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.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Five Excellences Of Restorative-Yin Yoga Practice Sessions

Copyright Lance Kinseth, 2011

MODERN PRACTICE of yoga can come to resemble calisthenics—warming up the body, and then increasing the pace.  But rather than being simply physical conditioning, the dynamics of any yoga session may carry over into daily life in skills such as deep relaxation, as inspiration for actions, by promoting balance in encounters with the vicissitudes of life and, finally, by encourage the expression of attributes such as harmony and peace and compassion.  There are at least five key elements that are not new, that practitioners often incorporate to some degree into various phases of a general yoga session.  Their grace lies in their simplicity and freedom from dogma.  In restorative-yin practice, these five elements may become intentional, ritualized components that are likely to be enhanced or deepened by the slow, calm process of restorative-yin practice.

The First Excellence:
“Coming To The Mat”
[Stillpoint and Pranayama]

“Coming to the Mat” implies a number of processes:

Practically, in all yoga practice, “coming to the mat” aspires to trigger a physiology of rest to aid in increasing flexibility and strength in poses and the capacity to sustain relaxation throughout the session and to also contribute to a practical outcome: stress reduction.  In restorative-yin practice, the rational for “coming to the mat” goes much deeper.

Overall, in the process of “coming to the mat,” the sequence of events that occur in your mind guiding body physiology triggers a physiology of rest:
  • Crossing a threshold,
  • Gathering supports,
  • Setting up matt,
  • “Settling in:” and “centering,”
  • Coming to a “stillpoint” on the mat, and
  • “Breath work” [awareness, softening/lengthening, focus on exhalation, cessation of exhalation].
This mind-directed physiological shift, in turn, opens mental shift: When we taste such an elemental force as our breath as freshness and freedom, everything becomes a place of grace.  Everything offers.  Everything offers an “opportunity” for gratitude, wherein life does not simply continue, but rather, has the opportunity to be transformed.

Specific Sequence of “Coming To The Mat:”

In restorative-yin practice, we cross over a threshold from the fast pace of the everyday into a place and a process that aspires to calm.  Crossing over a “threshold” of sorts at the doorway, we are not cut off from our children or from our family or from myriad obligations.  We are not giving up anything or leaving anything behind.  However, “Restorative-Yin Yoga” is not a continuation of the fast pace of everyday modern life.   There is a sense of taking refuge (sharanam) in a larger landscape of support that extends both deep into the tradition of yoga and into the vast universe.  Given this larger context, the details that seem overwhelming and the struggles that seem to make you smaller can be swallowed up by the vastness and released.  And when stresses intrude, you can place them on the other side of the threshold and look at them rather than either be the stressors [e.g., becoming an emotion such as anger] or let them go.  Crossing a threshold of sorts, we enter an inner terrain, where, if we go far enough in our relaxation, the "inner" is found to weave seamlessly into the, heretofore, "outer," forming an overall tapestry of landscape, of self, of identity, that is without boundaries.

Crossing over this threshold, we might aspire to stop our everyday “high-speed cruise control.”  We simply begin to slow, and to quiet, and to still as much as is possible, side-stepping out of the fast pace of everyday life.  But more than either letting go or “calming down,” we begin to make a “space for grace.”  It is a quality that is likely missing from our everyday, from our weekend, from the day after Monday, or from any day that we might choose.

The mat is rolled out and a place of practice is established.  In Restorative practice, the process of gathering supports such as blocks and blankets and settling on the matt creates a small ritual of preparation and entry.  For restorative practice, you might gather blocks and blankets and perhaps a ball or bolsters—all of which build to a “ritual of transition,” not unlike an artist gathering materials before a blank canvas. 

“Coming to the mat” offers a center point.  We might sit or lie down, and even wrap the body on a blanket.  Coming to the mat provides a place to “settle in” and “center” oneself—a “centering process” that aspires to go deeply inward into the heart-mind to the point where, when deeply relaxed, identity might, paradoxically, expand into the larger landscape rather than lead to isolation and self-absorption.  There may be a sense of focusing on the specific actions of the body, as one might focus on an incoming wave in the ocean, and yet with a sense that the wave is expressing the ocean rather than something exclusive to the wave form itself; something inclusive, opening and expansive.

“Settling in,” Stilling the body turns off the everyday “cruise control,” and we apply the brakes, and we are offered a place to stop.  We bring our awareness to the body, to our thoughts and to the sensory stimuli of the practice space: the quality of light, sound, touch, and perhaps fragrance.  Unlike most exercise, we bring mind strongly to the body.  Stilling—non-action—is deep, intentional action that is, paradoxically, doing a lot.  We quiet further—no sound—and the practice seems to take on a sacred quality, and to become something akin to living non-sectarian prayer.  Taking some moments for stilling and quieting and kindness to oneself is not selfish.  Returns to restorative practice radiate outward into the world in the form of reduced reactivity, increased listening and awareness, and kindness and compassion for others.  Stillness reveals non-stillness, breath, perhaps heartbeat, and even activity that is not typically in consciousness—a “rivering” of breath, digestion, a streaming of mental imagery, and perhaps overall energy of the body.

Pranayama”—breath work and body energy activation—becomes a crucial action.  After stilling the body, intentional focus is brought to the breath, at first, just as it is—enduring, steady, and “present.”  Perhaps still in our everyday mode and given to analysis, we might assess whether or not breathing seems stressed or whether we have sense of breathing for the body rather than following the breath.  However, the intention is to follow the breath—just as it is—no ritual, just breath coming and going.  Just cool air across the lips or nose and warm air exiting.

Presence:  With attention to the continual process of breathing, we come concretely into the present moment.  It is not really an acute “mindfulness” of one sensation after another as much as it is a sense of flow where the “arrow never really strikes a target.”

Then, perhaps, we may be admonished to “soften” the breath.  Softening the breath, inhalations and exhalations become longer.  Aspirations to lengthen the breath or to equalize inhalation and exhalation may be sensed to be akin to “work.”  “Softening” is better, as it is intuitive and relaxing.  The naval may rise, followed by the solar plexus, and then by the lower lungs and finally the inhale may ascend up under the clavicles.  There may a gentle, overall sense of the soft breath being akin to a slow wave and the mind, a “rider.”

Having softened the breath, attention may be directed to exhalation—perhaps first to the sense of relaxation of the muscles of the chest.  Along with each exhalation, participants may be directed to release any sense of tension.

Then, we might aspire to cease the breath as the final part of exhalation. You let the ceased breath—stillness—continue: “Perfectly Peaceful Pause.”  The heartbeat might come into awareness.  In the cessation of each exhale, heartbeats pulse perhaps two times or four times and gradually build to more.  Inhalation of breath is encouraged to occur on its own. This first incoming, spontaneous breath is remarkable.  It is not unlike that first, refreshing—exalting—breath upon coming up from underwater.   And perhaps you awaken to sense that each and every breath is like this—freshness and freedom, in its most basic form.  In this cessation of the breath on exhales, following the breath rather than breathing for the body becomes apparent.

As your breath softens, as the breath cycle slows significantly, body physiology that reduces reactivity strengthens.  Brain chemistry, parasympathetic components of heart rate and blood pressure and endocrine regulation shift toward stress reduction and away from the sympathetic “fight-flight.”  Brain waves change because neuro-chemicals change—beta waves into alpha waves.  Practically, slowing the breath cycle triggers parasympathetic nervous system responses: neuro-cardio-endocrine that set in motion the process of increasingly deep relaxation throughout the restorative-yin practice session.  

The Second Excellence:
“Setting An Intention For this Practice Session”
[Inspiration / Invitation]

“Setting an intention for practice” is not really that goal-driven.  It is more a process of inspiration than a practice outcome.  “Setting an intention” often occurs early in the session, but it can be initiated after a period of relaxation.  When more deeply relaxed, our language may change from everyday chatter to a more heart-felt and intuitive response. 

We might “invite” or offer an invitation to some quality to be in our lives to be in our awareness that is beyond the physical process of the sequence of asanas.  We might offer the practice in behalf of others.

If new to the practice, an intention may simply involve an exploration of the practice and a sense of receptivity and openness to see what it is about.

  • A sense calmness, quietness,
  • A sense of respite, taking refuge and release,
  • A sense of positive energy,
  • A sense of healing or restoration, or revitalization or renewed energy to apply to the everyday,
  • Impacting a particular physical issue or emotional issue, especially toward an outcome of release rather than resolution,
  • Optimizing creativity by opening, expanding:  In yoga, each pose can speak to us—child, dog, bridge, and supine goddess.  Each pose is an invitation to open, expand and create/transform 

By returns to practice, perhaps the inspiration from, or an invitation for the emergence of spiritual attributes [characteristics of “spiritual persons”]: sacredness, humility, freshness, peace, surrender, grace, and eloquence

The Third Excellence:
“Honoring Oneself: Allowing Practice To Be Just As It Is”
[Santosha: contentment with life as it is, on the mat and in everyday life]

Inspiration, yes, invitation, yes, but release from goals, expectations, striving, performance, anticipation, achievement, comparison with others, competition [as everyone can “win”]

“Abandoning the fruits of our actions:” Full involvement now, without thought of a goal; unending entry vs. either goal attainment or achievement

Intuitive practice: Following the body—breath, tensions, and doing what is needed today in this session. What is frustration with our ability level offering us in this moment? 

Opening rather than answering:  If we strive for a goal or an answer, we may miss very interesting “turns along the pathway” or new questions that may spontaneously emerge, especially in the deep listening of restorative-yin practice where poses are held longer.

Be that which is: body, breath, and mind

Moderating highs and lows: A sense of give and take, as a powerful, de-stressing and opening process

Balance—equanimity across all vicissitudes of life—especially with regard to immanent emotions and thoughts; harmony between Yin and Yang

Finally, “contentment” may open the door to allow getting in touch with the richness of life as it is—deeply inspiring, and miraculous in all of its vicissitudes (highs and lows)]

The Fourth Excellence:
“Acknowledging Gratitude”
[Opening Joy]

Gratitude Flowers Into Joy / Cultivating Humility and Joy: Just saying the word “gratitude” toward some sensation [fresh breath or stillness in yoga practice, or seeing a leaf fall at home] immediately offers an unexpected gift: joy.

Peace is every step, every moment: Acknowledging the peace that is offered by the practice space, the support of other participants, the quietness and calmness.

Finding gratitude finds joy, and joy is much deeper as much less elusive than happiness.  Happiness comes and goes, but by finding gratitude in any moment—regardless of the nature of that moment, be it suffering or calmness or celebration—finds joy. 

Beginning with a moment that might seem to be the greatest challenge: It is difficult to find happiness in suffering, but it is not difficult to find joy in suffering.  Being alive in that moment, being able to experience suffering viscerally and emotionally, offers simply the richness of being alive in that moment, or joy.  There is a deep ground have in both suffering and non-suffering that is beyond belief, in which, as Toni Packer has suggested, is like the sun or the wind.  We don’t have to “believe” in the wind or the sun.  They are there in the moment, and we offer gratitude, and we experience joy.  This is why suffering, adversity, and all of the things that we don't like about ourselves or others, offer us something that transcends our beliefs and habits, and has the capacity to transform us in a way that concepts, values, distinctions, achievements fail us.  Just sun and wind and drinking tea and coffee or clean water, going to the bathroom, evoking a smile in another offer us containers of joy when we simply are grateful.

In the gentleness of restorative-yin yoga, we have a “laboratory” skewed toward experiences that generate gratitude and that reward us with a sense of joy.  We may call this joy but other names such as “calmness” or “grace” or, even though the poses seem simple, “eloquence.”  Restorative-yin practice is so stripped down, so elemental, that we might, at times, melt away the chatter of the everyday, gazing—not quickly glancing--deeply into myriad sensations, memories, and directives for our lives.

The Fifth Excellence:
“Taking/Activating Gratitude Into The World/Into Everyday Life”

The many moments of yoga practice that generate authentic sense of gratitude in yoga carry over into everyday life.  The health benefits for everyday life of yoga practice are well documented.  They are especially strong for restorative practice, creating physical and psychological benefits.

Beyond immediate medical and psychological benefits, there are qualities that can become attributes (in the sense that they become ongoing aspects of one’s life).  Body-mind practices can transform temporary behaviors into persistent attributes.

Very concretely, we are likely to be less reactive to stress and possess autogenic skills to
relax.  Slightly more effusive, there may be an enhanced sense of “harmony,” “balance,” and “energy” and of an enhanced capacity to “lighten up” (releasing negatives and attachments) with repeated practice.

Even more personal, there may be an optimal health or thriving orientation toward life and deeper engagement with all aspects of life, including a sense of richness and meaningfulness in the, heretofore, mundane and overlooked and ignored aspects of life.

There may be an even deeper sense of transformation; wherein identity expands to include experiences that heretofore seemed to be “beyond self.”   Deep relaxation/calmness simply opens awareness that, in turn, opens experience that, in turn, offers new information that, in turn, may be transformative, lifting us out of black-and-white routine to experiences that are more subtle and interwoven and inseparable from others.

There may be a sense of one’s activities as capable of becoming “radiant:” Being capable of radiating gratitude or energy or calmness.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Deep Ground / Deep Heart

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Deep Stillness / Shinshi, 2011

A killing frost has swept away so much life.

Biota have gone underground and under leaf fall.

The floral book of the year is closed. 
But flora have not ended.
 Leaves have become a living page in the book of the Earth
 And flora have gone into their deep root-heart 
And have sealed up in seeds.

IN THE EARTHEN yin-yang sway of the seasons, it is spring in the Southern Hemisphere.

In the Northern Hemisphere, it is a muted landscape of the leaf fall and frosts of autumn.  The natural world is not some backdrop to human life, but rather, immerses human life, and offers rich provocations.

Globally, there is a spiritual/metaphysical sense that everyday life is an expression of the known universe and vast unknowable cosmos, and every event is a mini-universe.  And in a scientific sense, this more esoteric sense is expressed in our growing ecological literacy.  And so, there is an enduring recognition that there is a deep, longer reach of self, and the practical implication of this recognition is that the “little universe of self” is optimized when it is in harmony with the vast cosmos.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the environmental changes are dramatic.  The entire landscape transforms it coloration and the daylight continues to appreciably shorten, and the sun lowers still further in its arc across the southern horizon.  And human activity begins to make major shifts to match these changes.  Jackets and thicker coats appear, especially in the mornings.  Kettles begin to simmer with the slow cooking of soups and stews.  Outside, ice-cold rains come now and again, sparingly.  And the window may begin to frost.  The more that ice appears, the more that fire seems to balance it.  We counter the chill with the fireside hearth and perhaps kindle a rich ember within us, provoked by salving the elemental hunger for fire before the hands.  In the increasing coolness or in the Yin reduction of rain and humidity (that might generate its Yang counterpart in monsoons in the Southern Hemisphere), there may be an increased sense of “fire” in the heart in the form of a radiant ember deep within body and soul.

Wintering birds begin to gather in rookeries in bare-boned treetops and in non-rookery out-of-the wind yews and hedges.  Trees become skeletal, but there is a rich life that has gone down into the roots, deeply grounded. 

There is a sense of melancholy—a tinge of sorrow—at the loss of the flora and the cold that precedes the coming winter, but also, a strong opportunity to be “mellow” and calmed.

In body-mind practices, the quality of deepening autumn in either Hemisphere may begin to be reflected in our slowing and quieting even more.  The autumnal retreat of flora within and underground may encourage a deeper grounding within our experience.

Frost on the windowpane becomes a magical looking glass that may peer far deeper than the terrain outside the window.  Gazing into it, we may come more inside ourselves, and mellow, and simmer and slow-cook and then savor complex melds of feelings and deep time that are lost in the fast dance of life that is “summer.” 

If you amble outside the parameters of sidewalks—if you step even just slightly off the sidewalk, the heart of the forest opens, and we can amble there more easily. Each step there is rich ambrosia in our crush of the leaf fall.  The all-ness or alikeness of the landscape—gone from viridian to ochre—may be soothing in its simplistic appearance.  The insects are gone, and the sound is closer to silence than before, but marked occasionally by the sharp caws of a gathering of crows.   

In a killing frost, in the small view, we see the demise of exquisite life, but if we stand back far enough, we see the transformation of life, wherein on a very high level, there is really no birth or death, just this ongoing creative flow.  Our personal life is somehow there.

By calming and quieting, we connect with the tempered pace of the world itself.  And we have an opportunity to discover that this world is flowing through us.  As the physical world cools, we root deeper, kindling an ember deep inside ourselves against the ice.   Everyday, we are wont to go fast, to reduce experiences to quick flashes.  Deep autumn can provoke a value in slowing down, in “slow-cooking” and “stewing,” of going deeply inside, of deep grounding, of coming closer to the heart of practice.

In the autumn and winter of our year, anywhere in the biosphere of the Earth, we are offered this opportunity to “come inside,” and to listen more deeply to that which is somehow “within.”  And in going there, we find that “within” stands to become a doorway to everything rather than an island that walls us off from the world.

So come now, in November in the growing darkness of both mornings and evenings in the Northern Hemisphere, and open the growing “lightness” from that powerful ember of energy that emanates from within us.  This same light awaits us in every season, in every day, and in every moment.