The Art of Yin Yoga: An Interview With Its Founder, Paulie Zink
When you think “Yin Yoga,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you visualize a yoga teacher sitting quietly at the front of a classroom as students languish in passive, long, and deep stretches. This is the Yin Yoga that many of us have come to know, and perhaps even practice regularly.
But Paulie Zink, founder of this increasingly popular practice, has been teaching Yin for over 40 years in an entirely different fashion. Read on to explore the vision behind Zink’s teachings and the holistic benefits of this artful practice. Discover what sets his style of Yin apart from the rest, and you may never see Yin Yoga the same way again.
How would you define Yin Yoga?
Yin Yoga is rooted in the ancient shamanic tradition of China, and in the Chinese Taoist philosophy of being at one with everything and in harmony with your own nature. Yin postures are based on the characteristics of animals and on the five alchemical elements contained in the universal life force all around us and through us. The life force, known as chi or prana, is the subtle yet very powerful energy that informs nature. It’s the pulsation of the yin and the yang, the feminine and the masculine, the ebb and flow of the universe.
[According to Traditional Chinese Medicine] The five elemental energies are Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire. Each of these energies expresses a distinct quality, such as stillness, hardness, fluidity, springiness, and lightness. Yin Yoga is about awakening your body and mind to the energetics of the posture you are holding. Flexibility is developed by growing into postures and activating the alchemical elements of the postures.
For instance, if you hold the posture of a frog every day for a few minutes, eventually you will grow right into the posture and become the essence or spirit of the frog, which has a very springy quality. The intention in Yin Yoga is that of becoming endowed with the essence of a posture by embodying the energies of the creatures and the alchemical elements.
The postures themselves are the least important part of the practice. Most important is development of the melody, or the spirit that infuses the transitions and the flow of postures.
The purpose of Yin Yoga is to restore our natural ability to move with fluidity. This in turn develops the flow of chi throughout the body. The most important thing to me is not achieving a static posture, but rather capturing the essence of the posture. If you are in a posture of an animal or an element and you are not embodying the energetics of that particular posture, then you are in a dead or inanimate pose. But if you are in a posture and can flow with the energetic quality of one of the elements or animals, then you have developed an understanding of its purpose.
Compare it to musical notes—what good are they if you play just one note, and then another, if you don’t allow them to become part of a song? The postures themselves are the least important part of the practice. Most important is development of the melody, or the spirit that infuses the transitions and the flow of postures. This is what they are meant for—to enable you to move naturally and instinctively like an animal, because we are animals.
How has Yin Yoga evolved from the days when you first began studying Taoist yoga?
I started doing hatha yoga at age 14. I had been practicing that style about nine years when I met my Taoist master. He taught me an ancient Chinese healing art form called Tao Yin, as well as other chi kung arts. I learned one or two postures from my teacher for several of the animals and each of the elements. And then, on my own initiative, I observed animals at the zoo and in other places, and I started learning about the different types of animals and their movements. So for every posture I learned from my master, I elaborated on it and created several variations. I also developed many more postures and variations of postures, flows and movements, meditations, and energetic insights.
If I see an animal in motion and I want to embody the energy of that animal, then I watch it and become one with it by blending my mind with it and feeling its energetic state in my own body. By doing this, I can create a posture that is based on a living being rather than a symbolic representation of one. It’s about astutely observing nature and the animals around us and becoming unified with them by energetically merging your consciousness with theirs.
We truly are inseparable from everything, so if you want to embody something in the world around you, you can. My master didn’t teach me this. I discovered it myself. That’s what makes it my own art form. He taught me a little of the alchemy; but most of what I learned came from my own inner experience of doing it.
Yoga is often taught in the West with an emphasis on anatomy, and articulated as a detailed science. You describe Yin Yoga as an art form, rather than an exact science. Can you expound upon this?
I don't teach anatomy. I teach students to be fully present in the felt experience of practicing yoga. I teach students to open to their untapped potential of inherent possibilities. I found that theory and practice are two separate things. The book theory is okay if you just want to have the knowledge. But if you try to apply the book theory it doesn't really work, because the theory is a lot of complicated thought processes that come from the analytical mind.
Animals in the wild don't use theory. They don't have that kind of preoccupation. They are just their true natures. They feel and act without any abstract concepts of reality or analysis about how they are operating their bodies. So if you’re thinking about anatomy and theory while practicing yoga, then you are not able to feel the flow. You’re missing it, because your mind is busy with thinking instead of feeling and being fully present with what you are doing.
The animals are the real masters of flowing movement, and none of them think and use theory the way we do. But we are an animal—we are primates too, so we should be as good as they are. Yet we’re not, because our minds are so distracted and obstructed with all these different thoughts and judgments about how we should be doing it. If in my practice of yoga I tried to use the traditional theories of yoga and alchemy I learned from books and lectures, it wouldn’t be an art form, it would be an intellectual formula.
Teaching by example is the truest way of teaching. If I demonstrate a posture and embody its energy, then you can see how it’s done and get a feeling for it. But if you get lectured to about doing it, if you listen to someone else’s interpretation of doing it, you're not going to be experiencing your own true way of being it. Seeing it being done is more effective than hearing about it.
If you want to move as the natural animals we are, there is no way you can do that by following the rules of some system or theory. None of the other primates can think about the scientific theory. Yet they are the masters of flow and movement. They prove that you don't need any kind of theory to do it. Theories that teach about limitation and conforming to some concept can hinder you. Subscribing to someone else’s idea of what yoga is or is not can prevent you from growing into postures and doing the movement and flow, because you're imprisoned by a limiting belief system. And being focused in the intellect detaches us from the immediacy of directly felt experience.
The Western scientific model is the prevailing paradigm in our culture. We can get stuck in an ideology that claims that no field or discipline is valid unless it is authorized by Western science and analysis. I see this happening with yoga as it has been introduced into Western society. But yoga has been practiced with great success by many masters in other cultures for centuries, without any of them learning any Western science. However, yoga has now become academically institutionalized in the sense that people are involved in all kinds of studies of philosophy, theory, and scientific explanations about yoga. So teacher training tends to be much more about lectures and book work, and less about practicing yoga and learning how to develop skill. In the old days, many of the real yoga masters were about getting stoned and just doing it.
Doing it is the most important thing. The students’ health and well-being will benefit much more from spending their time practicing yoga and paying attention to their breath and what they are feeling, rather than hearing someone talk about it.
What difference does it make when practitioners approach yoga as an art form rather than a science?
Yin Yoga is an art form and not an exact science because every single person has an individuality that is expressed through her heart as she practices the art. So it's about the uniqueness of self-expression. The way you become an animal posture will not be the same way another person becomes that same animal posture; but the way you do it will be true to your own state of being in that moment.
If you think of yoga in terms of a scientific structure, then you confine it within a mechanistic framework that is static and unyielding. The spontaneous creative expression of art is alive. But when you repeat something and copy it, over and over again, the same way your teacher did it, you're just making a replica of somebody else’s method. I don’t want my students to mimic me. I want them to discover their own innate artistic expression and ability to flow with movement—differently than I do. In this way it is a living art that is constantly evolving.
Science is based on objective observation. It is an intellectual construction. But art, like life, is subjective. Our experience of being alive, of what we feel and perceive, is organic and intuitive.
We are organisms, not mechanisms. It is very important to be able to change and to adapt.
We should be like water pouring into a malleable vessel, alive and whole and present. If we flow like water in our bodies and our consciousness, then we can more readily adapt to our circumstances and surroundings. We can move with more fluidity, power, and grace. We feel a more heightened awareness of the natural world, and are more at ease within ourselves and in our bodies.
A lot of people don't think they're apes. They have lost the awareness of this inherent and fundamental aspect of what we are. When you practice an art form like this, it unleashes the primal self within each person and helps to bring forth that vitality and playfulness. And when that happens, then you know you’re a primate—and as a primate, you don't need theory and institutionally prescribed methods.
It’s like the difference between listening to a live musical performance and listening to a recording. The recording is always the same. But when you go to hear master musicians playing live, it is never the exact same performance. There is innovation and spontaneity and fluctuations in mood and tempo. That's what I have been doing with my teachings. I never teach a class or workshop the exact same way twice. I don’t teach by a formula or pre-written script. And I never do my own practice the same way twice. I don’t follow any regimen. It's always different, because every moment in time is something new.
What are some of the ways in which your students have benefited from this approach?
It has opened them up to their fuller potential and allowed them to grow and flow tremendously. It has helped them develop a deeper awareness of themselves and brought them more freedom in their practice by liberating them from preconceptions. I’ve also seen many students improve and heal chronic injuries and blockages.
If yoga is purely an art form, couldn’t anyone just make up postures and call it “yoga”?
Yes, they could. Many yoga postures come from the primal way we use our bodies when we live in a more wild state close to nature. All yoga as a discipline was made up by somebody somewhere. They did this by attuning to their bodies and deliberately developing a greater range of motion and flexibility.
What are some of the common misconceptions and expectations about Yin Yoga that students have when they first attend your workshops?
They think they have limitations, and that they can’t grow beyond their present ability. They believe their bodies are limited by their genetics. They think they will just sit there and relax, doing very easy and simple postures. They think they will be timed with a stopwatch and do every posture for the exact same duration. They think that Yin Yoga is a soft, static, sleepytime kind of yoga. And that the emphasis is on the connective tissue. But Yin Yoga as I intended it to be taught is not any of these things. Many people teach Yin Yoga as a restorative practice, which is fine for those students who need it. But when you have healthy students and you only teach them the easiest, softest form of the yoga, you’re not giving them what they need to strengthen and tone the body. And you need strength and resiliency to be able to move naturally and achieve optimal health.
I don’t think of a body as an assemblage of parts like a machine. I think in terms of wholeness. We are each an organism—not a mechanism. There is no one area or part of the body that is separate from everything else in the body. So, to me, it’s not appropriate to be thinking about connective tissue or even meridians when you are doing Yin Yoga. This yoga is about feeling, not thinking. It’s more effective to focus the mind on what you are experiencing and to visualize how you want to grow.
I want you to be a whole person, to be one in your body, mind, and heart, and to feel connected to everything around you. I don't want you to be fragmented, thinking about parts of yourself as separate from other parts. When you develop flexibility, every component of your body is affected: muscles, tendons, ligaments, veins and arteries, bones, organs, circulation, and energy flow. As long as you are alive, you are growing new cells. Your bones are alive and living in your body. So even your bones can grow and change shape and increase in density.
I don’t think of a body as an assemblage of parts like a machine. I think in terms of wholeness. We are each an organism—not a mechanism.
How is Yin Yoga different from hatha yoga?
One difference is that in hatha yoga, there is a focus on moving prana (chi) up and down the spine. In the traditional Taoist practice, the chi flow is different. Vital energy is channeled up and down the spine and through the chakras, and then through the limbs and out the hands, feet, and head. This is called “moving chi in the five directions.” Chi is cultivated in the center and then moved through the whole body, and then out beyond the body—extending the body’s energetic field, the way an animal does. An animal uses its whole body for its chi. An animal doesn’t think that it is limited to only moving energy up and down its spine. An animal doesn’t think about it, an animal feels it. So, in this type of yoga you don’t think about it—you feel it.
A monkey isn't going to move “properly,” as if it has a pole for a spine. So I don’t believe in that theory, because I tried it that way and it didn’t work for me. When I let that theory go, that's when I really started to get it. I got it by learning from the real masters, which were the monkeys I studied in the zoo. I used to go to the zoo every month and spend the day with the monkeys. I use to feed them peanuts and sometimes I would hold onto their hands.
Sometimes I would hold onto their forearms and feel their muscles, and I’d always look them in the eye. The big adult male mandrill would stare at me, and I would just stare back at him. I would merge my mind with their minds. By doing this, I learned from them what was real.
Once I learned the real way from them, then I knew that the traditional theories weren’t any good for my purposes. It’s the same thing with the meridian theory. It’s okay to know, but you don’t need to know it. It’s more useful to feel the energy moving through your entire body than to think about the locations of the meridians.
You refer to Yin Yoga as a “complete art.” What do you mean by this? What makes Yin Yoga a complete art?
It’s a complete art because it teaches about the different facets of our being. It teaches you diet, exercises, the way of being in the world that is true to your own nature. It teaches you strength, flexibility, balance, movement, and agility. It teaches the cultivation and circulation of subtle energies throughout the body and beyond it, and extending your energetic field. It teaches playfulness, and feeling your primal power, and letting go of self-conscious thought that keeps you inhibited. It teaches stillness, and from the stillness comes movement. It teaches you how to harmonize the yin and yang forces within you. It teaches you how to unlearn notions, and how to become exuberant—the way you were as a child. It teaches you how to move naturally, the way a monkey moves.
The spiritual philosophy is there for those who want to learn it. It comes from the Chinese Taoist philosophy that is Earth-honoring and feminine-based. It’s about remembering our wholeness by returning to the source of our being and realizing our interconnection with The Great Mother, and with the Earth and all of life. The Tao means “the way”—that is, the way of nature.
And in nature, life is born out of the feminine.
Existence is manifested from the void, the great mysterious undifferentiated potential of creation that gives rise to the myriad of things, and through which we are all interrelated and interdependent.
By feeling this connection, by feeling it alive and moving through us, we feel our completeness with life.
We can feel how each and every one of us is a unique artistic expression of the divine, eternal, and infinite creative power of existence.