“Why do we do Restorative Yoga?”
Recently a student asked me this question at the beginning of a class. They added, “I mean, it feels good, but what good is it?”
Restorative Yoga is unlike any other approach to yoga. There’s no balancing, litttle strengthening, and only a bit of stretching. A class may never leave the floor. How is it yoga?
I responded that Restorative Yoga is when we practice resting. While movement is a part of yoga, so is learning to rest. Restorative Yoga helps rest in a way that restores the mind / body / spirit system.
The second and third of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras explains why we undertake the practice of yoga.
1.2: Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
1.3: When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness
More often, the third Sutra talks about how we dwell in our true nature, “Then the Seer (Self) abides in Its own nature.”
When we look deeper into that word, “abide”, particularly in how it has been used across other spiritual traditions, and we come to the belief that to abide is a kind of deep resting. When we’re settled, we rest in such a way that we connect with our essential nature, our True Self.
Why do we need practice resting?
We now live with constant connectivity, we’re always on and alert for the next thing to react to. The lines between work time and personal time are blurred for many people as we’ve become more public in our lives and always connected. In our society we’re rewarded for “going the extra mile” and encouraged to give “110%”.
As a result, we’re lousy at resting. We sleep, but we go from one state of sleep to the next with little to no actual rest. What sleep we do get is usually inadequate to the needs of real rest. People fall into bed, writing one last email, only to awake exhausted, checking a device for what disasters transpired during sleep.
Living this way is not only physically exhausting, but creates mental fatigue and constant low energy. Despite incessant signals to rest from our body and mind, we continue do more. We live in a culture that values productivity, contributors, sending a strong message that your value as a person is measured by how much you’ve done and what you earned.
We’re told to both work hard and, ever more commonly, play even harder. This unsustainable model keeps us in a state of hyper-arousal. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) works overtime to help us be alert to threats to our way of life and we channel the urge to fight or flee into the energy to keep being productive, keep reaching the next goal.
The more activated the SNS is, the harder it becomes to rest. Resting becomes elusive, just ask anyone who has ever struggled with insomnia. It can feel like we’re stuck “on”.
If we don’t learn how to drop out of the high alert state into real rest, our bodies and our mental-emotional state show strain. Fatigue can become standard until we are forced to stop through crises, physical or mental, or both. No longer able to fight or flee, we go into the third option of the SNS, we collapse.
When do we truly rest in a way that heals and restores us?
The path for healing for this state of hyper-arousal lies in the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the “rest and digest” system that enables the optimal state of resting in the essential self.
The PNS supplies the energy that repairs torn muscle fibers and breaks down the contents of the digestive system into the nutrient components needed throughout the body. It is also the system that repairs and creates new connections in the brain as well as increases production of both gray and white matter.
This energy, the energy to repair the whole mind / body system at a cellular level, is also the energy that powers our creativity. That idea about stress fueling creativity turns out to be inaccurate. When we’re stressed, our systems are focused on keeping us alive not on how to write a novel, paint watercolors, or solve a problem. It is the rest state of the PNS that allows for the full flowering of our creativity and curiosity.
Our understanding of the the SNS has created medications to suppress reactivity, helping keep various mental states, like anxiety and depression, from becoming overwhelming. However, there is no medication to turn up the the PNS. That’s where Restorative Yoga comes into the picture.
A Restorative Yoga session will have gentle movements and fully-supported postures held for several minutes. In these held positions the students practice resting. To encouraging settling rest they might take some large in-breaths with long exhales, then return to a natural breath. In my classes I remind students to feel movement in the body on the in-breath and practice letting the body relax into the support of the props with the exhale. Just that, inhaling gentle awareness and exhaling into a state of effortlessness.
In this state of resting in awareness the PNS energy arises and we experience healing on all levels. During Restorative Yoga the less the student actually does, the less effort they make, the more beneficial it is for them, the more activated the PNS becomes.
Rarely in life do we get maximum results for the least effort, but in Restorative Yoga this is exactly how it works. We slow down in order to fully recharge; explore ways to step away from reactivity and into calm abiding . We practice believing ourselves as worthy of nurturing and stillness.
When we allow ourselves to rest in this complete way, we are not only taking steps to repair our whole mind / body system, we’re also abiding in our essential nature.
Sherri Koehler teaches yoga and practices Integrated Movement Therapy in Portland, Oregon. Her yoga practice helps her to live vibrantly while managing complex PTSD and degenerative disc disease. She is dedicated to helping others foster self-compassion and befriend the body on, and off, the mat. Sherri will be presenting in the Yoga Therapy and Health Care Common Interest Community session at the Yoga Service Conference on Sunday, May 13, 2018.