I attend yoga religiously purely for shavasana (or meditation) during the last few minutes of class, and I know I’m not alone. Finding the patience and concentration to meditate on my own (and without the muscle fatigue prior) is difficult for almost everyone—even the most open-minded. The fact relies that shutting my mind off completely when work responsibilities, chores, family issues—y’know, everyday life—gets in the way seems downright impossible. Recently I’ve discovered one practice that gets me past it all: Restorative Yoga.
“Restorative yoga is a supported meditation that can be more accessible to some who find traditional seated meditations intimidating,” says Vanessa Diamond, a Doctor of Physical Therapy, who led me through a one-on-one session at Shift Integrative Medicine in New York. “Poses are held for extended periods of time [anywhere from 3-15 minutes] that allow a person to slowly unwind.” The body is fully supported by props (blankets, chairs, pillows) so the muscles are able to fully release any natural tension. “The practitioner can achieve the benefits of the pose while gaining insight into areas of held tension. With this increased awareness comes the ability to consciously, overtime, surrender the layers of physical and emotional holding.”
I started the class laying on my back with my legs propped up on a chair. My body required zero movement or energy to stay in place, and yet I still didn’t feel completely relaxed. Whether it was the new surroundings or my consistent low-level worrying, I couldn’t turn off my brain. “Ooh, my hamstrings feel tight. Is this where she said to put my arm?”
That is, until she started to direct. “Breath in and out. Pay attention to how your legs feel. Release any built-up tension.” As a marathon runner, I pay attention to how my body feels all the time—most importantly how my hips ache like a 70-year-old woman. Holding poses while feeling that tension release was a whole new way to get in touch with my body. And as I felt the stress physically evaporate as I acknowledged, it helped quiet my mind. I was finally able to meditate.
“Restorative yoga initiates the relaxation response (aka: ‘rest and digest’ response), which balances the negative effects of the stress response (aka: ‘fight or flight’ response),” Diamond told me. “Our bodies are meant to oscillate between the two systems responsible for relaxation and stress, but in our modern world of overachieving norms, there are constant perceived ‘dangers’ that create a chronic adaption to the stress response.”
The result? Our digestion, sleep habits, immune system can get out of order. Vanessa says that “Restorative yoga facilitates physiologic changes in the nervous system that with regular practice, helps create long-standing health benefits that help a person manage and gain resilience against the inevitable daily stress.”
The stress will always be there. This practice acknowledges that you can respond to that stress in a healthier way. After 45 minutes of meditation, I felt complete relaxation, but was also better able to reflect. I realized that this sense of well-being was what peace of mind feels like, something that all too many of us forget in this hectic world.
I knew this feeling wouldn’t stay with me long, but as I left the building and entered the crowded streets of Manhattan at rush hour, I took that feeling with me. I didn’t push through the crowds or power walk. I enjoyed the moment. The next day may have brought its usual ‘dangers’ that ignited my stress response, but I was better able to deal with them. After all, I have restorative yoga in my corner now.