RESTORATIVE-YIN YOGA involves supported body/mind relaxation. This is gentle, gentle yoga that promotes deep relaxation for stress reduction while also stretching and rehabilitating connective tissue.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Lymphatic System

Supported Legs Up The Wall Inversion Pose

[SEE ALSO: Later March 1, 2012 post: The Lymphatic System & Yoga II]

THE LYMPHATIC SYSTEM drains watery clear fluid [lymph] from cells and returns fluids to the blood to maintain fluid balance.  Major functions include absorption of lipids from the intestines and the circulation of lymphocytes [immune cells that protect against antigens such as viruses, bacteria and molds].  Lymphocytes are produced in the bone marrow [T-] and spleen [B-], enter the blood, pass into the capillaries, and then into the tissue.  Bean-shaped lymph nodes [2-3 centimeters] provide a major site for lymphocytes to engage antigens.  Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that involve both "naive" and  "memory" cells.   Naive cells recognize new "infections" and then adapt to eradicate "invaders."  Memory cells were once "naive" cells that became "memory cells" that recognize previous "infections," and they clone themselves to fight off infection.  With age, we tend to maximize memory cells that can reduce immunity.  Exercise may flush the oversupply of memory cells and replace these with naive cells.

While the vascular system has the heart for a circulatory pump, a low pressure “flow” [peristalsis] for the lymphatic system is created by muscular/skeletal activity.  The lymphatic system is concentrated in the tissue of the neck, armpits, and groin, but also significant in the heart, lungs, intestines, liver and skin.

Leslie Kaminoff, Yoga Anatomy, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007, p.18,
[Illustration by Sharon Ellis]

Supports utilized in restorative yoga combine with the openness of the poses to optimize attention to the lymphatic system.  Supports reduce muscle constriction, and the sequence of poses often feels more open.  The hips open, arms spread out, and muscles relax.  Gentle inversions drain fluid into the lymph glands.  Gentle twists and gentle bends massage the internal soft tissue.  Overall, restorative poses are less constrained. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Living The Questions

Copyright Lance Kinseth, How Many Pounds Does Your Mind Weigh?/ Korean Son [Zen] Master Hae Bong, 19”x33,  1997  

A SECOND EXCELLENCE of yoga admonishes one to set an intention for the practice session.  For someone new to yoga, this may be as simple as exploring what this practice is like.  By returns to practice, there might be a very personal intention to experience subtle elements more directly, such as grace, elegance, and flow.   Often, a strong reason for setting an intention involves enhancing some aspect that can be taken from the practice into one’s everyday life to enrich the quality of one’s life or that will serve others.  The practice might simply be dedicated to someone.  Typically, this setting of intention is done near the beginning of the session.

It may be useful at times to not set an intention immediately, but rather, to let it arise from the practice, from one’s intuition.  And when that time comes, we might ask, what it is that we need from this practice at this time.  Perhaps such an intention might be one of aspiring to open or to listen.  Especially in the calmness and quiet of restorative-yin practice, our language changes and our thoughts might deepen. 

Setting an intention can feel good, as if setting a goal and then making progress.  But this may also be an impediment.  Progress and answers are what we try to do in everyday life.  Coming to a practice of calmness and quiet is, itself, an intention.  And it can open new information.  The calmness and quietness and a return to silence enter a deeper landscape in and of itself, without further intention.  We come to any practice with some sort of a quest, perhaps seeking some favor or change.  But what may occur is that the questions that we bring will change as our calmness deepens.  And touching this deeper life does not always consummate in an explicit meaning or “answer.”  We are likely to receive another question that takes us beyond the smallness of our original question.   And this question becomes a strong answer, because of the sense of emotional and intellectual quality that it offers.  It opens into a larger landscape that we expect.  And this question may open another question, so that the “answer” is more a process of opening and searching and being receptive.   The flow of questions may awaken us.

Our rock-firm answers might feel good for the moment, but they can pale against the questions.  The questions become gates that we pass through; they become cairns or marking stones that we pass along the pathway, with the next turn of the path ahead opening another bright nuance.  We glance back and see how far we have come, and we gaze ahead and see how far we have to go.  In so doing, we arrive more graciously where we are.  We begin to live the questions rather than seek answers.  We open like a blossom and our life pathway becomes a living answer.

In a body-mind practice, we are likely never fully answered.  But the practice becomes more subtle, and this subtly, more rewarding and implicitly meaningful without ever coming down to an explicit meaning.

When that time comes in the calmness and quietness, we intuitively receive an intention that we can live out to better understand ourselves, to better understand our immanent and global experience, and to evoke kindness.  We can smile both to our joy and our anger, approaching them as questions that offer and open us and cease being walls.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pathway I

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Way Of The Heart/Doshin, 2011

TYPICALLY, WE LOOK at a practice like restorative yoga as offering a number of positive physical health benefits.  It is different from exercise and fitness that intentionally stresses the body for controlled periods of time.  We may distinguish this practice by describing how brain activity is manipulated to regulate physiology [reducing heart rate and blood pressure] as well as to relax total body physiology to restore the body.  We may note possible positive effects on mental states such as anxiety and depression, but even these are largely attributed to body physiology.

Overall, we may point out that the strong mental emphasis really makes this a “body-mind” practice rather than a body practice, as with other exercise, but, even here, we tend to describe the mental effect that provokes health in physical terms.

We may miss perhaps the greatest benefit:  We tend to see our lives as something that happens to us, as a pathway from birth to death, of trail and error, with triumphs and loss.  But we miss the key pathway that we, ourselves, forge.   In a body-mind practice that prioritizes quiet and calmness, we have an opportunity to cut deeply through the chatter of the everyday to the deeper internal chatter that subconsciously directs our actions.  Listening there, we may begin to profoundly affect the choices that we make and enhance the quality of our lives and others.  Because of the sustained calmness and quietness of the practice, across time, we can look deeply at our life journey—what it is for which we are living. 

Poet John Keats admonishes us:
I compare human life to a large mansion of many apartments,
two of which I can only describe.  The doors of the rest being
              as yet shut upon me.

The deep chatter may guide our life to be self-limiting and even self-destructive.  From our positive and negative experiences, we have a subconscious life plan—how long we might live, how long we want to live, what we might expect from life, how we imagine and then treat our bodies, how we describe or define ourselves in terms of specific roles and vocations, etc.  This can limit us. 

Perhaps our greatest fault is, as Nelson Mandela suggests, not an issue of overcoming our limits but rather a lack of recognition that we do not have limits. We have passions and dreams that are more open-ended and often integrated and harmonious.  They reflect a preconscious plan that has been with us since birth.  There is an inherent drive in us toward “psychosynthesis” that aspires to bring the pieces of our lives together in harmony.  Each person uniquely expresses it.  It might be reflected in superficial things like a favorite book or movie or events that attract us or memories that stay with us out of all of the myriad possible memories that have somehow touched us deeply, because they resonate with this path that we are on.  Why this book or movie?  There is a theme that we are likely pursuing, but it is often subconscious.  These passions and dreams are the “bones” of a rich pathway of “that for which we are living” that can be optimized, if discovered, and then more consciously expressed.

Our “exercise”—be it unabashed exertion or gentle body-mind—that seems health-oriented can reflect limits.  It may be driven by a sense of anxiety that has been scripted long ago.  It may be defensive and oriented more toward survival than toward thriving and growth. 

However, even with no conscious intent to cut through the chatter, regular body-mind practice that is quiet and calm may begin to transform us more than we had anticipated.  We may begin to relish the calm, and so, aspire to “live this calm” beyond the practice session.  Long-term body-mind practitioners typically move beyond describing physical benefits as primary.  They have continued in these practices because they experience improved psychological and social and spiritual health.  And they can begin to describe these changes in very concrete terms.   They might describe living the everyday in a calm state: being less reactive, more in touch—opening/listening, having more of a sense of humor, and having a deeper sense of meaningfulness in a broader range of experiences and a deepened sense of appreciation and gratitude.  They feel more engaged in life. 

They may increase a sense of harmony between the different aspects of everyday life so that they different aspects begin to nurture each other.  In vocations and avocations [passions], they may begin to see how that for which they are living is personally expressed.  For example, a teacher may see how a very general subconscious theme of peace is specifically expressed in all of the facets of her work with children.  And artist may find a subconscious theme of harmony expressed across the oeuvre or body of his or her work.  This growing consciousness of one’s life plan can both optimize the quality of everyday life and move one’s activities from a sense of leading a half-life to a sense of life becoming more authentic or “real.” 

As the theme splays out into more and more aspects of one’s life, life can be experienced as having become richer.  Compassion, specific experiences of awe and wonder and grace both in one’s own experiences as well as in the observation of the larger world can be specifically described and repeated and supported in others.  Metaphors such as “integration” and “harmony” and “wholeness” enter language and do not remain “lofty” or “exclusive” or “special.” These attributes may increasingly become “normal” and “inclusive”—less defensive and more outreaching and giving to a degree that supports others and encourages these attributes in their actions.

Quietness and calmness form the architecture of an eloquent gateway to this deep way of the heart.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Connective Tissue" As The Locus For Active Restorative-Yin Yoga

Illustration 455, “The Superficial Muscles of the Back” and Illustration 456, “The Intermediate Muscles of the Back” in J.C. Boileau Grant, An Atlas of Anatomy, Fourth Edition, Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Company, 1956

THE IMPORTANCE OF the role of connective tissue in the body is underemphasized and its very nature may be misunderstood.  Activity is primarily associated with muscles and, secondarily, with bones.  Connective tissue, especially in the form of sheets that encase the spine and cover the back and abdomen, are popularly imagined to be far less than they are in size, and rather fixed and unchanging, and even nearly inorganic or “plastic.”   Connective tissue is located throughout the body and ranges from large sheet-like layers in both the front and the back of the lower torso and a wrapped spinal column to tendons, cushions in joints, as well as fibers supporting organs and even micro fibers joining cells.

While not an exact comparison, “connective tissue” might be metaphorically compared to the tissues that support teeth.  In straightening teeth, this tissue is slowly manipulated across time by adjusting braces.  To correct the “balance” of the teeth, connective tissue is manipulated, not muscle.  And over time, connective tissue responds to intervention.  Again, while not an exact comparison, connective tissue might also be positively described as being “plastic.”  The positive association with connective tissue-as-plastic stresses the need to exercise connective tissue differently than muscle tissue.  Connective tissue cannot be stretched and recoiled quickly like muscle tissue.  However, connective tissue can be stretched and strengthened.  Unlike muscle tissue, once gradually lengthened, connective tissue can remain lengthened.  And so, yoga that engages muscles in rather quick stretches does not really engage connective tissue.  Muscular process is impeded by degraded connective tissue.  Also, from both Western medical an Asian perspective, improvements in vascular, lymphatic, nervous, and energy in connective tissue need to be addressed.

Thus, the emergence of the “quiet practice” of yin yoga: While connective tissue permeates the body down to the microscopic “in-between” of the muscles, the primary yin focus is on the gross anatomy of the lower back [the lumbar region], the connective tissue and interior muscles of the pelvis [the iliopsoas muscle group—psoas and iliacus muscles—that connect the spine, pelvis and legs], and the hip sockets.   The large sheets of connective tissue in the lumbar region as well as secondary layers are illustrated above.  Going deeper, the spinal column is wrapped with several layers of connective tissue, and the spine is held to the pelvis by ligament and sheets of connective tissue. 

This is a key observation of yin yoga: Especially with age, an individual may be muscularly strong, but may be limited and even debilitated by connective tissue difficulty.  With age, the connective tissue around the spine shrinks and, in general, the connective tissue loses its range of mobility.  With age, both the lumbar curve in the lower back and the cervical spinal curve in the neck decrease or “straighten” as this connective tissue shrinks.   The more sedentary we are, the more this process increases.  Across time, yin yoga can strengthen and elongate connective tissue to be more supportive.  The curves of the spine are crucial.  Because its spinal column is very straight at birth, baby must do movements in its early development to be able to stand.  To stand, an infant modifies its straight spine at birth through it gyrations that define cervical and lumbar curves that support the weight of the upper body and facilitate walking.  A series of yoga poses termed an “Infant Series” aspires to replicate this process.

Restorative-Yin Yoga involves a sequence of poses that alternate between a pose that turns the spine one way that is then followed by its counterpart.  A sequence of restorative postures as a complete practice may involve working the spine forward and backward, from side-to-side, and twisting. 

Restorative-yin yoga poses are generally “easy.”  They typically involve floor postures rather than standing postures that require balance or seated, supine, inverted or standing poses that require flexibility and muscular strength.   While yin yoga may incorporate props for support if poses are too difficult, restorative-yin yoga encourages props for support in almost all poses.  The degree of arc or twist of the spine or rotation of the hip may be increased across time with repeated practice, but the overall orientation of the restorative practice is on relaxation in poses—on “being in heaven rather than in hell.”

In restorative yoga, yin aspects can be added with varying degrees of intensity.  “Intensity” might be increased by raising a prop such as a block in a supported bridge pose or by putting the soles of the feet on the wall in a legs-on-wall pose.  Intensity is decreased, for examples, by using a prop such as blocks under both knees in a reclining bound angle pose or by the use of a block (or decreased even further with the use of a blanket) under the pelvis in a supported bridge pose.

“Intensity” can also be gained by lengthening poses.  While the physical edge of restorative poses may be less that typical poses, restorative and Yin poses are held longer.  Poses might be held from 3 to 10 minutes, with some poses held for 20-30 minutes.  The ligaments and fascia are not that responsive to shorter-held poses.  The “gentle edge” of restorative-yin poses very gradually—over a lengthy time of practice—restore the strength and flexibility of these regions, and surprisingly, may open the flow within the lattice structure of these tissues as well as open blockages in the flow of body fluids and electrical processes in damaged, compressed or atrophied tissue.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Restorative-Yin Yoga For Everyday Wellness

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Peaceful Way/Ando, acrylic sketch, 2003

PHYSICAL FITNESS is an integral part of health and wellness, but it is only one part.  Fitness, especially “uber-fitness” or ultimate fitness in the form of endurance sports, seems to be a capstone measure of optimal health and wellness, but fitness alone is not health and wellness.  In fact, while “uber-fitness” may be driven by a healthy sense of personal transformation, it is also possible that it is driven by lack of contentment.  A person who goes for refreshing walks and perhaps gardens and who can sit down and enjoy the sun or find meaningfulness in the sound of rain on the roof or the grace of the first snow may be optimally healthy.  Overall, health and wellness are, as Victor Frankl writes in Man’s Search For Meaning, primarily psychological and spiritual and, I would add, creatural or “Earthen.”  It is even possible to find optimal health and wellness in the process of dying. 

The significance of the psychological and spiritual and even biological deterioration from the stress of everyday life in any era has been well described.  Stress that lasts no more than 30 seconds may be healthy, in that it may be a normal response to “fight-flight” response or a creative response.  Beyond a short time, stress may be disordering, especially when it seems to be derived from non-exertion.  In fact, stress is often described as a condition of most moments of modern life that are not, overtly, the biological “caveman” response to incidents provoking fight or flight.  Due to the rapid pace of modern life, the broad popular sense of the “modern mind” can be synonymous with an “agitated mind.” 

In the quick pace of post-industrial life, fitness can be pursued more from a sense of survival.  And stress is even reported by those committed to regular exercise for fitness, especially when fitness objectives seem to lag or injuries prevent training.  Even when reasonably healthy and “un-injured,” high-end practitioners of “uber-fitness” [including practitioners of yoga] and endurance sports may be continually anxiety-ridden because goals such as improved time or strength are never adequately met.   In fact, anxiety disorders may drive involvement in uber-fitness.  Rather than health, such training may involve an underlying drive toward survival that is never really attained.
“Survival” is a step down from a more optimal orientation of “thriving.”  And “thriving” demands attention to training the mind and nurturing a sense of spirit that also generate very important physiological components of health and wellness.

A vigorous workout that leaves the participant feeling worn out tends to be followed by immediately reentering the fast pace of everyday life.  The workout felt good, but it was certainly not restful.  Participants report that the “good news” is that it is “done for the day,” almost as if another stressful task was checked off.   Stopping feels good, so that a shower provides a few moments of recovery, and simply stopping may provoke those calming endorphins noted by runners after finishing their run.  And yet, one in four American may report significant stress in their lives, with even children report an increasing sense of stress that appears in symptoms such as difficulty in sleeping and somatic complaints such as headaches and stomachaches.

Calmness and “fitness” training to maintain a restorative quality—to heal rather than to wear down—is recognized as “something that should be done,” but with a sense that there is little time for it.  And given that time is precious, time for health is channeled into vigorous activity.  At a very high end, where fitness is “professional,” the athlete has time for such training that the average worker does not have.   As a component of  “sports psychology,” some time may be given over to “relaxation training,” because it is recognized that such training may be crucial to optimize high athletic performance.  There is a sense in modern, stressful life that there is only so much time for “exercise,” and that time is best spent in vigorous activity.  Accordingly, both those committed to performance training and those participants trying to get a more general sense of control on their health are to be found on exercise equipment in the time that they make available.

Bottom line, restorative yoga offers a body-mind training to optimize health in everyday life as well as in high uber-fitness performance training, rather than simply rest or recovery.

The following statement can appear to be a great leap to make, but one that may become evident at the finish of a restorative class: Health and wellness can come from doing less, even from inaction.  This is a paradigm shift from the idea that “work” must be hard to reap benefits.  [after Cyndi Lee, “Basics: legs-up-the-wall pose,” Yoga Journal, September, 2010, pp. 70-73.]  “Doing less” is not synonymous with doing nothing.  Intentionally “doing less” can be a process of relaxation that is very physiologically and psychologically “active.”  Intentionally “doing nothing” can equate with “doing something valuable.”  Physiological responses that can be crucial for health, such as reduced BP [i.e., lower hypertension] and HR, may result from restorative “doing less” practices.  Through repeated practice, by altering neurotransmitters, brain arousal may be decreased in everyday life, making a person less reactive and, thus, reducing stress. 

Numerous physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits can be derived from calm, quiet restorative-yin practice.  Small contemporary studies suggest that a variety of other benefits might occur such as, for example, increased immunity to viruses, reduced depression and reduced pain and cessation of addictions, as well as compliance with treatment routines especially with regard to chronic disorders.  Benefits may extend down to the cellular level, such as stimulating nerves of blood vessels that increases their flexibility.  The broad range of effective results of studies need to be guarded rather than promoted as a cure-all, because these studies are typically small and often without controls.  Techniques may vary from study to study and participants may self-select to a strong degree.  However, it is also clear and really rather remarkable that restorative yoga reveals no real negative consequences.  The only harm that is feasible in such gentle practices is the damage caused by doing activity where severe pre-existing conditions would be medically proscribed for even gentle activity.

Specifically, restorative yoga practices can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that reduces the heart rate and blood pressure and stimulates both the digestive system and endocrine system to balance over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system that, in response to alarm or stress, can speed one’s heart rate and raise blood pressure.  Attention to PNS can balance the body, bringing nervous responses back to equilibrium.  The concepts of “balance/rebalancing” and “harmony” are central to most body-mind practices.  Like other physical activities, restorative poses can exercise joints and a mild form of acupressure and massage organs.  And unlike more active yoga poses that engage muscles for flexibility and balances, restorative poses reduce muscular activity that can open the flow of fluid processes rather than restricting these processes, as is experienced in lactic acid retention that are experienced in asanas that target muscles.

In Eastern health traditions, the clearly measurable physical and psychological benefits of restorative yoga have not been the primary targets.  From an Eastern perspective, the primary target for health toward which yoga aspires is the opening of the “flow” in body processes that have come to be referenced with terms such as meridians and chakras.  Western medicine attends to visible structures such as organs and nerves and blood vessels.  Eastern “energy structures” have been related somewhat to Western physiology through measures of electrical flow and electromagnetic dynamics.  The flow of “Eastern energy” is more akin to processes that occur at both the atomic level and the cosmic level.  There is a real force in atoms that relates every atom to vast cosmic processes.  The human body may contain 700 billion billion billion atoms that form a high-speed force field of activity that is beyond the scope of science to observe to the degree that the visible structures of the cell and organs are observable. 

While Western observation may question the scientific “reliability” of the flow of energy that seems to be outside the flow of nervous cell morphology, there is also a process that is not clearly explained by logic in the occasional success of “placebo” medication that persons may believe to be active when, in fact, they are clearly inactive.  In such instances, something outside the known, purely biotic response is operant.

And beyond strict physiological benefits, for example, slowing the influx of stimuli may enhance the quality of psychological receptivity.  And calmness may even produce participant reports of experiences that not only involve physical/psychological body-mind integration, but also reference spiritual experiences such as a sense of inclusion.  This psycho-spiritual dimension can apply to everyday life when it begins to transform actions from being stressful and unhealthy toward optimal health and thriving.

At first glance, restorative yoga appears to have its value as a place of rest.  Being very active in modern life, we experience less rest, and so to rest more in restorative practices seems to be a worthy task.  But “real yoga” is popularly sensed to be a far more active yoga that increases muscular strength, flexibility and balance.  In fact, this more active yoga is popularly thought of as “restorative yoga” because it aspires to “restore” flexibility, integrative muscular/skeleton balance and alignment and “tone” that diminish without attention.  The eased, often supported poses that are coming to be termed “restorative yoga” can appear to be more of an in-between break from these goals, before returning to more active “restorative” poses.  From this perspective, most restorative poses appear to be a variation of savasana—a pose of complete relaxation—that ends most yoga sessions.  And practice of a sequence of restorative yoga can be relegated to being a form of yoga for those who cannot yet do “real” yoga or as an occasional “time-out” retreat rather than as a regular practice.

However, the active, yet “amped-down” yoga practices that almost look as if one is doing next-to-nothing, can be used to restore or refresh body, mind and spirit to a degree that more active practices that constructively use the physical stress of muscular tension may not match.  Restorative yoga aspires to be an “active” practice of yoga.  Restorative yoga is physically active, not a stage of passive rest in between activity, and yin yoga with supports adds a slight increase in activity.  Practitioners who might not attend a restorative session because it is not “active” can miss an important physical and mental activity that is really not matched in yoga practices that concentrate on muscular activity.   Restorative poses are held longer—five minutes up to perhaps 20 minutes with a few poses.  The muscles are relaxed, but the locus of active work is on connective tissue.  And the addition of a sub-specialty—a yin yoga focus—increases the “active” element by focusing on large regions of connective tissue in the lower back and hips.  By increasing a slight yin yoga emphasis, it is possible to transform a restorative-yin practice to a yin-restorative practice, that can even shift further to become primarily a yin practice.

Restorative practices can amplify mental activity that can become obscured in popular yoga practices, where it can even be difficult to bring attention to the breath without having an extensive history of practicing yoga.  The longer-held poses of both restorative and yin yoga can offer an important opportunity to not simply relax, but to listen to the wisdom of the body.   Ultimately, yoga likely emerged as an effort to integrate the body and mind and spirit rather than as either a “spinal callisthenic” or a push toward uber-fitness.  From the start, restorative yoga aspires to go to the multifold heart of yoga.  The supports used in restorative yoga are not for external support, but rather to reduce body activity for deeper connection, for a “grounded-ness” that brings attention to breath and to mindfulness of sensory experience that is difficult to maintain with the attention needed in more active poses to maintain balance or work at the “edge” of one’s flexibility.

With regular practice, this attentionality can open experiences that may appear, at first, to be esoteric or spiritual, and impractical.  The “practical benefits” of yoga have always aspired to serve something far beyond fitness—to optimize life as-it-is rather than transcend it.  In Yin Yoga [p.80], Paul Grilley suggests that historically, the yin concentration on the connective tissue of the lumbar and hip region was likely emphasized as an objective to increase the flexibility of this region to reduce the stagnation of chi and blood to serve the goal of increasing the effectiveness of upright, seated meditation.  Historically, the goal of asanas (poses) served a broad, multifold objective of enhancing dhyana (meditation) to step beyond care of the body or simply a psychologically calm mind, to address a larger spiritual goal of union with the universe (samadhi).  But even samadhi experience must be capable of returning from the isolated pinnacle to everyday life to be authentic.  Characteristics associated with “spiritual persons” have more to do with attributes such as humor than piety, or with integration into life as-it-is rather than exclusiveness, or with “sacredness” being present in the ordinary rather than restricted to being special and isolated.  And these subtle benefits directly affect physiology, psychology and social life. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Everything Offers A Waking Bell

Lance Kinseth, Awakening Sound/Kakuon, 2011

Bells, finger cymbals, chanting are often found in yoga practice.  Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha to say when hearing a bell.  We can begin with a gesture of gratitude, a bow, and say, “Listen, Listen, This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.”  Our true home is in this present moment, where “peace and stability and joy” reside.

Every sensation offers a waking bell—not only sounds, but also flowers or rain, clouds and grass, even washing dishes or caring for another, a smile, even each breath.  Every breath offers freshness. 

Our problems offer bells.  Very simply, for example, when we leave this practice and go on our way, a red stoplight offers a bell.  We may sense the red light to be a problem because it stops us, and wish it were green, and wait for the change with at least a little sense of frustration.  But we make the problem.  At the red light, we might bring our awareness to our breath and calm.  Everything is a bell and everything offers peace.  We begin to find a way to allow even problems to blossom to opportunities.

“Bells” occur even when there is next to no sensation, such as not having a toothache, clean water that we might take for granted, clean clothing, a warm room.  Everything offers.  Everything is a “bell.”

And all of these bells offer a direct, immediate experience of peace.  Immanent, the peace of the space in which we practice.  As Thich Nhat Hanh admonishes us, peace is every step and not a goal.

The calmness and quiet of restorative practice offers us a way to listen to our experience and to hear what is being offered.  Perhaps then, in return, we might offer the bell of a smile or a physical or mental bow of gratitude.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Copyright Lance Kinseth, Bright Faith/Choshin, 2011

IN THE FIRST EXCELLENCE of yoga, we aspire to “come to the matt.”  This first step is much more than simply settling in and stilling “body and mind.” 

In preparing to begin our practice, we cross a threshold, stepping apart from the high-speed chatter of the everyday into sharanam—“refuge,” a place of safety, a shelter.  We settle ourselves, and calm, and surrender into this safe anchor.  We begin to allow history and future expectations to diminish in importance for a time.  We aspire to touch our true home—the present moment.  And by returns to this practice, the remarkable depth and reach and grace of the present moment may be opened.  

Once settled, perhaps we bring our awareness to our breathing—to connect the mind to the body.  The breath is a wave and our awareness, a rider.  We allow our breathing to gradually draw our awareness inward.

Especially in the quietness and calmness of restorative yoga, we are offered time to listen to the body and to our immanent environment rather than “do” something to or for ourselves.  In restorative practice, we are offered an entire practice to take refuge in this sanctuary within ourselves.  By devotion to practice that aspire to sustain calmness and quietness, we can traverse deeply.  Deep within ourselves, we may experience an unbreakable landscape within us.  And touching this deep reserve of energy within us, we might experience opening a reservoir of luminous energy and, as a result, emit radiance.

Against the drudgery of the surrounding landscape of poverty, the established convents of Mother Theresa’s sisters of the Missionaries of Charity are purposefully elegant where possible, offering restorative refuge for those whose avocation offers unconditional kindness to others forgotten or overlooked by others and inhabiting a wretched landscape.  Similarly, we can take refuge in our practice, as Judith Lasater admonishes, as “an act of kindness toward oneself.”  By our returns to our practice, we can enter this refuge wherein we can replenish ourselves, no matter how difficult the everyday circumstances in which we might find ourselves.  But rather than being self-centered, the energy that we open in ourselves gradually blossoms into a broader practice of kindness to others and connection with others, and we may even begin to emit this kindness in a sense of calm radiance in the everyday that others can perceive.

Paradoxically, the more that we go deeply within, the more that we are opened and drawn beyond ourselves.  We begin to experience this unbreakable sanctuary within us as being gateless—not exclusively within.  Boundaries may begin to soften.  By returns to calm practices, even in just “coming to the matt,” our perception can open to connection, inclusion and wholeness that, in turn, contributes to the support and contentment of others—those who might be joining us in these moments in practice, those with whom we will interact in the coming hours and days, and those for whom we will advocate and perhaps never directly encounter.

When we come to the matt space, we take refuge in the entire universe.  No matter where we find ourselves, we are where our most elaborate our science is telling us we are—always center-point in the universe.  Wherever we find ourselves—in the moments of practice or in everyday life—we are offered this chance to deeply open the First Excellence of yoga, and take refuge/sharanam.  Remarkable, yet not special or exclusive, everywhere, we might enter that unbreakable terrain that we can then express, emitting radiance.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Copyright Lance Kinseth, Cloud Gate/Yun-men, 2011

Several years past, my wife, Lynne, was attending a retreat for health professionals working with cancer patients at Commonweal in Northern California.  Activities included beach walking, sandtray, journaling, yoga and other things along with discussion and healthy food.  All of these activities were restorative and contemplative and provocative, especially with regard to touching one’s spirit and being-ness.

I had spent the week traveling up the Pacific coast and camping with my daughter.  Returning to Commonweal, I had the good fortune to meet Rachel Remen who was co-director of the retreat and spend some time exploring sandtray and the absorptive space near Point Reyes national seashore.  In one of our subsequent conversations regarding our experiences there, Lynne noted that the yoga teacher had emphasized being perhaps as attentive to the non-posing time spent in yoga practice as time spent in the poses, if not more.  Waz Thomas was the yoga teacher at that time.

That idea intrigued me and stuck with me through the years.  It seemed like a good point:  Work hard so that you can then directly experience what it really like is to relax, and spend time with this relaxation.  When I would bring this up with yoga teachers, they had difficulty attaching anything concrete to it.  Savasana at practice’s end.  Child pose in the midst.  They might note the value of relaxation, but it seemed secondary in comparison to poses and their benefits.

More recently, in practice with Deniece Gaudineer, when I again brought up this issue, she suggested that I might find restorative yoga and yin yoga to be of interest.  And, of course, I did, and I am very grateful for her direction.  I was hooked immediately when she suggested that I put a rolled-up blanket under my knee when extending my leg(s) in a head-to-knee pose.  The hamstring tension was gone, but there was the pull of the fascia of the lower back, and yet, even with the tug, it was semi-relaxing.    

A feeling that I did not have a name for at the time, but do now is a sense of release.  And this feeling can come from not only coming out of a pose, but within a pose.  It is most evident in restorative yoga where the body is supported and muscles are relaxed, but it evident in yin yoga when the fascia of the lumbar region and/or the hips is brought to an edge in longer-held poses.

In restorative-yin practice, one can aspire to “release” into the pose to a degree that one cannot do in more active, muscular poses.

What does this release offer?

Going back to the simple act of putting a blanket roll under the knee to release the tension is a good place to begin.  Always before, I was instructed to straighten the leg and stretch as far as was “comfortably” possible.  For a new student of yoga, straightening the leg and bending over with head to any level toward the knee, plain and simple, hurts.  Most people whom I have met that have tried yoga no longer do yoga.  The typical response is one of “I tried it and it hurt.”  But now, I was being given permission, even encouraged, by a good teacher to do this.  And it was not just an act of kindness to make the pose easier; there was something deep to get out of this.  

“Release” is a term used in yoga.  Release is more than simply easing up on the pose—and “cheating” and not pushing oneself to maximize physical gains—or the phase of coming out of a pose and reducing the tension or lactic acid build-up, or more than even the sophisticated process of releasing or into a pose or surrendering into its difficulty. 

Release is movement toward the deep heart of yoga.

A bird leaps off the branch and flies.  It doesn’t struggle nor does it really “surrender” to the wind.

In restorative practice, the body opens, sensation lifts off the external and flies deeply into the landscape within.  One is not focused on balance or strength or pushing the edge of flexibility, all of which make even attending strongly to breath difficult, let alone getting to internal chatter.  If done right, restorative yoga is akin somewhat to the softness of qigong and tai chi that aspires to go much further than exercise or stress relief.

There is release from expectations, such as performance and physicality.  And yet, this is not to say that restorative is “simple.” With returns to restorative practice, it becomes evident that there is much subtlety.  Along the pathway of restorative practice, there is always a turn just ahead where there is something new to behold. 

In restorative yoga, one is asked to be really very, very kind to oneself.  Not to just give some time to exercise, but to give some time to being still and quiet.  And sometimes this is difficult, because we have not been given permission to be kind to ourselves, and we tend to believe that it is wrong to do so, even wasteful and selfish.  This is gentle, gentle yoga, and judged by many as too gentle to be pursued given the time one has to allot for fitness and health.  We must almost steal time to do this, and next to no one suggests that there is much value in it other than stress reduction.  While stress reduction is crucial, it is very rare when a facilitator will suggest that this self-kindness comprised of calmness and quietness can open a profound gate that can transform our lives in a way that no other process can.

To encounter a richness in restorative practice so as to make it a regular practice is not a turning away from other forms of yoga.  In fact, this kindness begins to open a door into yoga that may be less rote—less a process of following expectations—and more explorative and more intuitive.  Expanding curiosity about yoga occurs perhaps from having gone more deeply into oneself from the very beginning of gentle practice.  Then one may ask authentically, what is it that is needed from strength, flexibility, and balance.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dreaming Grass

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Straightforward Heart/Jikishin, 9”x14, linocut—early proof, 1996

Now deep enough
Squirrels dolphin thru snow
Over dreaming grass

BLOWING SNOW slows us, if not stops us dead in our tracks:
Already this week, some hours with no power, no TV, no lights, dropping heat.

Inside, on that day, a candle jumped to center stage. 
But sudden quiet rubbed irritatingly, as withdrawal from noise addiction began. 

Outside, today, the vast power of the tilted Earth rubs against the house.
Still, for all its weight, it is full of restraint, a soft rhowww.

It is a deep song, full of sweeping over- and undertones, coming from far away,
Like stretched-thin blue whales’ calls sweeping though their ocean.

Through the window, nuthatches, jays and cardinals and woodpeckers rush the rocking feeders.
Grackles come in tribes trying to peck each other’s eyes out.

Farther out, wind-formed arabesques of snow
Offer the beautiful script of an indecipherable language.

A new month begins the coming end of winter.
A calm and quiet practice blossoms the grace of problems.