It feels like just yesterday that we were all holed up, arguing on Facebook about opening up for the summer season and wondering what would happen. And then it did.
It’s hard for me every autumn when the frenetic energy of summer, with its overlapping work schedules and social obligations, comes crashing to a stop, as if I blew a fuse to turn the lights off instead of using the dimmer. Every summer season ends with a surge of anxious questions about the winter: “Did I make enough money to make it through?” “How will I stay sane?”
This pandemic summer and strange political moment are making that seasonal uncertainty more intense for many people. It may feel a bit counterintuitive to lie down and snuggle up during a time of such upheaval, but real rest will make you stronger.
Chronic stress is harmful to our physical and psychological health. Its impact spreads through the body as adrenal hormones act on our autonomic nervous system, preparing the body for “fight, flight, or freeze.”
While this bodily response may be appropriate for a singular stressful event, like a natural disaster or a big presentation at work, it isn’t necessary for our everyday lives. How do we switch out of a maladaptive stress response?
Researchers agree on one thing that helps — stimulating the relaxation response. David Spiegel, M.D., director of the Stanford Center on Stress, explains, “In medicine we are learning that physical problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease can be influenced by psychological intervention such as relaxation training.”
Active yoga practices like pranayama (breathwork) and asana (physical poses) are what we focus on most in yoga studios together. But restorative yoga is the magic ticket to countering chronic stress.
The practice itself is simple — though not necessarily easy. The first step is to create a quiet place to relax. This can be the bedroom or a corner of a room that you know won’t be occupied for the duration of your practice. If you live with others, create an agreement with them that you need a space to yourself for 30 minutes with no interruption. You could do this in even less time, but getting truly comfortable and feeling supported is important.
Creating conditions for relaxation is just as important as creating conditions for action. We are primed to favor productivity. That’s why lowering the lights, having a small towel or eye covering, and using as many blankets as possible are musts.
Yoga props are used in restorative yoga classes, but it’s OK if you don’t have them at home. For a faux bolster, roll up a large beach towel or stuff a pillowcase with laundry. Wear warm, comfortable clothing. Dress a bit warmer than usual because when you begin to fully relax, you’ll start to feel cooler.
Take your bolster and place it underneath the backs of your knees. Make sure your heels touch the ground or place something else underneath them. Place a towel or blanket underneath your head to keep your neck neutral. Pull a blanket over your body, cover your eyes, and make all the micro-adjustments you need to be truly comfortable.
This all leads up to the finale — rest. If I’m especially agitated, I’ll systematically tense areas of my body as much as possible and then let go. Squeeze eyes, clench jaw and throat, and release. Tense shoulders, arms, make hands into fists, and release. Once I’ve moved through my whole body, I’ll usually count the length of my breath, trying to coax it a bit longer and smoother. It is way too easy to let this be a time to wander around with your mind, but restorative yoga is an embodied rest practice. That is, you’ve got to stay with it and with yourself.
When it feels like we must act on everything because our lives depend on it — we must sign the petition, march in that rally, and keep up to date on all the news — it can be hard to allow for rest. But restorative yoga is a complement to all the action, the inundation of information, the swift change of summer to fall. Think of your rest as part of your resistance. Not a nap, but something more.
For more on breathing and relaxation, online readers might refer to one of my past columns, “A Time to Voo,” or, for a full-fledged book on restorative yoga, I suggest Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Lasater.