This past weekend I attended a restorative yoga class. To some of you, this conjures up cozy images of yogis swaddled in blankets, supported by all the props. To others, it may seem that I paid to take some pretty luxurious naps. Both are true.
While it may seem indulgent to spend an entire yoga class relaxing, it is a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
The reality is that most people have forgotten how to relax (if we ever knew how to begin with). Our bodies are a miraculous blend of systems, each with a specific purpose. Eight activating systems help keep us alert (also called our sympathetic nervous system). These systems were created to protect us from the dangers of the world around us. They are the reason that we survived being hunter/gatherers.
Our activating systems are triggered by anything our brains deem threatening. This could be anything from a loud noise to almost getting hit by a car. They spring into effect, improving our reflexes and triggering our bodies into fight or flight.
So, now you are probably thinking, if there are eight systems to activate us, then there must be eight systems to relax us. The truth is there are only three relaxing systems (aka your parasympathetic nervous system). Our relaxation systems are outnumbered- more than two to one. So when someone tells you to “just relax…” it is easier said than done.
Practicing meditation, restorative yoga, conscious breathing, and other related relaxation techniques can help us access that place of ease quicker. Think about when a water bottle falls toward the beginning of a yoga class. You are just starting to get into the yoga mindset but that water bottle hitting the floor jolts you right out of your breath. Compare this to the inevitable cough/sneeze or the very same water bottle hitting the floor during savasana. I sometimes don’t even hear the teacher talking during savasana, let alone any other sounds being made in the room.
This is because I have accomplished my goal of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s akin to having your mind wrapped in a soft, warm blanket. I can still physically hear the sound of the water bottle, but it’s effects on my body are cushioned by my parasympathetic nervous system.
Restorative yoga can improve your mood, boost your immune system, relax the body and the mind, and help you breathe easier. It can be a sweet alternative to meditation. Meditating regularly can be difficult since it requires us to concentrate on doing nothing and most likely your feet will fall asleep in the process. Restorative yoga emphasizes comfort in the poses because without it you would find it pretty difficult to relax properly.
We all can relate to being stressed out. Many of us may never leave that place of stress due to high-tension jobs, dysfunctional relationships, chronic money problems, and our society’s ever-present need to go-go-GO!
What would happen if you found that place within yourself and built up that bubble-wrap barrier? Would the pressure of your job disappear? Would your relationship become suddenly harmonious?
Honestly, probably not. But maybe your reaction to the stress would change. Instead of reacting quickly and out of a need to act, perhaps you would sit and take a deep breath. Maybe that one small moment of pause would allow you to see other solutions to the work problem. Maybe the next time you are fighting with a loved one you stop before getting in that next jibe that you know will deeply hurt them. Maybe this time you can see past the hurts they’ve caused you and you ask yourself why you are fighting in the first place.
Indeed, it is hard to make smart decisions under pressure. We tend to react rather than thinking. Accessing our relaxation systems is one way to find that little bit of extra time when we are under pressure.
It was a common theme in my training that restorative yoga was used as an excuse to relax. It’s difficult to justify taking time for oneself when the world seems to be demanding more and more from you. The older I get the more I value my “me” time.
With so many demands on our time and energy, it may seem selfish to take the time that you need to relax. But instead of looking at it as an obligation, I propose you look at it as an investment. The same way investing in seeds and gardening supplies at the beginning of the season may seem like a chunk of our budget in April but saves us countless dollars at the grocery store later in the season.
By investing a small amount of time to relaxation, you may gain precious seconds or even minutes in your next moment of crisis. Not to mention you get to be as cozy as possible during your next yoga class (read- ALL THE PROPS).
A simple way to begin your restorative practice is to find a comfortable position in your bed or on the mat. Try to use as many of the five tenets of restorative as you can: still, dark, quiet, warm and time. Using blankets, blocks, pillows, bolsters, straps, or any combination of these, support your body until you can hold the position for 20–30 minutes. Play some light music or bask in the silence. Breathe deeply and relax.