“I don’t know how to relax.”
You’d be surprised at how often I hear this confession in an initial restorative yoga session.
Or maybe you wouldn’t be shocked at all. Instead you might wonder how anyone could possibly relax, surrender, let go”¦ or experience any of those lovely-sounding words when life is moving at the speed of light and nothing seems to be going your way.
The truth is, everyone is born knowing how to relax, and can relax deeply — even during the most stressful times (which is when we need it most). With the optimal conditions, the mind becomes tranquil, physiological processes slow, and rejuvenation takes place. But sometimes we need a little help creating these “optimal conditions.”
There is quiet. There is darkness. There is warmth. There is breath awareness. And there is pure physical comfort.
My primary restorative yoga teacher, Bo Forbes, calls the physiological state that results from this cocoon-like environment “quiescent relaxation.” Judith Lasater, another master teacher with whom I’ve studied, calls the state “pratyahara“ ““ a Sanskrit term that means withdrawal of energy from the senses. Other teachers refer to a deepening of the “relaxation response,” a state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.
Whatever you call it, this state is so pleasurable that most people want to return to it, over and over again.
Many women who practice yoga at the Domar Center arrive at their first session with racing thoughts, shallow rapid breathing, and shoulders hunched forward to protect a wounded heart. They tell me stories that make my own heart ache. I listen closely and assess what I think would help. I consider: does the patient need calming, revitalizing, or both? What are her mental, emotional, and physical patterns? What is her constitution (or dosha)? What is the state of her nervous system?
After we talk, I may prop her in a restorative pose immediately, cradling her body with blankets, bolsters and lavender-scented eye pillows. Or I may help her transition to the restorative practice by introducing some slow breath-linked movements. Either way, she ultimately finds her way to a pose that is fully supported and enjoyed for a relatively long time (usually 5-15 minutes). Each pose rests the body, gently stretches the muscles, and calms the nervous system while quieting a set of neurons called the midbrain reticular activating system (MRAS), allowing brain waves to slow.
The change is visible. Before my eyes, the woman “settles.” Her body sinks in to the props. Her breathing deepens. And her skin takes on a more radiant glow.
At the end of the session she looks as if she has returned from a journey. She may be a bit dazed and half-smiling. And nearly always, I hear some positive words, whether it’s a new insight, the answer to a gnawing question, or simply the phrase “I feel so relaxed.”
One woman who initially expressed fear about an upcoming IVF cycle suddenly blurted on her way out the door, “This has been my best cycle yet!” Another woman told me that a Boston IVF nurse observed how much more relaxed she seemed during a recent IUI.
As these enthusiastic yoginis practice at home, many find they are able to use the yoga breathing techniques whenever they are in a stressful situation. And by practicing their favorite poses, they can enter a relaxed state more quickly and with less effort.
Ultimately, they understand what can only be experienced: Relaxation isn’t something you know; relaxation is who you are.
ABOUT NATALIE ENGLER, RYT
Natalie has been an avid yoga practitioner for 20 years and a yoga teacher for 5 years. While she has trained with many highly regarded teachers in the Hatha Yoga tradition, her primary teacher and influence is Bo Forbes, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher who is the founder of Elemental Yoga and founder and director of the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics in Boston. She is also a health correspondent for Harvard Medical International, has written for Reuters Health and Harvard Health Publications, and has co-led body image workshops that combine yoga, journaling, and psychotherapy. Professionally, Natalie has witnessed the potent effects of Restorative Yoga on a wide range of issues from affective disorders to fertility. Personally, she has found Restorative Yoga to be a powerful tool that helps to shift emotional and thought patterns, promoting a deepening sense of self-acceptance, inner calm, and mental clarity. It is her great pleasure to share this empowering practice with others, tailoring it to meet their individual needs.