In July I took a restorative yoga teacher training with Judith Hanson Lasater. Restorative yoga is officially the "practice of using props to position the body to promote health and wellness," but I think of it as yoga to regulate the nervous system, and what it looks like is people lying still on pillows, blankets, and other "props" for 20 minutes or so at a time.
Currently in the US, many people think "yoga" means an exercise class, but restorative yoga is not exercise at all.
It is wakeful rest. It is the art of doing nothing.
Turns out that doing nothing, while in a specific position, is doing something. Depending on how you position the body, you can help support its healing process. One pose can ease your back pain, another your swollen and tired legs, another your digestion. Poses can also be indicated for emotional support such as in times of grief. By resting in stillness, awake and with eyes closed, we can activate our "rest and digest" function (the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS) the part of our nervous system that is in charge of all forms of maintenance, repair, and healing in our body.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), on the other hand - also referred to as our "get up and go" or "fight, flight, or freeze" response - is in charge of our survival and activity. It gets us up and out of bed, keeps us active during the day, and is in charge of the reflexes that keep us alive when we are almost hit by a car or mugged.
The thing is, we can't use both parts of the nervous system at once - it is one or the other. Either we are resting and digesting, or getting up and going. And the thing is, even when we think we are "relaxing," or taking a break, we are often still using our SNS: watching a scary movie, riding a rollercoaster, or exercising might be a fun break from your day job, but from the perspective of your SNS it is not a break at all! So if when we are "taking a break" our SNS doesn't get a break too, how are our bodies ever supposed to go into PNS and do the repair and maintenance work we need to thrive?
Given this knowledge of how our nervous system works, is it any surprise that in our "work hard, play hard" and "go, go, go" culture, more and more people are suffering from chronic illnesses?
I was already aware of the physical benefits of restorative yoga, and it is those physical benefits that drew me to the training. I wanted to learn more to help both myself and others. But what really struck me during the week-long training was not the physical benefits of the practice, but the importance of its spiritual lesson:
Doing nothing teaches us that we are enough.
So often we get tangled up in the belief that our worth is a direct result of our productivity. We feel good when we are productive, frustrated and disappointed with ourselves if we are not. If we are busy, we assume that means our life has meaning. Not busy? Then something is wrong - you must be lazy, unintelligent, not care about yourself or the group, or somehow be "broken or "less than."
It seems like lying around doing nothing would be an easy practice to teach people, and yet as I have started to practice restorative more and teach it to others, I am finding that's not the case.
In my effort to practice one pose a day, I come up against all kinds of emotional resistance: "But I have plenty of energy today!" or "I'm fine!" or (lately, in the past few weeks) "No, I'm too angry to be still!" I seem to think I need a reason to rest, or to meet specific criteria to do so. And yet I don't need a reason or to meet specific criteria to floss, shower, or exercise - I just do it as part of my daily maintenance, no questions asked.
It fascinates me that the idea of rest as a daily health habit is completely foreign to me and others in my culture. Really? Why does a habit of rest seem so weird?
In teaching this practice to others, I got a rainbow of reactions.
I thought restorative would be a good introduction for people who have never practiced yoga before, and yet so far I am finding that newbies are among the worst responders. They like it when I set them up in a pose, but aren't willing to do the work themselves on their own. They aren't in touch with their bodies and so it's harder for them to feel the results and therefore, understandably, stay motivated.
The students I have taught who are accustomed to being with their bodies - so far these folks have been experienced yoga practitioners and/or meditators - they can see the value in restorative yoga, and will overcome the frustrations of learning something new in order to get themselves in the habit of practicing on their own.
It's also the second group that is more receptive to the spiritual lesson of being enough. As a group, they seem to be more aware of the pain the belief "I'm not enough" causes.
I initially took the teacher training for my own benefit and to pass on to others in my Yoga for V Pain classes, but I have become more interested in it than I expected. Seemingly simple, restorative yoga is a complex creature that reaches much more deeply than I realized, asking larger questions than I thought it would. I am looking forward to continuing to grapple with this, both in my own practice and in my teaching...we'll see what unfolds...
Interested in taking a restorative yoga class? Find a certified teacher at www.RelaxandRenew.com, and note: "restorative yoga" is not a trademarked name, so although it most frequently refers to Judith Hanson Lasater's work, sometimes people use that term to mean something else. Relax and Renew© is, however, a copyrighted term, so if a person is Relax and Renew© certified you know what you are getting into. :) Just a tip, I found out the hard way...
Next week I'll be sharing more photographs and talking about the effect photographing people at rest had on me. See you next week!
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PS Did this post get your brain gears crankin'?
Feel free to start a conversation below (it's okay, you can be anonymous)!