The Antidote to Stress
When I think of the word “restorative” I think of course, to restore, and to rebuild (if you will) something that is breaking, broken, or maybe just nurturing.
During my teacher certification we were given a restorative class by one of my teachers. The class was extremely relaxing, and I was wondering if I was ever going to feel like my body was working. Our teacher explained the million benefits of each pose as we stayed in each asana. We progressed in the breaths and in minutes, I finally understood that we were not working our bodies. We were working in an effort to relax. What an amazing experience. With life as it is, when do we relax on our own, besides getting a massage? And I still think about my to-do list while getting a massage! After that soothing practice, I came home and started researching and reading about this pleasant and wise way of yoga.
In the first article this guy would describe it as “adult nap time”. Could work, but as I researched more in my books, I found out something deeper than a superficial description. Restorative Yoga is the antidote to stress. YES! there is an antidote to this infamous chronic state that keeps us company in our daily lives.
Anthropologists have found that the experience of stress in our bodies has not changed through out time. Those millions of years have not improved, nor worsen our state of stress. Sure our lives become busier with the cyber world and social media. But think about what stressed a mother in ancient civilizations… keeping their offsprings alive from predators, food, weather… Ok that makes me feel like my Facebook status is less stressful than predators. Our environment changes but our physiology pretty much stays the same. Thus, we have an ancient body subject to a modern [popular] problem: living with chronic stress. This word has become a familiar idiom affecting our lives in a wide range of ways, emotionally and physically, making it a medical specialty. To me, stress is like the grim reaper that presents itself during milestone life events: marriage, a birth, divorce, new/old job, death, etc. This dark state of being becomes then impatience, frustration, irritation, anger, which as time continues to submerge us in this dimension, we end in the dark path of illness & disease.
This is where restorative yoga becomes an antidote. Relaxation is a state of stillness, no effort, bringing the brain to a quiet mode. The comfortable positions allow complete muscle relaxation, which allows attention and smooth focus on the breath. Scientific studies from Edmund Jacobson, M.D since 1934 have proved it. Then Herbert Benson, M.D. with his phrase “relaxation response” wrote a book regarding mental responses during relaxation practices. Later Doctor David Spiegel uncovered the connection of mind and body in synergy to treating medical illness.
Yoga practices dated back to the Indus Valley Civilization of 2000 to 4000 B.C.E are designed to help an individual achieve wholeness. In Sanskrit, the word yoga means “to unite” in terms of body, mind, and spirit. Iyengar in Pune, India incorporated props as powerful tools to deepen the poses for those who had prior injuries. Through his creativity and with the help of these tools, the asanas (or poses) reduced stress and restored health as they were able to be held for longer periods of time.
So instead of an “adult nap time”, the phrase “Active Relaxation” from the book “Relax and Renew” by Judith Hanson, is a more suitable expression for this practice. Because there is a difference between sleep and relaxation. It is the fact that during sleep a person can actually experience some sort of stress in dreams or discomfort in bed, while during relaxation the stillness creates and supports the environment for a quiet brain.
Iyengar and yoga’s essence believe in the principle that longevity is achieved only with a flexible spine. That strong interlocking of vertebrates that sustains and brings together our structure. In restorative yoga (and in all yoga practices), the spine moves in all directions (back bends, forward bends, and twists). And very importantly, Inversions. These release the effects of gravity, which contributes to aging. By changing the relationship of gravity in our bodies (since we sit and stand all day), the upper body and heart functions are enhanced. Psychobiologist and yoga teacher Dr. Roger Cole has done preliminary research on the effects of inverted poses. He found that these asanas dramatically alter hormone levels by creating a balance, hence reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention.
- Calmness: By being, rather than doing, this practice triggers the parasympathetic nervous system activating a calmness to our regular fight-or-flight stress response.
- Mindfulness: In a deliberate stillness, we foster mindfulness, which expands our awareness of self and body that comes through the practice. Slower movements cultivate space to experience both the asana and the breath. Energy centers are stimulated to help facilitate a deeper experience, consciousness, and expanded awareness.
- Awareness: It is the opposite of “no pain, no game”. Coming gently into the asanas, staying still, we release and surrender to the pose. The effect is true acceptance of our body and its inherent limitations.
- Balance: Yoga is defused with energy. Prana, the masculine energy resides above the diaphragm, controlling the heart rate and respiration. The feminine energy, Apana, resides below the diaphragm, thus it controls the function of the abdominal organs. During practice these two opposites are balanced, as neither is overstimulated or depleted.
- Safe and Nourished: As we build our mind-body connection, we feel replenished, whole, and we are able to become present in the moment. This feeling brings confidence and wellness to our present lives.
Restorative yoga is especially necessary during times of weakness, fatigue, and high levels of stress. It is imperative to create a supportive environment for total relaxation. A place where the body is less challenged, turning attention to the breath, releasing the mind towards a natural state, as calming the mind equals a wholly presence. When our mind is at ease, there is a connection to the body, which in return helps it heal.
Reference: Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Laster, Ph.D., P.T.