but that doesn’t depress me.  I think that is the norm.  I’m very suspect of people that go away to a workshop and come back and declare that they are changed, re-inspired maybe, but changed.  I’m very suspect of that.  

K:  It says in the book that is in our rooms about Buddhism that "the nuns and the monks are just normal people.  They are just trying."

P: And I think that’s right.  And I think that the more you try, the more you see how stubborn it is.  It makes you reflect on deeper aspects of your life.  To me, I don’t have any grandiose illusions about my accomplishments or the likely achievements that I will achieve in this lifetime but I do have great hope that the effort that I make and the habits that I am trying to perform will carry me into the next life time better.

K:  Markus and I thought we were doing “pretty well” on catching ourselves before the emotion comes up and then we had our child.  And then all these old habits and old patterns came racing back and we were like “damn it, I thought I had got that under control”.  They (children) are huge yoga teachers.

What do you feel are the therapeutic qualities of Yin Yoga?

P: I think primarily psychological.  We can’t know, we can’t state with any scientific integrity what it does because there aren’t any studies that are done.  You can tell anecdotes until you die.  Every school of yoga has anecdotes.  Completely opposing schools with opposing viewpoints, completely different practices and attitudes have healing stories that they tell.  So an anecdote is not scientific evidence.  There are lots of people who swear that “yin yoga changed my life”, “yin yoga took me from hectic to whatever” and I believe they are all true, but there’s no scientific study “how many people out of 100 who do yin yoga have that affect”.  So if you are asking me does Yin Yoga extend your life or make me more flexible, it’s too soon to tell and you can look back and say historically yoga has been yin-ish but that doesn’t help you much either because there’s no data on those people.  Did they live longer?  Did they have better hearts?  Even if that’s true, it’s not data.  In a sense, it’s also historical anecdote and so in our times it’s scientific evidence that wins the day and yin is not scientifically studied.  Certain aspects of yoga are being studied but exclusively yin I can only speak for myself that I think my ability and my desire to sit, my ability to sit and be calm is directly influenced by my yin practice.  My yin practice helps my meditation and I cannot say that that was true with my yang practice.  I gave lip service to it all the time “It’s one of the eight limbs” but I find that people who exhaust themselves in a hard yang practice on a regular basis rarely have the time and the energy to develop a sitting practice.  I don’t know whether you have just a limited amount of time and energy to give.  That could very well be.  But for whatever reasons, more people slide into a meditation practice from practicing yin. 

K:  So what are you currently working on?  What’s your next project?

P: We are refining the curriculum if you can call it a project but it’s almost done.  Our latest thing, is we are constantly refining the curriculum.  It’s pretty much the same things we are trying to present but you get better at the order of presentation and our process, how many times to repeat a certain conceptual idea before the lights go on because so often, particularly the first few concepts people nod their heads in agreement but they don’t understand all the implications of what we are trying to present.  So you have to go back and present it again and come back and present it again and so we are refining how we do that.  So that’s been our project.  When we are home, we vigorously review each day’s presentation.  We write down how long it was, what images we used to support our presentation.  Was that too short?  Was that too long?  Do we need more images to make that point clear?   We’ve been doing that ever since we have been teaching together and that process hasn’t stopped. Part of our course is pretty well mapped out but the other part of our course, I’m perfectly proud of it but I’m sure we will see improvements with it simply because we haven’t taught it enough times yet.  So refining our curriculum is our big thing.

K:  Can you tell me about your upcoming workshops and teacher trainings?

P: Going to Thailand.  Teaching Level I & Level II.

K: And what about Level V?

P: Level V next year, will be our first approach of teaching the Bhagavad Gita.  We’ve already got people interested and signed up to come which is very encouraging as it’s almost a year away. It’s really great to study that material.  We’ve already begun our systematical study of the material – X number of hours per day on the Gita and the text is endlessly deep.  Every time you bring more life experience to the text, it speaks to you at a different level so to me it truly is a spiritual text in that sense.  I think most true spiritual texts; you are not going to exhaust the level of insight.  You read it at a deeper level.  It’s really great to have that velvet hammer, of I’ve got to get this done but it’s a velvet hammer because it’s incredibly, rewarding to prepare for it. So other then my big trip to Asia, I have six months, not counting that trip where my primary job is studying the Gita and I look forward to it.  It’s going to be work but that’s okay. 

K: Last question.  Who are your most influential teachers?

P: In yoga it would be Paulie Zink because of Yin Yoga.  In my philosophy of spiritual practice it would be Dr Motoyama.

K: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.

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