Vermont-based yoga teacher Biff Mithoefer looks like the ultimate contradiction with his very long, very gray beard, sitting in a chi-chi Santa Barbra house. Not surprisingly, the type
of yoga he teaches – Yin - is filled with the same type of contradictions. Is it easy or hard? Depends who you ask. Is it old or new? Same answer. Are there a set number of poses? Pretty much the same answer. To get the skinny on a style (or school?) of yoga many are just learning about, Cynthia Kling sat down with Mithoefer, one of a handful of highly respected Yin teachers, before his workshops at Omega, The Path of Yin Yoga, 8/28 – 9/2; and later Teacher Training, 9/18 -9/23.
Cynthia Kling: People say Yin is a passive, easy, form of yoga. Do you agree?
Biff Mithoefer: Is sitting easy? When you sit in one pose for a long time it can be hard, boring. We try to do that with acceptance - but acceptance and passivity are not the same thing at all. One is about remaining balanced, accepting what is there, and the other is losing the balance and just giving in. This is a simple practice but it is definitely not an easy practice.
CK: Are there are only 16 poses?
BM: No, I teach only 16. In Yin, there is no guru, no script, each teacher decides for themselves what is appropriate. I was egocentrically concerned when I started teaching
because I had dozens of postures in my tool kit from teaching vinyasa and I thought, people are going to think I only know 16. But doing a lot of different poses is a distraction. The greatest favor I could do for my students: exactly the same sequence every day for year. It is a disservice to make it complicated
CK: How did you come to this understanding
BM: I realized that Thich Nhat Hanh only had two poses, walking and sitting. The Dalai Lama only has one - sitting. So how many do I need? When the Dalai Lama gets up and says, “ok I understand that one, I am ready to move on,” then I will add more as well.
CK: I’ve heard that you can get into the deepest tissues, including the bones, doing yin but others say that’s just not possible. Can you clarify?
BM: There are many aspects to yin – the physical, the emotional, the energetic. On a physical level, can we influence bones? Probably not, but we can very possibly get to the connective tissue between the bones. On an emotional level, I believe every single cell of the body, holds our stories, our traumas. Like rolfing or Thai massage, Yin gets deeply in there and release those stories. So, in that way, we are getting very deeply in, into the bones.
CK: Is Yin old or new?
BM: Well, you could say that Yin started with the publication of Paul Grilley’s book Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice about 13 years ago. But the concepts - finding a steady seat both physically and mentally, figuring out one’s own correct alignment, using just a few simple poses - all reflect classical principals and reflect a much older form of yoga than many of those being taught today - and so you could say it is both.
CK:So what are we really going for in Yin?
BM: My real passion lies in willingness to learn to accept ourselves and others. I think that is what people are most craving in their lives right now. Conflict in the world comes from not being able to accept the difference in others but with acceptance comes equanimity and with that comes compassion, loving kindness and sympathetic joy say the Buddhists.
BM: We help Tibetan refugee children and their families. The idea came into being when my wife and I had an audience with the Dalai Lama who says that kindness was his religion. He also told us Tibetans believe that kindness is an action: one must not only love
but take care of those we love, this is true kindness. We asked him how we could be most helpful and he spoke of getting personally involved with the children and that is what we’ve done.
All of the money from my teachings goes to it. [Biff was teaching in Santa Barbara when we spoke but does most of his teachings in Europe where they are less interested in fast drive-thru yoga classes.]
CK: Finally, if every yin has some yang, then what is the yang of Yin Yoga?
BM: Yang part is that you must have the determination to do the practice, get to your mat. If you don’t then you move into the passive state – losing the drive to show up.