By Patrick Riley
May 20, 2016
Many millennium ago, our ingenious bodies developed what’s known as the stress response or “fight or flight” as a way for our pre-human ancestors to survive.
A bear attack, for instance, produces a rise in hormone levels, respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure to prepare for a possible catastrophic event. While most of us today don’t have to fear a bear attack, our physiological response is still the same.
“The fight or flight reaction gives us chance at survival in hazardous conditions, but the problem is that the stress response is a nonspecific and primitive mechanism that hasn’t evolved with the modern world,” says Cheri Clampett, Therapeutic Yoga pioneer. Aside from truly traumatic events, our daily stresses are compounded in a myriad of ways (traffic, meetings, emails, politics, war, self doubt, financial worries, etc). Yet our body responds to these events in nearly the same way as if that giant grizzly bear were charging toward us.
Release of stress hormones, increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, blood clotting, decreased digestive activity and insulin secretion are just a few of the effects of our ancient stress response. While biologically and necessary for survival, the sustained effects on our physical, mental, and emotional freedom in contemporary life can be literally fatal. Our body/mind systems are constantly asking “Am I safe?” If the answer is no, then we respond accordingly.
One of the scopes of Restorative Yoga is to help us say, “Yes I am safe,” and to guide the vast systems of the body back into equilibrium, into a place of inherent peace and comfort, to re-establish a feeling of being grounded, supported, nourished, and alive. And to connect the often felt gap between mind and body.
Yoga is often broken down into a trinity of Breath, Body, and Mind. In our restorative practice (as in a more active practices as well) it’s important to use the breath as the ultimate guide. As the breath follows the body and mind, the body and mind most certainly follow the breath.
Aside from being our literal life-force, the breath can be viewed and used in different ways to trigger relaxation and healing. Slow, deep breaths into the diaphragm (belly breath) increase oxygen rates, promote better circulation, and bring on a deep and immediate sense of relaxation. Go ahead and try taking a deep breath. Notice how you feel the immediate effects.
The breath also provides us with a rhythm on which to rest or focus. Our minds love to wander and thoughts and worries and stresses can become distracting, to say the least. One thing that makes the physical asana practice of yoga different from regular stretching or calisthenics is the complete presence of the mind in the body; from breath to breath, moment to moment.
This constant journey with every inhale and exhale does something very interesting to the mind. For me, it helps bridge the ever-present gap of mind and body and let’s me re-discover the connection between the two. When we let our minds stay present with the breath (not daydreaming, planning, remembering), a very interesting thing happens. A quiet, subtle world opens to us; one in which we can begin to listen to the body in different ways, notice that our thoughts do not make us who we are, that our worries are temporary, and that everything is movement and ultimately connected. When we’ve been obsessing over the details of a stressful email to our boss, these small insights can be monumental in their release.
From here, you might ask, “Why not just sit and meditate while focusing on the breath? Why do I need to stretch my body?” Sitting practice is very important. The supported physical practice of restorative yoga however continues and furthers our relationship with body, breath, and mind. It is quite difficult to not truly feel your body when resting in a wonderful, supported chest and heart opener. Or feel the sedating and grounding qualities of a restorative inversion.
The specifically designed supported postures of Restorative Yoga encourage opening, deepening, and relaxing in most of the major muscular-skeletal groups. Focusing on qualities like lengthening, twisting, opening, or inverting, these quiet and longer held poses enhance the body’s natural positioning and potential.
For example, when we create more space in the ribs, the chest cavity, the lungs, and ultimately the heart, we are allowed more room for breath, energy flow, and quite possibly compassion as well. When we practice a hamstring opener, we not only help offer freedom for the legs and knees, but for the low back and hips as well.
As we bring our concentration to the breath and listen, we begin notice that all parts of our body are connected. We cannot focus on one area without affecting another. We begin to see that the mind is no different. When we relax the body, we relax the mind. As we offer openness and space to the body, the mind follows.
When we tense up at a thought of a stressful situation, our body responds accordingly. You can try these simple experiments on your own at any time. Begin to notice how the thought of pain brings a tense and tight response to the breath, in the chest. Notice how the mind feels frazzled and buzzing.
The deep exhale of a restorative yoga practice offers tangible effects to the often tangled mess of daily life. We cannot experience stress in the mind without it changing our body, and while stress is an unfortunate side effect of our world, a gentle restorative practice can offer a powerful antidote: restoration.
If we are completely drained of our energetic and emotional reserve, we don’t have anything left to offer ourselves, let alone other people. This practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet oneself.
As Yogini Donna Farhi says; “We live in a time of extreme dissociation from bodily experience. When we are not in our bodies, we are dissociated from our instincts, intuitions, feelings and insights. If we do not know when we are breathing in and when we are breathing out, when we are unable to perceive gross levels of tension, how then can we possibly know how to create a balanced world?”
Teacher: Patrick Riley