The Short History of Yin Yoga

Original Piece 2016 | Avani

Yin Yoga was officially titled as “Yin” by Sarah Powers after years of study with Paul Grilley in a form of practice he had originally referred to as “Taoist Yoga”.  

According to Paul Grilley, there are three “threads” that created the Yin Yoga practice.  Those are :

1.) Anatomy (as taught to him by his mentor Dr. Parker)

2.) The Practice (learned and studied from Paulie Zink)

3.) Meridian Theory (as studied with Dr. Motoyama)

The term “Yin Yoga” was coined to differentiate between this softer, slower, still practice and the more modern  vinyasa styles of yoga (which could be considered “Yang”).  

Holding poses for an extended period of time was not something new to the yoga practice when it began to develop in the 1970’s in the United States.  Both in the Hatha Yoga traditions of India as well as the Taoist Yoga traditions of China there were advocates for holding the poses for extended lengths of time.  BKS Iyengar recommended holding Supta Virasana for 10 to 15 minutes!  In Taoist yoga practices long holds were intended to improve health and longevity or “internal alchemy”.  You can see this trend historically in not just Taoist and Hatha practices, but also Dao Yin, Kung Fu and other martial arts tracing back 2000+ years as well as in dance, gymnastics and any other discipline that require building flexibility. 

In the late 1970’s Paulie Zink, a martial arts champion and Taoist Yoga teacher, was continuing his study with Kung Fu master Cho Chat Ling.  He worked with Monkey Kung Fu and won numerous championships in  the 80’s.  He was frequently praised for his flexibility and agility.   Zink continuously emphasized long held stretches in his training and when he began to drift from martial arts training it was to move towards a Hatha Yoga / Taoist Yoga / Martial Arts combination that he called “Yin and Yang Yoga”.  He taught his students long held poses to build flexibility but coupled it with poses to connect students to their own nature as well.  This was through Taoist Yoga, smooth, circular movement, breathing techniques and Yang poses.  He also worked with Chinese Medicines Five Element Theory within his practices.

Paul Grilley saw a segment on Paulie Zink from a television show in the 1980’s.  He was performing Taoist Yoga practices that struck the interest of then Hatha Yoga teacher, Grilley.  He was impressed by the gentleness and restraint of the Taoist practice and sought out Paulie Zink for private study.  Grilley studied intensively with Zink for a year.  He had previously studied  anatomy and physiology under Dr. Garry Parker in Montana and continued his anatomy studies at UCLA where he was also teaching yoga and managing a yoga studio.   

In the late 80’s Grilley connected with Hiroshi Motoyama who was a Japanese yogi that had written on and researched Traditional Chinese Medicine and physiology.  He was a master student and teacher on the meridians.  Motoyama connected Meridian and Qi theory with that of the Chakras, nadis and prana of India.  

The result of Paul Grilley’s time with Paulie Zink and studies with Hiroshi Motoyama and Dr. Parker was a practice of yoga that combined knowledge of gross anatomy, the long holds of Zink’s practice and the meridian theory and subtle anatomy teachings of Motoyama.  He built asana series around the meridians, much like how an acupuncturist would structure a treatment.  Many people seemed to connect with this “new” style of yoga.  Students saw benefits not just in flexibility but in joint health as well as the mindfulness portions of their practice.   

Sarah Powers was a student of Paul Grilley’s who began teaching in Grilley’s style.  She incorporated her own area of study, Buddhist psychology, into the practice.  She also targeted meridian systems and generating the  effective flow of Qi.  It is Powers who first coined the term  “Yin Yoga” expressing the need to differentiate from the Taoist Yoga practices of Paulie Zink which were very different that what had now developed.  They adopted the name.  Powers was already an acclaimed and traveling yoga teacher.  She now began to spread the teachings of the new system called “Yin Yoga.” Both Powers and Grilley continue to tour, teach and share this practice although each have developed unique elements to their theories.  Paulie Zink also continues to travel and teach his adapted version of Yin Yoga.  While Paul Grilley is the go to teacher for functional and energetic anatomy within the Yin practice, Zink continues to focus on yin as a way to “open the heart and invoke the primal self” reminiscent of his days with Monkey Kung Fu.  Powers takes an approach based more on cultivating inner stillness and incorporating meditation techniques.  


Bernie Clark has written several books on Yin Yoga and is also seen as a leader in the field.  He has been teaching yoga and meditation 

since 1998.  Clark combines his intense interest in yoga with an understanding of the scientific approach to investigating the nature of things. His ongoing studies have taken him  deeply inside mythology, comparative religions and psychology. All of these avenues of exploration have clarified his understanding of the ancient Eastern practices of yoga and meditation. His teaching, workshops and books have helped many students         broaden their own understanding of health, life and the source of true joy. 

Bernie’s yoga practice encompasses the hard, yang-styles, such as Ashtanga and Power Yoga, and the softer, yin-styles, as exemplified in Yin Yoga. His meditation experience goes back to the early 80’s when he first began to explore the practice of Zen meditation. During those days, while he struggled with the conflict between practice and theory, Bernie also worked as a member of the executive team of one of Canada’s oldest and largest Hi-Technology companies. Bernie has written:  Your Body, Your Yoga, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, YinSights,  From the Gita to the Grail and Your Spine, Your Yoga.  His website YinYoga.com is an excellent resource for all Yin teachers.  He also teaches Yin Yoga trainings and workshops in Canada and internationally.

Biff Mithoefer has also written several important resources including: The Yin Yoga Kit and The Therapeutic Yoga Kit.  Biff Mithoefer Teaches Yin Yoga workshops and teacher trainings throughout the U.S. and Internationally.  He has studied shamanism with teachers of the Shapibo tradition of Eastern Peru,  and is a student of cross-cultural shamanism, as taught by Angeles Arrien. Biff is a founder and director of the Jamtse Sponsorship Project, for the support of Tibetan refuge children. He lives with his family in Dorset, Vermont.