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Restorative Yoga and the Art of Being

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

You arrive at a restorative yoga class, proud of yourself for making the time for self care. You settle into the first pose, lying on your back, your entire body supported by bolsters and blankets. It feels good to be supported and to have time to relax. You can feel how tired your body is from your busy work week. At first, you tell yourself, it’s working, but after a minute your mind is racing, jumping ahead to things you need to do, jumping back to things you should have done differently. When the instructor’s voice interrupts your flow of thoughts to tell you it’s ok to just be, you realize your body has tensed up. Your reaction is one of skepticism.

In most of our modern lives the focus is on doing. Much of our sense of self worth derives from what we do, and on its market value. The idea that we have worth simply by being can be so strange and new that it makes us uncomfortable. Often our minds are a constant stream of inner dialogue. Without realizing that we’re doing it, we become normalized to the chatter, so much so that we become uncomfortable when it stops. In restorative yoga we come face to face with this discomfort. If we are especially challenged by stillness, the mind will go into overdrive to protect itself. The body tenses up, because the mind is running the show.

My favorite way to respond when my mind won’t let me relax is to is to focus on the total experience of breath. In many types of meditation, focus on the breath is single pointed and internal. When I focus on the breath I like to spread my awareness to the edges of my body and even out into the room. First I focus on the sensation of air flowing through my nose, down across my throat and into my lungs, then back out the same way it came in. Then I expand my focus to include the small movements of breath (if I’m breathing naturally) or larger ones (if I’m practicing pranayama). Then I spread my awareness to include my entire body’s sense aliveness; I picture the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide happening in the tissues as the blood travels past. Sometimes I end here, and am content to be with myself and this body that I am grateful for. Other times, when I want to feel interconnected with something bigger than myself, when I want to feel embedded in the world around me, I spread my awareness out into the room, then beyond the walls out into the wider world. I picture the trees as the lungs of the earth, inhaling the same carbon dioxide that I just exhaled, exhaling the oxygen that I inhale on my next breath. Back and forth I breathe and am breathed by the very earth around me. The act of giving and receiving breath becomes effortless, and I let go.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that my mind has stopped chattering. Quite probably it is still doing its dance, trying to get my attention, to get me to engage it in debate and rationalization. But my engagement with breath has made me bigger than just my mind and I realize that my mind is just one part of me, just one way that I engage with myself, with my community and with the natural world. There is more to me than my thoughts.

In restorative yoga we get permission to try on new lenses for looking at the world and at ourselves. Restorative yoga practice shifts the focus from getting things done to the quality of our presence. There is no object, no goal, no gold star for getting it right. It’s all good, it’s all just as it needs to be in each moment. It gives us the opportunity to get to know the part of ourselves that resists accepting ourselves just as we are, and to ask that part, “What are you afraid of?” “What is the worst that could happen?”

If your mind needs something to hold onto, some reason for all of the not-doing, then remind it that, to hold space for the mind to be uncomfortable but to also allow the body to let go is yoga. Hopefully the mind can step aside then and let the body do what it already knows how to do, relax.

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