October Newsletter: Restorative Yoga & Practicing Letting Go
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 describe the strength of the vagus nerve by tracking the conjunction of heart rate & breathing rate. In a nutshell, by measuring the speed of the heart rate on the inhales versus the speed of the heart rate on the exhales, scientists can measure an individuals vagal tone; the heart rate is naturally faster on the inhale and slower on the the exhale, but the faster and slower heart rate transforms on the inhales & exhales, the higher the vagal tone.
Restorative yoga can help us increase our vagal tone, which is our neuro-physiological ability to rebound from the fight-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system or the primitive tonic immobility "freeze" response of the reptilian brainstem. According to psychologist Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson in her book Love 2.0:
...people with higher vagal tone, science has shown, are more flexible across a whole host of domains--physical, mental & social. They simply adapt better to their ever-shifting circumstances, albeit completely at nonconscious levels. Physically, they regulate their internal bodily processes more efficiently, like their glucose levels and inflammation. Mentally, they're better able to regulate their attention and emotions, even their behaviors. Socially, they're especially skillful in navigating interpersonal interactions and in forging positive connections with others.
How can you start to cultivate your restorative yoga practice? In the time of Coronavirus it's difficult to simply attend a group class at your local studio, but there are resources to cultivate your practice at home through virtual yoga classes or private instruction. Restorative yoga is best practiced with plenty of props to support the body in rest. Bellow is a list of props I recommend for a fully supported restorative yoga practice (please use the photo to reference the prop description):
yoga mat--since this practice is done mainly laying down or seated, you don't need to worry about non-slip, etc.
blankets--2 or 3 baja-style blankets are great since they are all uniform in size, thickness & texture, plus you can easily find them at your local travel/truck stop such as Love's. Two blankets will be used for props and the third blanket is placed on your mat for a soft and restful surface.
yoga blocks--2 or 3 blocks will be ideal. be sure that all of your blocks are the same size, thickness and material (foam, cork, wood, etc.)
bolster--the bolster is a very firm extra long & extra thick pillow. Costing at minimum $50, they are one of the more pricey prop items, but you can always improvise by stacking 2 or 3 bedroom pillows on top of each other and wrap them up tightly with a towel or a sheet. In addition, if you are crafty you can make your own bolster
strap--this can be handy for binding the feet or legs together in postures like reclined bound angle, supported bridge or legs-up-the-wall so you do have to make effort to keep the limbs in place
one sandbag--this is a great way to introduce a little grounding weight to your hips, your feet, your forehead, or anywhere else that could use a little extra heaviness. While you can purchase pre-filled sandbags, its more economic to purchase a sand-bag sleeve then fill it up with the appropriate amount of playground sand, which you can purchase at a hardware store
eye pillow--definitely the cherry on top! Perfect for laying in savasana, reclined bound angle or any other supine postures in which you'd like to rest the eyes & block out the light. Eye pillows are pretty much miniature sand bags for your face.
If you have any questions about how to start your restorative yoga journey at home, please don't hesitate to email me. In addition to offering 2 virtual morning restorative yoga classes every week on Monday & Wednesday through Kali Yuga Yoga, I also offer private yoga mentoring (virtual or social distancing in-person).