By Jaymie Meyer, CWP, ERYT500
My first experience of restorative yoga occurred 19 years ago. While practicing yoga nidra (yogic sleep), I went far, far away. Not only did I feel rejuvenated upon my return, I was intensely curious: How could lying on my back, awake, for just 20 minutes provide such delicious renewal?
There’s no question that we all face stress; it’s a part of life. Holidays present unique stressors for many including long distance travel and family dynamics. Those affected by the recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy face the additional burden of rebuilding their lives. For each of us – whatever the cause – restorative yoga can provide a welcome sanctuary.
Let’s examine the ways in which restorative yoga works. It’s a process the ancients knew well, and one that science now embraces in a big way.
Mental/Emotional Stress Is Physical
Yoga teaches that there are five layers of awareness, or koshas. Like Russian nesting dolls, they are progressive. Within the most manifest aspect of our being, the body sheath, is the breath sheath. Within that is the mental sheath, then the sheath of discernment, then – finally – the bliss sheath. The bliss sheath, say the ancients, is our “true, unchanging and abiding self.”
Yogis knew that if stress exists in the mind or emotional body, it is also held in the physical body. Thus, effective stress reduction must involve the outer sheaths of body and breath, as well as the mind and spirit nestled within.
By calming the physical body first, deeper and subtler layers of our being are more easily accessed. Like a stone sinking into a body of still, clear water, we can go deeper and deeper to unexplored and astonishingly tranquil regions beneath.
Getting Started with Restorative Yoga
As with all yoga, breath awareness is key. The breath is the bridge between mind and body, and an extraordinary gateway to the nervous system. When you’re lethargic, it can be used to vitalize and uplift. When you’re over-stimulated or anxious, it can be used to calm.
For most people, starting with in-breaths and out-breaths of equal length, then slowly extending the exhalation one or two counts longer than the inhalation is deeply calming.
Comfort matters when doing restorative yoga, so props are used for each pose to fully support every part of the body. This decreases muscular tension while promoting a deep sense of safety and well-being. Keeping the light low and your body warm also help activate the relaxation response.
In general, the physiological effects that apply to active yoga also hold for restorative practice. Backbends, for instance, are energizing and uplifting; forward bends, calming and quieting. Twists are detoxifying and improve circulation to vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, spleen, gallbladder and adrenal glands. Inversions (where the head is lower than the heart) are cooling and calming, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and stabilizing blood pressure. (They also help lessen edema.)
One caution when practicing yoga: It’s not uncommon to have an active mind and lethargic body, or vice versa. In that case, it’s important to work one-on-one with a qualified instructor to receive appropriate guidance. If your local yoga studio doesn’t offer regular restorative classes, I recommend finding a certified teacher close by.
To find a qualified teacher and/or explore teaching restorative yoga, I can personally endorse two outstanding programs. For many years I studied with and assisted Judith Lasater , Ph.D., P.T.
Judith’s site for Relax and Renew® Restorative Yoga trainers is: www.restorativeyogateachers.com. Two other beloved teachers of mine are Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peel. They offer Therapeutic Yoga Training and their online directory of graduates can be found at: http://www.therapeuticyoga.com/people/find-teacher.html
Countless studies at the National Institutes of Health have shown the benefits of restorative yoga for depression, fatigue, anxiety, high blood pressure, mental health, PTSD and overall quality of life. For women in mid-years, it provides balance and significantly reduces hot flashes. And across populations, it has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein – a marker for inflammation and common denominator in a wide array of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.
Ready to start? Consider making a mini-retreat through the days between Christmas and New Year’s, dedicating just 30 minutes each day for practice. I think you’ll find it a vitalizing way to wrap up the year and prepare anew for 2013!
Here’s one of my favorite poses, which Judith Lasater calls “Instant Maui.”
Props: chair, 4 blankets or towels, 1 eye bag or scarf, 2 additional eye bags for hands (optional), 2 sandbags (optional).
Place a folded blanket or bath towel on the floor in line with the chair. Lower your back onto the blanket and lift your lower legs to rest on the chair seat, making sure your lower legs are comfortable and parallel to the floor. If needed, use a lower surface such as an ottoman or coffee table instead of the chair.
If you have sandbags, and you like a feeling of “grounding” on the body, place one bag across the lower abdomen and another across the ankles. Next place the additional folded towel or blanket under your head, ensuring the forehead is slightly higher than the chin.
Lay an eye bag or scarf across your eyes, avoiding any pressure on the eyeballs. Extend your arms to each side of your body and slightly elevate the wrists by placing each hand on a folded towel or blanket. Rest an eye bag in each palm, allowing the fingers to curl gently.
Breathe deeply and allow yourself to enjoy this deeply restorative pose for at least 20 minutes.
Tip: Because the body temperature tends to drop when practicing, keep cozy and warm by covering yourself – including your feet and hands – with a soft throw or blanket. The warmth and darkness help to activate the sleep centers of the brain.
About the Author
Jaymie Meyer, CWP, ERYT500, is a wellness educator with certifications in stress management, resilience coaching, yoga therapy and Ayurveda Health Education. She works nationally delivering programs “on-site” and “on-line” for corporations, organizations and individuals. For more information visit: www.resilienceforlife.com