What is Yoga? A Talk with Paul Grilley

By on April 22nd, 2014 — No Comments


We recently had a chance to ask Paul Grilley a few questions about his understanding of yoga and how that gets expressed in his own practice. We would love to hear how his answers resonate with your practice or teaching.

 What is Yoga? 

Yoga is a collection of techniques that yogis have found effective for calming the physical, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of our existence, what the ancient texts traditionally refer to as the “three bodies” of soul encasement. When we calm the restless activities of these three bodies, the soul can realize its own limitless nature.

How do you weave that definition into your teaching? 

I try to emphasize the functional approach, the why we practice asana and pranayama rather than just the how. If we simply practice something by rote without reflecting on its purpose, we have no way of judging whether our practice is effective or if it should change.

How do you bring this into your own practice?

I constantly compare and contrast different ways of accomplishing a given purpose. I try not to lapse into an unexamined mechanical practice. For example, when should I hold a bandha during breathing practices? Is it useful or distracting? We all have to ask this sort of question many times before reaching an accurate answer because we’re never exactly the same two days in a row. We can’t draw useful conclusions just by trying something once or twice.

How has your understanding of yoga’s true meaning evolved since you began teaching?

I comprehend more clearly that each of our three bodies is a particular combination of energy and consciousness. Some yoga techniques emphasize clarity of awareness and others emphasize energy movement, but, ultimately, the goal is the same.

What is the biggest misconception about yoga that you would like to change?

There is no one-size-fits-all yoga practice, not physically, not emotionally, not energetically, not philosophically. There is no “best type” of yoga either. Different forms of yoga suit people at different levels of their development. We should avoid growing emotionally attached to a particular school of yoga because our needs will change over time. The goal of yoga transcends the varied techniques of yoga, just as the goal of good health transcends the particular medical practices of a given time and place.


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Yin Yoga Revolution by Dearbhla Kelly, M.A.

By on April 8th, 2014 — No Comments


Yin yoga is a quietly radical practice that welcomes all bodies types and sizes regardless of injuries or idiosyncrasies. In yin practice we relinquish any idealized notions of how a pose ‘should’ look in favor of exploring yogi’s bodies with their particular limitations and needs. So how a given pose should look becomes a function of how the practitioner’s body gets the best opening in the pose, as opposed to the yogi trying to approximate a picture in a yoga magazine!

Yin yoga celebrates diversity; it’s the punk rock of yoga. Rather, than seeking homogeneity, yin says ‘bring your quirks, your tight hips, your busted left knee, your tweaky neck, your sloping left shoulder. Come to class with an open mind, an interested attitude and a willingness to unwind. No matter if you need the support of two bolsters, blanket and a block, if you are getting a juicy opening, if you start to feel some space open up in your body and mind, you are excelling in the practice.”

Yin for is for everyone: young, old, fat, thin, sporty, sedentary (especially sedentary!), wound up, chilled out and everything in between. If you have a body and you can breathe, you can practice, and benefit from, yin yoga.

Paul Grilley the godfather of Yin yoga describes that Yin practice targets joints, specifically ligaments, the dense connective tissues that wrap around and stabilize joints are exercised by slow deep stretches. Most of us think of exercise as running, or strong asana practice that engages our muscles, like Bikram, vinyasa flow, Asthanga, Iyengar. These types of yang yoga target muscles and work by rhythmic repetition, stretching and contracting to strengthen.  In Grilley’s DVD Yin Yoga- The Foundations of a Quiet Practice, he makes a strong case for the therapeutic effects of Yin practice.

Bones and connective tissue don’t need rhythm and repetition, they benefit from traction and stillness. By placing a joint in traction, we can target the ligaments and slowly pull them causing them to elongate. Unlike muscles, which are elastic (they can lengthen and subsequently retract), ligaments are plastic; they stretch and stay stretched, just like taffy.

It seems obvious that we want strong muscles to stay fit and go about our daily lives, most of us are less aware of why we need to exercise our joints. In both cases the ‘use it or lose it’ principles applies. Under-used muscles atrophy and weaken; under-used joints lose mobility. Over-stressed joints deteriorate but joints that are not used enough degenerate.  So yin is about creating balance; the middle path.

Joints are places where bones connect, for example elbows, knees, hips, spine, shoulders. Their job is to facilitate movement. Lack of movement means that joints are not subjected to sufficient stress and we experience discomfort or even pain; this is why folks who have a sedentary lifestyle are more susceptible of joint pain.

Eighty per cent of people in the Western world complain of lower back pain at some point in their lives. Many of those people are office workers, confined to sitting in chairs for up to eight hours a day. Sitting in chairs (or driving) compresses the lumbar spine by putting pressure on the discs, compressing them and causing the vertebra to move closer together. As the bones move closer together the ligaments shrink, restricting movement, causing pain and increasing compression.  It’s worth noting that in cultures where people spend less time in chairs and more time squatting and sitting cross-legged on the floor, the incidence of chronic back pain is much lower.

‘Contracture’ is the name given to the process whereby ligaments shrink due to not being stressed enough.  Though beneficial, moving a joint through its’ range of motion doesn’t adequately stretch ligaments, only prolonged, slow traction does that.  Just as sustained meditation practice over time can reduce our reactivity in favor of responsiveness and thereby reduce suffering borne of unmediated actions, sustained traction of joints over time can lengthen ligaments, increase mobility, and decrease pain. Yin yoga has two cardinal rules – (1) stay in a pose long enough for the stretch to be effective (3-10 minutes), (2) put the targeted joint in traction and relax the surrounding muscles. Yin encourages yogis to honor their particular physiological make up with all its foibles and get creative about how to find more comfort and ease while holding a pose, to play with the angle of joints and use as many props as are helpful for creating space.

Many students new to yin find this completely alien. Being used to yang classes where little individual instruction is given and practitioners are asked to make their bodies conform to generic instructions (“line your feet up heel to heel and, hips level, fold over your straightened front leg”), they are frequently astonished that yoga can be practiced in a way that celebrates what can otherwise be thought of as limitations and impediments to practice. This is a radically inclusive practice.

Experientially a yin class is incredibly relaxing. The long holds using props and the art of relaxing muscles allow for a deeper relaxation, an unwinding not just of physical tension, but also of the knots and tight places in the mind and the emotional body.  This deeper releasing allows the prana or chi to flow more easily though the body creating a feeling of expansion and radiance animating the entire field of being.

Longtime yin practitioner and senior teacher, Denise Kaufman, (who leads the yin program at Exhale in Venice, CA and teaches yin at conferences and festivals nationally) was one of the original gangsters of the yin movement in early 1990’s Los Angeles. Denise was one of a small group of students and friends of Paul and Suzee Grilley who would meet at their house to explore yin poses. These yogis were advanced practitioners used to doing intense yang practice. They came together to workshop yin style long holds and experiment on themselves to see the results of yin practice. What they discovered was astounding.

Denise had been practicing yoga since 1968 and had completed in-depth studies with Yogi Bhajan before becoming a Bikram teacher and later and advanced Ashtanga practitioner and teacher. She says that from 1968 to 1992 people knew her as a dedicated practitioner and one who suffered intermittently from severe back pain. Even with her dedicated yang practices, only yin yoga increased her flexibility and eliminated her chronic pain: it has never come back. This is pretty astonishing and ought to make those of us who are yang practitioners interested in our long-term health sit up and take notice.

Or maybe it’s more apt to say it should make us abandon sitting in chairs in favor of getting to the floor, stretching slow and deep embracing taking care of our joints as part of a well-rounded yoga practice. Yin is profoundly relaxing and inherently balancing, an exquisite tool to add to your repertoire of yoga poses.

Photo of Audray Kingsley in Balasana – Laurence Garceau




Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable. 

Learn more about Dearbhla Kelly at www.durgayoga.com

Mindful Cooking and Eating for the Holidays- Yoga and Ayurveda in the Kitchen

By on November 21st, 2013 — No Comments








By Mia Park

The holiday season is upon us, which means that many celebratory meals await consumption. Many of us have strong associations with eating that are challenged or indulged in reaction to the cultural and emotional pressures that arise during holidays. A common reaction to holiday eating is cultivating guilt, which can ruin our experience of eating and disturb digestion. Perhaps the most powerful tool to keeping our minds and bodies balanced this time of year is to mindfully prepare and eat our meals.

Yoga and Ayurveda offer techniques to be mindful while preparing and consuming food. Ayurveda is the ancient science of self-care from India and is the sister science to Yoga. Scott Blossom, a California based Traditional Chinese Medical practitioner and Ayurvedic consultant masterfully reviews the sciences of Ayurveda and Yoga in his FREE e-course on Pranamaya.com

To cook meals mindfully, consider that what you’re preparing was grown with great intention. Every plant and animal develops from cells that contain the DNA to become what it was intended to be. An eggplant comes from an eggplant seed and a cow comes from the egg and sperm of cows. This miracle of nature is a wondrous concept to ponder as you prepare your food. Your food has followed its dharma, or life purpose, to become what it was meant to be. This is an incredible miracle. Cultivate gratitude for your food and give thanks for being able to choose what you are cooking.

As you prepare the food, pay attention to it. Chicago based teacher and author of cooking with a yoga view Claire Mark says, “It’s easy to go on auto pilot and in your mind be somewhere else [when you are cooking]. If instead you are focused on the smells, the sights, and the way the food looks and feels as you prepare it, you are literally infusing it with more attention and love and consciousness.”

James Tennant,co-owner of Tejas Yoga in Chicago echoes this advice, saying, “One should enjoy the experience. If cooking is typically a stressful activity for you, ask why. Is there a particular aspect you get frustrated with or stressed out about? Is there something you can do to make cooking more relaxing? Perhaps ask someone to help you, make a list and be better prepared, or maybe get over the idea that everything has to be “perfect.” If you are stressed, that energy goes into the preparation of the food. Focus on the creative component of cooking. Pour the love you have for the people you are cooking for into the process. Smell and taste the foods as you prepare them. Foods have all sorts of amazing textures, scents, and intricacies. Immerse your senses.”

From an Ayurvedic standpoint, cooked food in season is best, right now. “Eat seasonally,” advises Jim Kulackoski,an Ayurvedic practitioner and head of the Darshan Center in Chicago.“The foods available at this time are more dense and help the body build its tissues in preparation for the winter months.” Just as raw foods, such as salads, are more cleansing, cooling, and appropriate for the summer months, cooked foods, such as acorn squash, are more nourishing during the fall and winter when your body should feel strong and robust, says Jim.

James agrees, advising that, “In general, for autumn and winter, favor warm, heavy, moist foods to balance the cool, light, and dry qualities of the season. Think stews, pot pies and hearty soups. Nourishing foods with heating spices such as black pepper, cumin, fennel, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric will stimulate the metabolism and promote the digestion of heavier foods, which we naturally favor during these months.” In addition, Jim suggests that ginger also increases circulation of blood and prana (life force), which can be low due to decreased activity and cold weather. Cinnamon helps to warm the body, while nourishing the kidney system, which is most active during the winter season. Nutmeg and garlic are grounding, helping to calm Vata dosha which can become unbalanced in the fall and winter. (Vata is an energy associated with qualities of the wind such as lightness, dryness, and mobility.)

If you are comfortable chanting or praying, consider chanting as you cook. The Mahamrityunjaya mantra, also known as the Triyambakam mantra, is a healing sound that can soothe you as you cook and offer nurturing vibration to the food. In addition, Jim, who likes to cook in a positive mental space, chants the Shanti-Path (also known as the Peace chant) from the Katha Upanishad, which he says promotes prosperity and togetherness.

When you are ready to eat, create physical and mental space for yourself. Avoid eating quickly or on the run. Before you eat, reflect again on the source of the food and the consideration that went into preparing it. Cultivate gratitude for the opportunity to nourish yourself with this meal, especially if you are sharing it with loved ones during the holidays. Jim says, “Almost every culture celebrates the shorter and colder days of winter with holidays that remind us of our togetherness, strength in community, family and bounty. I recommend enjoying these times by participating in celebrations with family and friends enjoying the cooking, eating, and sharing of foods you love.”

Chanting or sharing a prayer or blessing with yourself or with others before you eat can help to calm yourself to better enjoy the meal. Chanting “Aum” is a simple way to participate in this pre-meal gesture. Aum is said to be the root of the word “amen,” which often concludes “saying grace.”

As you eat, minimize multitasking to improve the eating experience and digestion. Challenge yourself to eat a meal by yourself without distraction. Focus solely on the food on the plate and the drink in the cup. Appreciate that the purpose of this food is to nourish you. Eat slowly, chew slowly, taste slowly. Be aware of what you’re experiencing without judgment. Mindful eating takes practice.

James suggests, “A good place to start with mindful eating, especially around the holidays is this: before putting something in your mouth or filling up your plate, get into the habit of asking yourself, ‘Am I hungry?’ Most of us eat unconsciously because there are snacks on the table or because everybody else is eating. This simple device will heighten your sensitivity to how your body is feeling in the moment. Being mindful of our emotional state while eating is imperative. Observe without criticism. Are you eating because you are anxious, depressed, bored?”

Mindful eating can change your perspective. Claire reminds us “When we cook and eat mindfully, it’s just like doing anything else mindfully. It brings something that could be mundane or routine into a beautiful and magical experience. Be inquisitiveness about eating things that you’ve eaten often—just like the experience of being in a yoga pose that you’ve been in a million times. Be more conscious. Shift your attention to being present and mindful.”

Jim gives the most practical, sound advice for mindful eating. “Always eat what you enjoy, and enjoy what you eat.” Aum to that.

For more Advanced studies in Yoga and Ayurveda with Scott Blossom visit Pranamaya you receive 10% off when you buy all three courses on Ayurveda.

Mia Park is Chicago based 500E-RYT and a certified ParaYoga and Rest and Renew teacher. She teaches Tantra Hatha yoga and Yoga Nidra weekly at Moksha Yoga Studio and in the Moksha Yoga 500-hour teacher training program. Mia is currently in a yoga teacher training at Darshan Center. She is also an actress, drummer, and producer who says she is able to do it all thanks to guidance from her teachers and her dedicated meditation practice. Find out more about Mia at http://www.MiaPark.com







Paul Grilley responds to William Broad’s NY Times article – Women’s Flexibility is a Liability (in Yoga)

By on November 6th, 2013 — No Comments










Women’s Flexibility Is a Liability (in Yoga)

I appreciate this article by Mr. Broad, and I appreciate the concerns of Michaelle Edwards, whom Mr. Broad acknowledges in this article. I would like to add my two cents to the conversation about making yoga safer. I have inserted my comments into the body of the article in red font and in parenthesis.

My contributions are three interrelated ideas: skeletal variation, tension, and compression. Skeletal variation is the recognition that all skeletons are different and that the final mechanical limit to range of motion is when bones contact. This contact is compression. It is critical in yoga to discriminate between the sensations of tension and compression.

All sciences develop a jargon because it is necessary to become more accurate in description. In yoga the word “flexible” is used indiscriminately. It is more helpful to use the conception “range of motion” – which refers to how much one bone moves relative to another. There are two possible limits to range of motion: tension or compression. Tension is a synonym for ‘stretching’, it is the resistance of fascia (ligaments) or muscles. Compression is bone contacting bone or pinching tissue between bones. To say a person is ‘flexible’ doesn’t discriminate between a large range of motion due to the shape of the bones or a large range of motion due to fascia and muscles being elastic.

The complement to the word flexible is the word “tight”. If a person cannot perform a pose in an aesthetically pleasing way they consider themselves “too tight to do the pose”. It might be true that their fascia or muscles are too tight but it is also possible their bones are compressing and if they try to push through it they will eventually become injured.

- Paul Grilley, Nov 4, 2013.

Women’s Flexibility Is a Liability (in Yoga)


Published: November 2, 2013
FROM my own practice and research, I know that yoga is generally a good thing. The bending, stretching and deep breathing can renew, calm, heal, strengthen, lift moods, lower the risk of heart disease, increase flexibility and balance, counter aging and improve sex. In short, the benefits are many and commonplace while the serious dangers tend to be few and comparatively rare.

Even so, last year, after my book on yoga came out, letters from injured guys prompted me to see if the practice, despite its benefits, was hurting one sex more than another. To my surprise, reports from hospital emergency rooms showed that, proportionally, men got injured more often than women and suffered damage that was far worse, including fractures, dislocations and shattered backs. 

It made sense. Women are well known to be more flexible than men. Macho guys, yoga teachers told me, too often used their muscles to force themselves into challenging poses and got hurt. The overall numbers were relatively small but large enough to argue that men who did yoga should exercise caution.

(I propose that masculine skeletal variation tends toward deeper hip sockets and retroverted hip socket orientation (they point sideways or back). These variations lead to compression contact before the aesthetic completion of “classic” poses. Wrongly assuming they are “tight” these men try to “push through it”, creating compression injuries.)

Earlier this year, the picture of female superiority began to blur when a prominent yoga teacher in Hawaii wrote me about a poorly known threat to women.

The teacher, Michaelle Edwards, said that women’s elasticity became a liability when extreme bends resulted in serious wear and tear on their hips. Over time, she said, the chronic stress could develop into agonizing

pain and, in some cases, the need for urgent hip repairs. Ms. Edwards sent me her book, “YogAlign.” It described her own hip pain long ago and how she solved it by developing a gentle style of yoga.

Her warning contradicted many books, articles and videos that hailed yoga’s bending and stretching as a smart way to fight arthritic degeneration.

I put her cautions aside. Finally, in late summer, I got around to making some calls.

To my astonishment, some of the nation’s top surgeons declared the trouble to be real — so real that hundreds of women who did yoga were showing up in their offices with unbearable pain and undergoing costly operations to mend or even replace their hips.

“It’s a relatively high incidence of injury,” Jon Hyman, an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, told me. “People don’t come in often saying I was doing Zumba or tai chi” when they experienced serious hip pain, he said. “But yoga is common.”

(This is because it is compression, not stretching tissue or range of motion that is the culprit. It doesn’t matter how “flexible” one’s ligaments are if the range of movement in the exercise is not enough to create compression.)

Dr. Hyman said his typical yoga patient was a middle-aged woman, adding that he saw up to 10 a month — or roughly 100 a year. “People need to be aware,” he said. “If they’re doing things like yoga and have pain in the hips, they shouldn’t blow it off.”

(Agreed. And most important they should try to discriminate between pain of compression and pain of tension).

Bryan T. Kelly, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, echoed the warning, saying yoga postures were well known for throwing hips into extremes. “If that’s done without an understanding of the mechanical limitations of the joint, it can mean trouble,” he said in an interview.

(“Mechanical limitation” means skeletal variation leading to compression. It is compression, not range of motion or stretching that is the culprit. If a

person’s bones allow a 190 degrees of motion in the splits then doing splits 180 degrees is impressive and not creating compressive stress. But if a person’s bones only allow 179 degrees of motion then trying to do splits “perfectly” is causing compression.)

The same kind of damage, Dr. Kelly added, can strike dancers who overdo leg motions. Each year, he said, roughly 50 to 75 of his patients who danced or did yoga underwent operations. Most, he noted, were women.

Curious about the back story, I found that medical detectives in Switzerland had pinpointed the origin of the hip trouble more than a decade ago. Arthritis is usually associated with old age, but they discovered it can also strike the young and active.

Women’s hips showed particular vulnerability. By nature, their pelvic regions support an unusually wide range of joint play that can increase not only their proficiency in yoga but, it turned out, their health risks. The investigators found that extreme leg motions could cause the hip bones to repeatedly strike each other, leading over time to damaged cartilage, inflammation, pain and crippling arthritis. They called it Femoroacetabular Impingement — or F.A.I., in medical shorthand. The name spoke to a recurrence in which the neck of the thigh bone (the femur) swung so close to the hip socket (the acetabulum) that it repeatedly struck the socket’s protruding rim.

(FAI means Compression.)

The main investigator was Reinhold Ganz, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Berne, in Switzerland. Between 2001 and 2008, his team published many studies, the 2008 one noting that women between 30 and 40 years of age whose activities made “high demands on motion” tended to show the hip damage more often. The paper specifically cited yoga.

(Read “high range of motion” creates more numerous and aggressive instances of compression. It is the compression, not the flexibility that is culpable.)

The discovery resonated. I found that hundreds of orthopedic surgeons in the Mediterranean region heard a conference presentation in 2010 that linked F.A.I. to middle-aged women who do yoga.

Michael J. Taunton, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told me that he first learned of the danger a half decade ago and now annually performs 10 to 15 hip replacements on people who do yoga. About 90 percent, he added, are women.

(Correlation is not causation. Would these 10 – 15 women have had their hips replaced anyway?)

Stuart B. Kahn, a rehabilitation doctor at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, called F.A.I. “an emerging topic as we learn more about what causes hip pain and osteoarthritis.” He said much remains unknown.

Hip damage, for instance, can have complex causes. In addition to yoga, contributing factors can include bone misalignments, excess body weight and subtle joint deformities that differ from person to person. Hip scientists are exploring such factors, but the variations make it hard to predict who is most likely at risk.

(“Bone misalignments”, “subtle joint deformities”, and “variations” are all subsumed under the concept of skeletal variation.)

Another complication is that yoga probably does help millions of people cope with arthritis, which can strike not just the hips but fingers, knees and shoulders. Scientists have long reported that yoga’s movements can help fight joint inflammation.

Gentle yoga probably helps the hips, too. But, as Dr. Taunton put it, the bending can become “too much of a good thing.”


Ms. Edwards, the yoga teacher in Hawaii, said she warns practitioners to be cautious if doing seated forward bends (like Paschimottanasana), standing forward bends (like Uttanasana) and forward lunges (like Anjaneyasana) — moves that can force the neck of the femur into the socket’s rim.

(Ms Edwards doesn’t mention compression, she asserts that over-stretching ligaments causes “destabilization” which causes degeneration.)

Recently, she aired her warnings in Elephant Journal, an online yoga magazine. If a woman feels hip tenderness when walking, or sharp pain

when doing poses like the revolved triangle, Ms. Edwards said, “you may want to back off.”

(Agreed, but this is due to compression, not over stretched ligaments.)

Surgeons agree that women who moderate their practice can probably avoid hip trouble.

Unfortunately, yoga teachers too often encourage students to “push through the pain.” That’s not smart. Pain is nature’s warning system. It’s telling you that something has gone awry.

(Pushing through compression is impossible.)

Better to do yoga in moderation and listen carefully to your body. That temple, after all, is your best teacher.

(Nice sentiment but listening needs to be informed by the conceptions of tension and compression so that a more accurate interpretation of sensations is possible.)
William J. Broad is a science reporter for The New York Times and the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.”


Do You Spiritually Bypass?

By on March 27th, 2012 — 7 Comments

As a kid, I was a firecracker. If someone poked me, they would get poked back, or sent up in flames. I wasn’t afraid of a fight. I even got into fistfights on occasion—amusing when you consider that I was the smallest (or next to smallest) kid in my class every single year. And a girl.