by Julia Clarke, ERYT-500 and Certified Maharishi Ayurveda Consultant
Movement is important. Almost daily, we hear statistics about the impact of exercise on lowering stress and disease rates. But both emerging and ancient science support the idea that the practice of cultivating stillness so that the body can regenerate may be just as important for our physiology. Enter restorative yoga, a practice of deep relaxation, supported, gentle stretching and guided meditation designed to combat stress through receptivity instead of activity.
We live in a society that values upward mobility, action and results and is based around the projection of scarcity to create demand. Rest and receptivity are neither held in high regard nor commonly practiced. Today's Western physiology is learning to adapt to the pressures of this fast-paced, modern life with increasingly high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol that are fueling an epidemic of obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, depression, anxiety and insomnia. Restorative yoga instead emphasizes downward movement, receptivity and abundance.
In addition to the impact of modern stress, yogic thought identifies the source of our mental stress in our attachment to the impermanent things in life that society insists we value: beauty, earning power and possessions. All yogic practices are primarily concerned with reuniting the practitioner with consciousness, their true nature. By its very name, restorative yoga, in particular, suggests a practice that returns the person who has been injured, weakened or become lost to his or her original essence.
Today's yoga practitioners may seek out fast-paced, sweaty styles of yoga, in part to balance a day that was otherwise spent sitting in an office chair or behind the steering wheel of a car. I am not arguing that movement isn't important for our health, to release endorphins, move lymph and cultivate strength and mobility. To this end, active or flow styles of yoga have clear health benefits. Unfortunately, more and more often, the period of rest at the end of a yoga practice is getting lost.
A yoga class like this could actually increase your mental agitation after a white-knuckle day at the office. Imagine, instead, entering a softly lit room with quiet, harmonious music playing. On the yoga mats lay soft blankets, bolsters and eye pillows. You are invited to lie down, supported from beneath in such a way that your body can finally relax.
You feel a deep, inner stillness; a pause between breaths where you feel at once steady and free, supported by the earth and yet liberated from the confines of worry. You dive deeper than the ever-changing thoughts. The world stops spinning at such an inconceivable rate. After 60 minutes that fly by with only a handful of supine, supported poses, you emerge renewed. That night, you sleep deeply, and in the morning, you rise feeling perhaps just a little less ruffled by the emails, the traffic, the demands.
Restorative yoga is a powerful antidote to stress because it down-regulates the sympathetic nervous system and up-regulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, digestion, energy conservation and slowing the heart rate. Different from sleep, which involves REM brain states during which dreams can trigger stress, conscious rest is designed to activate the alpha and theta wave states, which are associated with deep relaxation and meditation.
This is the true power of yoga that sometimes gets lost in the modern obsession with aesthetically pleasing gymnastics and fancy catchphrases.
Interested in learning more about the science of Restorative Yoga and how to add it to your teaching offerings? Join CSOY Faculty Tracey Garcia in Colorado Springs on March 23-25, 2018 for our Spring Restorative Yoga Teacher Training!