esther m palmer

Restorative yoga is kinda like napping --but better! I mean, I've always been a lousy napper. I would never fall asleep which, being the point of a nap, used to bug the bejeezus out of me. I'd give up on the nap, now feeling tired and frustrated, and turn to a short-term energy spike provided by the nearest cookie. Enter the yoga nap, otherwise known as restorative yoga.

Whether my stress is caused by lack of sleep, mental anxiety, or physical ache, I almost always find relief through restorative yoga. Here's why: restorative yoga is a practice in which you set up your body in gentle reclining postures (supine, prone, or side-lying) using props to support all major joints. This support sends a signal to your nervous system that you're safe and can relax. Gentle touch, guided visualization, focusing on your breath, and listening to soothing music are just a few common way to encourage your mind to move into this relaxation as well (if it doesn't wanna go on its own). In just ten minutes (or more if you have it), you can find yourself sinking deep into a semi-conscious state of deep rest. Falling asleep isn't an objective of yoga naps (though it's delightful when it happens!), so if you've been thinking like me that you "don't do naps," I promise, restorative yoga can have its effect when you're fully conscious. For some, it can even be a deeper experience that way.

Restorative postures, like "regular" yoga postures, can move the spine in all directions and open different parts of the body. This gives your body a chance to rest in positions other than your usual sleep position. And while the positions are relatively gentle, the effect on your subtle body --your energetic body, your mood, etc-- can be significant. If you've ever slept in a funky position and woke up feeling "off" or sore, you have some idea of this effect (though hopefully it's always for the better in restorative yoga!).

Honestly, I feel like I've stumbled on to the fountain of youth. My yoga naps make that big a difference in how I feel. Before restorative yoga, I'm not sure I ever truly felt awake, energized, and calm. Maybe my memory exaggerates, but it's an honest thought. And while regular yoga nappers have something akin to a Pavlovian response to yoga bolsters (the big cushions), there are many for whom it takes some time with the practice before it's "easy". If that's the case, I suggest you don't do the practice entirely alone without some instructions to follow. Start with gentle movement on the breath to help calm your mind before coming into the still poses. During the stillness, have a teacher guide you through breath observation and sensory awareness. Give yourself time to observe how you feel after the practice. And of course, give it a try more than once. If it ends up not working for you, well, here's a whole catalog of stress relievers you can try! (The authors also provide a satisfyingly technical explanation of why stress needs to be used up and how stress relievers function.)

Ready to give yoga naps a try? You don't need lots of fancy yoga props, you can start by raiding your living room. Have a scan for 2-4 blankets (preferably not too fluffy), couch cushions, small, firm pillows, and possibly stacks of paperback books (they may need to be tied into bundles). When you're working with these props, remember that restorative yoga works on a very deep level. Setting up a pose may look a lot like playing with couch-cushion sized Lincoln Logs, but building the yummiest arrangement for your deepest rest requires a patient attention to detail. It may not seem essential to smooth out the wrinkles in the blanket under your butt, but after five or ten minutes resting on an uneven surface, your muscles if not also your mind will notice the imbalance and something will end up holding on, which we're trying to avoid in restorative yoga! Time changes everything and therein lies the secret of restorative yoga.

It was my plan to include here a video or play-by-play picture demo of setting up the above restorative pose, but I've run out time to sort out technical difficulties and will have to instead encourage you to come take class! Or schedule a video chat session.

In the meantime, you can at the very least absorb the idea of restorative yoga and practice balancing your stress time with down time!

hari om tat sat!

What is stress? Is it some mystical force out to get us? (Feels like it sometimes.) In truth, stress is simply a category for events that evoke an emergency response from your nervous system. Stress is a very real thing and how you "deal with" it makes a world of difference to your nervous system and health.

Let's take a look at how your autonomic (self-operating) nervous system and it should become abundantly clear why.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for pretty much every other than movement and brain function: “heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, pupil size, sweating, immune system, mucus production, caliber of the airways, blood sugar levels, adrenal hormone levels, digestive functions, your immune system” and still more bodily functions (1). It can be broken down into three systems: enteric NS ("gut brain"), sympathetic NS (emergency responder), and parasympathetic NS (maintenance crew). We're interested here in the latter two.

Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear almost instantly in response to emergency or the threat of emergency. Here's what that response looks like:

  • Your "thinking" brain, the prefrontal cortex thought to be responsible for sophisticated decision making, switches "off"
  • Your motor-sensory cortex in the brain gets that extra juice so your limbs coordinate well
  • A wash of stress-inducing chemicals (adrenalin and others) gives you superhuman strength by boosting heart-rate, blood pressure, and fast action
  • Your digestion, reproduction, and repair activities shut down --because you don't need to worry about digesting lunch if you're about to be lunch

All of these responses are FABULOUS when you are in a true emergency. You basically get to be your favorite superhero for a few minutes! Oh, did you think this state was supposed to last longer? Nope, your SNS works best at a sprint, not a marathon, because you need a high-intensity response to use up the chemicals produced. In that case, your body will crave a balancing hormone (oxytocin) once the threat passes and send you seeking comfort. As you begin to feel safe, your body dutifully produces the oxytocin, which helps you move into a state of rest and repair after your big getaway. Now the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is at work. Here's what that looks like:

  • Your body produces acetylcholine, a hormone which triggers a calm, vegetative state
  • Your heart beat slows and blood pressure decreases, things go back to normal
  • Digestion and reproductive system support resume
  • Any healing needed commences
  • Your cognitive processing and learning ability comes back online in tip top shape

The two sides of your nervous system work beautifully together, though they are not by any means meant to work in equal measure throughout the day. Optimal balance for good health requires a 7:1 ratio of time spent in parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. Does that seem like a lot of rest to you? It did to me, but when I think about how amazing I feel when I get a full night's sleep, time to eat with leisure, time to exercise, time to play, time to be with friends and family --and how much more effective I am at work when all of those other things happen-- it starts to make a little more sense.

Unfortunately, most of us, myself included, don't always manage this ratio. And we have a fair amount of stress that isn't life threatening, doesn't cause an adrenaline-burning reaction, and leaves us in a wash of stress chemicals that have never been used up. When this happens, your body gets chemically confused --should you keep on alert or are you safe? Remember how the SNS is better suited to a mad dash than a long run? Well, this "confusion" takes your SNS on a stroll. Your PNS never really gets to settle in because SNS is still sauntering around looking for danger. When your stress sticks with you, your health starts to take a toll. Much of your maintenance resources are diverted to being on a steady alert.

Happily, there are ways to use this old stress, too. Basically you have to get your body to realize you're safe, no danger is present. It depends on the nature of the individual and the stressor as to what will best switch your stress responses off. Kelly McGonigal suggests a well-timed change in attitude (which is just how amazing our brains are, by the way; so much comes back to how you view the world). My buddy Jason Vinci praises sky diving (for many reasons, actually). And here I am to tell you to try restorative yoga.

Restorative yoga!

I feel like I should shout it from the rooftops--everyone should know about restorative yoga! At the very least, the practice has been life changing for this red-head. Next week, I'll walk you through the whys and hows, and hopefully introduce you to the wonders of the yoga nap!

hari om tat sat!



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