killing yoga’s sacred cows: Paul Grilley training, part 2

“HOW CAN THERE BE UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF ALIGNMENT WHEN EVERYONE’S BONES ARE DIFFERENT?”

How indeed?

I have been a student of Paul Grilley’s for about five years now and I’ve been teaching yin yoga for three years. I first did a workshop with him at the Midwest Yoga Conference and as soon as he said “yoga is all in the bones” I was hooked. Paul is an anatomy genius and as I listened to him explain why there will always be poses that some of us will never be able to do a lightbulb went off over my head. I thought, “why isn’t every yoga teacher learning from this man?”

Five years ago Paul brought real bones to his workshops. not plastic bones, real bones, in a suitcase, so imagine him getting through airport security. he doesn’t do that anymore because they began to deteriorate, but you can see the pictures of those bones on his website.

every yoga teacher who reads this blog should click on each picture and learn how everyone’s bones are different. our bones are different on each side of our bodies. we are not symetrical. let that sink in and think about how your students look in asanas.

Why is shoulderstand exceedingly easy for one person and the next one hates it?

Why does one person’s foot come out farther in front in pigeon and the next person can’t get their foot very much past their pubic bone? and how many yoga teachers walk over and immediately pull that foot out in front because that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be? yeah, that must be written on a palm leaf in India somewhere.

Why can the person who’s never done yoga do lotus in their sleep and the next person will never be able to do lotus no matter how much they try even though they’ve been doing yoga for 20 years?

And how many students reading this post feel inadequate because you can’t get into that Yoga Journal cover version of pigeon or shoulderstand no matter how many daily hours of yoga you do?

Get over it because it’s all in the bones. it has nothing to do with flexibility. nothing. zilch. not one iota. so forget about it. and that attitude should be extremely liberating and open up your yoga practice to something that is much deeper.

Of course we become more flexible with yoga, but only to the extent to which we are genetically programmed to become. and flexibility has to do with the connective tissue, the fascia of the body, it has nothing to do with muscles. it has nothing to do with doing 50 chatarungas and jump-backs in a session. that’s muscular. that’s not yin, that’s yang movement.

The asanas in yin yoga are done on the floor and are held for a minimum of 3 to 5 minutes because that’s the way the fascia of the body must be worked. it is totally different from a yang, moving, vinyasa practice. that is strength building muscular movement — the power of your muscles does not translate to flexibility. yin movement is about the health of your joints. both are need for a healthy body. yoga is about balance, the yin AND the yang of all things.

For poses such as pigeon, double pigeon (square pose), and cowface pose, the ability to do them comfortably has to do with how your femur connects to your pelvis. are your femurs internally or externally rotated? look at the femur pictures on Paul’s site and see how each one is different. combine that with the location of our hip sockets in our pelvis. the sockets might be shallow or deep or more toward the front or back or toward the sides. or higher up on the pelvis or farther down below. combine that socket position with the length and angle of the neck of the femur. I think you get the idea. and now ask yourself: how can there be universal principles of alignment when everyone’s bones are different? knowing that, how is that going to change your attitude about adjusting your students?

I am an example of extreme internal rotation. Paul uses me in his workshops in Chicago as an example of uber-Gumbyness. every year he asks me to lie on my abdomen and I bend one knee so that my leg forms a 90 degree angle. he then takes my foot and slowly moves my lower leg down out sideways so that my foot almost touches the floor — my opposite hip does not or barely comes up off the floor. and every year the entire studio of yoga teachers takes a huge collective gasp as they watch him do that. and then he does the other leg. and then he does both legs at the same time. with sound effects. by that time I’m usually asleep if I’m not laughing so hard at everyone’s reactions.

After my hip demo at this last workshop someone yelled out, “wouldn’t you like to x-ray her hips?” he said yes so I told him that I’m going to will my pelvis and femurs to him so if I die before him he can still continue to use me in his workshops. I found out later that Paul calls me “Linda Crazy Hips.”

In my years of study with Paul, I can line people up, examine how their arms hang, and know who will have an easy or difficult time with chatarunga by looking at the rotation of the insides of their elbows. that rotation will determine hand placement. hand placement will determine whether someone can comfortably hover off the floor or whether they are going to rip a rotator cuff next time they come down. I can tell how comfortably someone will be able to do shoulderstand if I ask them to drop their chin to their chest or clasp their hands behind them and lift the arms. it’s all in the bones, baby.

What I love about Paul is how he kills yoga’s sacred cows. iconoclasts are close to my heart since I’m an iconoclast yoga facilitator who loves to tweak cultural myths. he challenges you to think outside the yoga box. he throws out questions to make you think beyond the standard yoga paradigms like: in old traditional yoga books, why is there no mention of the “correct” alignment? one photo above is Paul showing us slides of old yoga books where everyone is doing the same asana differently, usually in the “wrong” way. how many of us teach that the knee should never go past the toes in a lunge? look at old pictures of Krishnamacharya. I’ve studied at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram three times and I can tell you that I’ve never heard Sir (i.e., Sri Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son) use the word “alignment” once.

Paul acknowledges that his teaching is not everyone’s cup of chai. we become angry when anyone challenges our long-held beliefs that we thought were so solid. Paul told a story about how during one of his workshops a woman walked out and he could see her outside the room angrily pacing back and forth. he said when she came back at the end of the workshop she told him how much he challenged her beliefs about how yoga “should be.” let’s just say that Iyengar yoga purists and Paul usually don’t see eye to eye. killing sacred cows can be a hard thing to do but someone has to do it.

I’ll leave you with a question that Paul asked us. it has to do with the physicality of yoga, with the ability to “advance” in the asanas:

How would it affect your practice if you would never get “better” in yoga? how would that affect you emotionally? once you hit that wall of never getting “better”, would you shift your emphasis away from the physical to the energetics of yoga?

He used me as an example again. he said, “Linda has been doing yoga a long time. you’ve seen how flexible she is. do you really think she does yoga to become more flexible? there has to be something more.”

(p.s. if you’d like a yin or yin/yang workshop for your studio, leave a comment with your contact information — I’d be happy to present!)



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15 thoughts on “killing yoga’s sacred cows: Paul Grilley training, part 2

  1. Oh, yes, this gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it Linda? That yoga is a SPIRITUAL practice and when we focus on people’s “bendy-ness,” which so much yoga does, then we are completely and utterly missing the point!

  2. I just discovered your wonderful blog today. I noticed your postings on Indiamike.com and finally made the connection.I made my first trip to India in August. I attended a 4 week program at KYM in Chennai.I am also planning to go back to India next summer, but I’m not sure where. I think KYM is going to offer a teacher’s training course for international students starting in the spring of 2009 but I don’t think I can afford it. I have been looking into other programs that people have mentioned on the IndiaMike website.Thanks again for providing such insightful reading.

  3. I just discovered your wonderful blog today. I have been following the IndiaMike website for a few months and I finally made the connection.I made my first trip to India in August. I too studied at KYM in Chennai and it has changed how I teach.I am hoping to go back to India next summer. I want to find another intensive or month long teacher training course that will help me deepen my practice.I’m so happy I found your blog.Shanti.

  4. I can’t wait for you to write the details about your recent training and/or practice with Mr. Paul. Pictures are not doing it for me, they are just little teasers:-)Regards,Dhanashri

  5. Your blog about Paul’s workshop was worth the wait :-)Loved it. I am going to send the link to my iyengar yoga teacher in Pune, India. It will be fun to see his reaction.Now I can finally stop worrying about not being able to do spilts/tortoise and some other poses. Thank you once again.

  6. DOn’t worry at all. Abhay(my teacher in Pune) has open heart and sense of humor too. The fact that we are all different in our bones/anatomy is driving the use of props in the first place, isn’t it? Then why would paul and Iyengar would not look eye to eye? I am a little confused. You have to forgive me if I am asking silly/stupid doubts. I am still learning.

  7. “Then why would paul and Iyengar would not look eye to eye?”only for the fact that some yoga teachers (and I am NOT speaking specifically about Iyengar yoga) still insist that an asana must be done a “certain” way in order to be “right” without taking into consideration a person’s bone structure.in my years of yoga-ing, I’ve seen this happen many, many times sometimes to the great detriment of the student, i.e., injuries that did not have to happen if it was not for the insistence of the teacher.

  8. This post was incredibly helpful and insightful…for years I keep feeling that my one leg is just a bit longer then the other–and Yoga really made me notice this…but I don't know, I assumed deep heartedly that we WERE SYMETRICAL!!! I feel so much more at ease now…and damn it, I have to stop questioning that little voice inside me—she knew all the time about the bone thing! Ha!Peace & Love.

  9. I too have studied with Paul and now incorporate his teaching in my teacher training. We have met with some resistance from some of our students, even after we show them the pictures, but I believe with continued education and understanding they will be able to put down their blinders and awaken to the reality that each of us come into this world build differently and to insist on a one size fits all form of alignment is crazy. I will be traveling to India next month and am looking forward to studying yoga from its source, getting back to the heart of what yoga is all about. I wonder, do they teach as much alignment principles or is that an american thing.
    Kimberly
    Aledo yoga and Nia studio
    Colibre School of Hatha Yoga

  10. Wow, how did I miss this post?

    Its true, yoga teachers are trained to look for “correct alignment”. But how do we know what “correct” looks like for every individual? Simple answer is that we don't, and there's no way everyone's gonna look like the cookie cutter version of “correct” photographed and displayed in asana books, let alone Yoga Journal.

    Then of course, stir in injuries (physical or emotional/mental) and that changes things once again.

    You know the thing I love most about the fact that I'm becoming a yoga teacher? Its that there's so much to study. Shadow Yoga, Yin Yoga and a whole bunch more. Here's to ongoing studies for the rest of my life!

  11. I'm commenting a second time! FUNNY!

    When I was at Kripalu, I was being called gumby! At a YOGA retreat! Which says a lot about bone differences.

    And just the other day in a class I was facilitating, a woman said, “Now…Should my feet go here or…”

    I said, “Your feet should go where your feet go since I've never seen an x-ray of your bones!”

    :)

  12. Ah yes, the alignment controversy. I studied with Iyengar and many of his teachers for years and still do. But I've also been working with Donna Farhi since 1989. It was in one of her workshops that I discovered a major problem with one of yoga's sacred cows—aligning the pelvis straight forward in standing poses. Because of the variations in location, depth and orientation of the pelvic sockets, very few people can hold this alignment without compromising their SI joint. After years of forcing this alignment principle, I have a very unstable SI joint. Letting the hip of your back leg rotate inward in standing poses not only saves my SI joint, it also gives me MUCH more stability in my back leg.

    Beginning students can have a hard time figuring out how to align themselves because it's just too subtle. Often they're not accustomed to feeling their bodies at all. In these cases, a teacher can really help them find a healthier way to practice. But I feel that a teacher needs to understand that yoga is not a one-size-fits-all practice. It would be much easier for us as teachers if everyone was exactly alike, but that's not reality!

    We all have the ability to be mindful. As a student's awareness grows, it becomes easier for him/her to trust that little voice that Linda speaks of.

    I saw Paul give an anatomy demo at the Midwest Yoga Conference probably five years ago. It was brilliant. All yoga teachers should see this!

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