It is officially Autumn, and Vata season is quickly in full swing! If you live in middle Tennessee, the evenings have turned to perfect sweater weather, even though the daytime is still well in the 70s. Autumn and Vata season is a time for grounding, and for shedding that which is no longer serves our health, safety, happiness, well-being & peace-of-mind. Vata has a naturally dark quality to it; in Nature & the lifecycle, it's expressed as transition to the "end of season" with winter darkness and the wisdom years of old age followed by the transition to death. These are all nature phenomena which is why autumn & Vata season is a powerful time to re-evaluate what & how we are investing our time, effort and energy.
However, as we descend into the dark half of the year, it's easy to let "darkness" overwhelm and overtake us in our bodies, minds & hearts. Often times this darkness is already present in the form of hurtful experiences, traumas, resentments, anger, duress or depression that lingers deep within us--consciously or unconsciously. In light of the collective trauma many of us have been experiencing from COVID-19 in addition to ethnic and race-based trauma that so many People Of Color continue to endure, it is important to have a way to shine light into the dark corners of our beings. With the light of awareness, compassion, patience and curiosity we can begin our healing journey and, in time, shed the hurtful experiences just as trees shed their leaves in fall.
Restorative yoga is a powerful practice to cultivate Self-healing for body, mind & spirit.
In the classical yogic text of the Bhagavad Gita (6.6) it reads:
बन्धुरात्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित: |
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्ते तात्मैव शत्रुवत् || 6||
bandhur ātmātmanas tasya yenātmaivātmanā jitaḥ
anātmanas tu śhatrutve vartetātmaiva śhatru-vat
"For those who have conquered the mind, it is their friend. For those who have failed to do so, the mind works like an enemy."
When we ignore the on-goings of the mind--the thoughts, memories, emotions, fantasies & experiences--it can transform into a very dark place; so dark that we may think we don't have the resilience or skill to deal with the demons in our head. It can appear easier--even normalized--to check out and stuff those emotions & experiences with food, alcohol, sex, gambling, hoarding, drugs (street drugs or abusing prescriptions) or other Self-destructive behavior. Our own minds become a dark prison and our bodies become a physical manifestation of the darkness in our heads.
How can we "conquer" the mind and make it our friend? How can we journey through ourselves and all we have endured to find ourselves again, whole & complete? How can we return to our basic nature of love, compassion & kindness for Self and our fellow human beings?
Restorative yoga is a very passive style of yoga that allows for a slowing down of the mind & body so we can feel safe to begin releasing stress & tension held within our being. Postures are fully supported with props and typically held for extended periods in upwards of 20 minutes. Keep in mind that restorative yoga does not involve actually working with the traumatic or hurtful experience during the practice; it does involve working with the subtle energetic currents within. Physiologically speaking, restorative yoga calms the nervous system and "activates" the parasympathetic "rest, digest & heal" response, also called the "relaxation response."
In her book, Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma, yoga therapist & psychologist Dr. Gail Parker says:
Restorative yoga is a receptive form of yoga that requires no physical exertion... the entire practice, from the very first pose to the very last one, is designed to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the involuntary nervous system that supports rest and recovery....When you are dealing with chronic stress and anxiety, your nervous system remains active, causing muscular tension even as you sleep. Because of this your body never fully relaxes. Restorative yoga allows you to come into a state of deep rest without falling asleep, enabling you to notice where the body holds stress and tension, and where it is relaxed. This is important because people who are chronically stressed are not always able to identify the difference between tension and relaxation, and don't realize they can evoke the relaxation response on their own when they are tense or stressed. Observing and experiencing your body and mind shedding layers of stress and tension, which you may not have even known were there, is empowering.
By practicing restorative yoga we can begin making friends with our mind and learn to let go of stress, tension or anxiety becoming more resilient and flexible in our everyday lives. We can learn that we have the power to change the way we live and how we interact with ourselves and others. We can find freedom in our own beings through training the mind to learn skills for self-regulation of our emotions & thoughts.
On a neurological level, these skills relate to the very real relationship of the head and the heart through the 10th cranial nerve, called the Vagus nerve. This nerve aids in calming the body when you're in a space of perceived threat or stress.
"Vagal tone" is a term scientists use describe to descri