Yoga as Restoration
by Peggy Hong
Often we characterize Iyengar yoga as vigorous, energetic, challenging, and
stimulating. Especially in Introductory and Level 1 classes, we spend quite
a lot of time in standing poses, learning how to straighten our arms and legs,
engaging our quadriceps and lifting our chests. We feel the poses in our anatomical
bodies, using muscles we didn’t know we had, and creating more and more
range of motion in joints that may have felt stiff but eventually become mobile.
Iyengar yoga is more than the vigor of energetic poses, however. Yoga also
works on the organic body, ie. the organs themselves: heart, lungs, kidneys,
liver, spleen, uterus, etc. The restorative practice taps into this tremendous
potential as we practice supported poses for holds of 5-10 minutes or more.
On a superficial level it may seem easier to practice restorative yoga than
the more energetic classes. To a visitor, it may seem like you’re just
laying around, lounging. To American workaholic-types used to constant movement,
restorative yoga may seem boring or pointless. Or you might go into the first
pose of the class and promptly fall asleep.
Believe me, I’ve had all those thoughts and experiences. My dance training
prepared me for the physical discipline of yoga but it’s taking much
longer to develop the inner discipline. Over the years, I’ve learned
to appreciate more and more the depth of the restorative practice, and I’ve
come around to incorporating restorative yoga into my home practice and my
classes on a regular basis.
When we practice Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon pose) and hold it for 15-20 seconds,
many things are happening, obviously. We feel the hips stretching, the hamstring
lengthening, the shoulders opening, and so on. But when we take Ardha Chandrasana
as a restorative pose (virtually all asanas can be modified into a restorative
version) with the back to the wall, the hand on a chair, and the head supported
and we stay for 3-4 minutes, it becomes a different pose all together. We may
not feel the pose as intensely on the muscles and joints as we do in the center
of the room. Without the distraction of pain, what do we do with ourselves?
After a minute we encounter the urge to come out. We realize we need to decrease
the intensity of the pose without compromising the alignment or essential actions
in order to stay in it. We become more attentive to the breath. We find the
place between effort and non-effort and come more and more into a state of
meditation. This is the place where the poses can work on the organs. For instance,
in Ardha Chandrasana, the gastric organs are massaged and stimulated as we
rotate the chest toward the ceiling. In addition, we relieve back pain and
sciatica as we “rest” in the pose.
Laurie Blakeney, a senior teacher in Ann Arbor, says restorative yoga has always
meant more to her than just rest. As a former piano restorer and tuner, she
sometimes radically overhauled pianos, and used lots of elbow grease as she
pushed and pulled the piano parts back into playing condition. She thinks of
restorative yoga as tuning the inner workings of the body, as we tune a piano,
and it’s not easy work. We don’t teach restorative yoga to new
beginners, who often fidget, get agitated, or fall asleep.
Gabriel Halpern of the Yoga Circle of Chicago encourages us to develop stamina
by “steeping in our own juices.” This kind of stamina is very different
from the stamina of doing Surya Namaskarasana (sun salutes). The stamina of
holding restorative poses requires us to be in our bodies and minds, recognize
our shortcomings (muscle tightness, flightiness of mind), and stay there.
Other times, such as in Supta Baddha Konasana (supine bound angle), the favorite
of many yogis, especially women, the pose comforts us so much we lose ourselves
in sensual pleasure. The Yoga Sutras refers to this attachment to pleasure
as “raga,” one of the klesas (afflictions of consciousness).
Instead of basking in pleasure or fidgeting until it’s time to come out,
we want to cultivate stillness of body and mind, slowing down in our restorative
work. In this way we gain greater equanimity and become more attentive to our
inner workings. As we practice we become better vessels for Spirit: more compassionate,
more whole, and more effective in the world.
Riverwest Yogashala • 731 East Locust Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53212 • 414-963-9587
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