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.