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.