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A few years ago I enrolled on a Yoga Teacher Training course for a year at the Yoga Academy Auckland – I was on a mission to learn more and more about this practice and to equip myself with as much knowledge as I could. If I was going to teach Yoga, then I wanted to be good at it.
It was an interesting year – the course was actually geared around the Ashtanga Vinyasa style but I was doing all the course modules except the physical practice itself … anatomy, keeping people safe etc. About half way through the year course tutor Jude Hynes gave us a new practice, brought out some Yoga bolsters from the cupboard and introduced us to the wonderful world of Restorative Yoga.
In the very first pose she gave us – Supported Bridge Pose, I was lying back over the length of the bolster so that most of my body was on the bolster, but my head and shoulders on the floor. It was like an effortless bridge pose. And I can still remember this experience: the exact moment when I felt a true relaxation response deep within me. Tension melting, my body softening and a realisation that something very important for me had just occurred, and I was awake to the experience.
Right there and then, (and this was back in 2005), I made a decision to deeply explore this approach to Yoga. Luckily at the Academy there was already a teacher who was specialising in Restorative Yoga – Karla Brodie, and I spent many sessions learning from her, studying with her and we became rather wonderful friends. We now even teach together regularly on teacher training programs and retreats. Karla, like our teacher and mentor Donna Farhi, is always developing her approach, enquiring and learning.
Restorative Yoga has it’s background in the work of BKS Iyengar who pioneered the use of props to help support the body in Yoga postures. Iyengar style teachers such as Judith Lasater too have promoted and written extensively on the approach.
Whilst I personally have never studied with BKS Iyengar or Judith Lasater, I recognise their influence on my teaching. Primarily it has been Donna Farhi and Karla who have been the most significant teachers for me, exemplary in their integrity and development of the practice.
The Relaxation Response
Restorative Yoga is all about the relaxation response. In a culture which seems to promote and reward “doing” and “being productive” as the only “valuable” way to live, Restorative Yoga is counter-cultural, perhaps even “revolutionary”.
It invites “being” rather than “doing”, contentment rather than striving, being open rather than insensitive.
While initially appearing easy, like “Lying Around”, Restorative Yoga may be seen as a more advanced form, more akin to meditation, where we have the time to observe sensations, our breath, our emotions and mind, and where we may welcome all of these experiences. This is not necessarily easy at all. We may come face to face with aspects of ourselves which are not comfortable to be with. In more active Yoga we may be so busy with our “Yoga Practice” we don’t give ourselves the time and space to notice these deeper levels.
In truth though, this is where the Yoga tradition is guiding us … a fuller exploration of our whole selves – all of us – our body yes, and also our energy, breath, emotions, mind and spirit. It is a very holistic tradition. Yoga moves us gently and with ease towards a beautiful equanimity and neutrality, where we may welcome our full experience with open hearts to whatever happens in our life.
In the Restorative Yoga practice itself we use props such as bolsters and blankets to rest over, setting up these props very carefully and mindfully in a way that is suitable for us (and this may be different from the next person). The posture may be a forward or backward bend, it may be an inversion, supine or prone. Whatever posture we practice, we set ourselves up so that every joint in our body is supported and we can allow gravity itself to work it’s magic and release held tension. Every posture should feel sustainable, incredibly comfortable and even luxurious. Why not give this to ourselves?
Without the distraction of an uncomfortable body, we have the freedom to soften and release deeply, to ease through layers of tension, into profound relaxation, quietness and stillness. Why stillness? The simple answer is to quote a much loved teacher who now resides in the USA – Baba Hari Das:
When the mind is silent, the heart speaks. The language of the heart is love, compassion and peace.
The more we can anchor into this ground of silence (and Restorative Yoga gives us the tools for this), the more we may respond to whatever happens in our life from our True Nature, which is love, compassion, peace and kindness.
Over the coming months I’ll be posting further writings on some of the main Restorative Yoga postures, how to set them up, variations, their benefits and more. Karla Brodie and myself also regularly offer Big Relax and Rest workshops and sessions, and also the Rest Retreat – a weekend of Restorative Yoga. We also intend to set up a new website dedicated to Restorative Yoga and offer Restorative Yoga Teacher Trainings. I look forward to seeing you in the practice.
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