Elements of Ease: Inquire

When I first laid down the framework for the Restorative Yoga Training that I offer, I included the idea of "center" as a way to embody ease.  I often felt like center meant there was some fixed point or destination that the student had to get to in order to fully relax.  To center oneself, felt a little bit too rigid for a practice that is about undoing rather than doing.  So since then I've changed this third element of ease to inquire. 

Inquiry implies curiosity mixed with a soft attentiveness free from the constriction of mastery. Meaning there isn't a desired outcome that we are necessarily trying to create, nor does one need to feel as though there is some illusive skill involved in trying to welcome ease into their being. 

Inquiry implies honing one's sensitivity towards what's unfolding within the boundary of flesh and bone.  One honors the gentle pull of physical, emotional and energetic sensation towards its point of origin and waits for hardness to dissipate and dissolve. 

Inquiry may involve following a trail of thought, yet noticing when you've strayed too far from your own direct experience of felt awareness within the body, allowing the pose and your breath to draw you back. I do believe that over time, our ability to inquire can become more and more developed as we build a body memory to call on through continued practice.

inquire elements of ease.png

Restorative Yoga Defined

"Blankie Yoga," "Yoga Dessert," and "Naptime:"  These are some of the descriptions of Restorative Yoga I've heard over the course of my yoga teaching career.  And while blankets are a major part of the practice and it does have a quality of sweetness, there is a bit more nuance to the practice that bares defining. As of this moment,  my working definition of Restorative yoga is that this is a dynamic, intentional and constructive practice that uses props to allow a profound sense of ease that is felt at a physical, emotional and energetic level.   

It is dynamic in the sense, that there is a felt experience as the body shifts from a state of doing to a state of being.  A yielding occurs as the body releases tension and the mind softens its need to be in control. A quality of receptivity, rather than passivity is the result of this yielding.  As the person rests in a state of being, the constructive quality of the rest and digest response of the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and healing can begin. 

To further broaden my definition of Restorative yoga, I use the following 3 guiding concepts when teaching a class.  They are: embodiment, support (physical & emotional) and empowerment. 

Yoga at its core is a practice of embodiment and the wisdom of the teachings lies within the boundaries of the body.  Our bodies are the container that holds our attention as we explore Consciousness at all layers of being.  As Restorative yoga teachers, we attempt to anchor students’ awareness to the myriad of sensation presented in the body as breath, heart rate, pulsation of energy, thoughts, images, memories, and other somatic experience. 

It’s quite obvious that support should be a guiding principle of any Restorative yoga practice.  Support of props are used as a way to manipulate the nervous system into the relaxation response - a separate physiological response that holds the quality of a “relaxed alertness.”  

I always joke that the most challenging aspect of Restorative yoga is learning how to fold some blankets.  We create ease with proper prop placement and precise folds so that the body almost appears to be flowing over the props in a symmetrical way. 

Restorative yoga often instigates an emotional release due to the inherent therapeutic quality of this type of contemplative practice.  To feel a sense of fullness in one’s being can lead to increased feelings of self-compassion and often a release of tears in the process.  As Restorative yoga teachers, we meet this release with tenderness and compassion. 

Empowerment in a Restorative yoga class is the encouragement one might need to remember that it isn’t less than to do less.  Quite frankly, taking time to be still could be seen as an act of rebellion in this day and age.  I also see empowerment as a way to remind students that they have choices in a Restorative yoga class: the choice to stay longer in a pose or the choice to move out of a pose sooner than the rest of the class.  

Most importantly I remind students of their capacity to self-soothe.  Our bodies have an inherent intelligence and is always attempting to bring us back to a sattvic or harmonious state.  Biologists describe this as homeostasis. The ability of a body or cell to seek and maintain equilibrium or stability within its internal environment when dealing with external changes.  In short, if we are alive, then we can heal.  That’s empowering! 

 

Elements of Ease: Breathe

The breath. Our constant companion through life (thankfully), a gauge of our emotional, energetic and mental state, the building block of self-study and a way to enter into present moment experience. 

In Restorative yoga, we experience the breath on a continuum of sensation according to Donna Farhi in The Breathing Book, fluidly shifting from involuntary, to a recognition of breath in it's more conscious form to actively taking part influencing the movement, pace and frequency of inhale and exhale.  

There are moments when we sink so deep into a meditative state that it almost feels as though we "forget to breathe" or we can attune to a deep, pulsing rhythm at the level of our cells. There are moments when the impulse to exhale is so strong that we gently allow the breath to release through a long sigh, leaving behind an empty space to fill with vitality.  And finally, we make a conscious choice to experiment with the pattern of breath to see how it might change our inner experience, to settle the mind, to welcome an energetic shift.  

To imagine or visualize the breath is often the first step towards feeling the pranic layer in all of its' shifting, changing and morphing patterns.  To feel how the breath can both calm, soothe and regulate the nervous system, but also activate, uplift and inspire lends itself well to once again tapping into our own capacity to self-soothe and determining what it is you actually need.

At the root of any yoga practice is self-study (svadyaya).  One of the ways that we can begin to know ourselves is through breath. This changeable, yet constant force that flows through us is one of the most elemental paradoxes of our existence as a human being: to breathe and be breathed.   

breathe elements of ease.png

Elements of Ease: Yield

As a former school teacher, it's ingrained in my behavior to find connections and create a scaffold to inform the way I teach yoga.  When I first moved to Portland, my class schedule was filled with 4 Restorative yoga classes a week at 3 different studios. (Later it evolved to 5 classes at 5 different studios.)  The environment, vibe and props were all different at these places, but the purpose of teaching Restorative yoga was the same: to provide a respite from the world in order to face the challenges that we are presented with on a daily basis. 

In my mind, I usually had a running checklist of all the necessary pieces and parts that I made sure to touch upon: relax the body, deepen the breath, find spaciousness in the mind, remember your innate wisdom, to feel an inner radiance.  A tall order to fill for sure, but through guidance, space and stillness, this is possible - on some days.  

One day, after perusing old journals and notebooks, I realized that this mini-checklist that I used to teach Restorative yoga, was actually directly tied to the subtle body anatomy of the Koshas.  These five layers that make up an individual being, that inform and influence the way that we show up in the world, were the layers through which I meant to guide a student.

It was from this new understanding and awareness of the Koshas that I created the Five Elements of Ease - a teaching tool that can be used as support within a singular pose and for the class as a whole. 

The first kosha is Annamaya kosha and refers to the physical body.  In Restorative yoga, the body is meant to relax and release tension, in order to find ease and spaciousness.  Inspired by the work of Donna Farhi, I stumbled upon the word Yield, thinking that this was what best described the action that the body was doing.  And so the first Element of Ease is Yield. 

It has only been recently that my knowledge and understanding of the word Yield has taken on a whole new dimension.  Through my participation in the online course Emotional Literacy for Yoga Teachers lead by Livia Cohen-Shapiro, I've come to learn that Yield is the very first movement pattern that our bodies experience in utero.  Yield is the body's response to actually being able to receive support and in that receiving the body rests.  In Restorative yoga classes, we don't need to rely on the muscles and bones to keep us held, in fact, the joints rest in flexion and our bodies open, sensation is subtle in terms of 'stretching' and any discomfort will deter the physiological process of relaxation.  Yield allows us to rest in our watery-like nature, mimicking the fluidity of the womb and perhaps even providing the same warmth, comfort and security.  When we Yield we become more present to the ground on which we are supported, more present to the dynamic release of stress and present to what might arise when we allow ourselves to let go.

It's from this movement pattern that that we enter into a state of being. A state of being is not something that you do, but it comes from a sense of allowing, accepting and receiving.  There's no goal or standard that's trying to be achieved, other than welcoming the moment filled with subtle sensation, breath or stillness.  It's in this state that the healing can begin.  

Yield is the doorway into exploring our wild, ever-changing internal life.  As we cross that threshold time and time again, we build our own capacity to self-soothe and find an inner respite that truly allows us to show up courageously one day at a time. 

elements of ease.png

Mudra: Energetic Seal

Mudras become the placeholder for my energy to remember what it's like to fell whole and connected.  This gesture attunes my body, breath and mind to one single stream. It anchors me to the here and now.  Uniting all of the pieces and parts of myself within the simplicity of palms pressing or index finger and thumb touching.  Each time I touch my palms together my begin remembers what my nature is meant to be and the tension and anxiety melt away.

Moving in and out of asanas brings a sense of recognition, also.  As you fill the shape with breath and energy or notice how the breath and energy changes within a shape, we become more attuned to our own presence. When a pose feels easy, I feel ease. In more challenging poses, my focus and attention are challenged in ways that actually the pushing and pulling to soften. 

Any gesture - outward or inward - leaves an imprint.  A smile, a kindness, these shape you in incremental ways.  Depending on the day, these things might have the power to alter our state of mind, if we allow it to.  Frequent small gestures pave the way for changes and shifts within our practice.  

Spanda: pulsation

Embrace all aspects of life . . . we humans are asymmetrical and contradictory beings.  This how life works.  I tend to get caught up in extremes and that something has to be a certain way if it's presented as such.  I'm reminded, when I think about spanda, that there is a fluidity of shifting energies - opening and closing, holding space for all overlapping concepts of stillness, motion, concealment, revelation, beginning, end . . . to not be too attached to any one way of being, because in that constant pulsation there is always room for expansion.

Shakti: the energizing and animating principle of the Universe

In the quiet stillness of the morning, my breath is soft and steady, my mind undisturbed by the pull of the external.  The energetic quality of my being in this moment is in a state of equanimity.

Stillness, the act of being. Movement the act of becoming.  The two interwoven into the fibers of my body.  Asanas hold a container for energy and breath.  My steady meditation seat a vehicle for shake to do her dance of thought, images and memory - floating, intermingling in the space of my mind.  Tap into the steadier rhythm of breath to tame, to quell, to soothe . . . 

I forget that this energizing principle is also at play in my daily life.  The ebb and flow of motivation and inspiration coming and going like waves on the shore.  There are moments of quiet reflection and moments of action.  Shakti's untapped potential is always there, waiting to bring forth inspired moments of creativity and resourcefulness, but it is the moments spent in stillness that make space for her to invigorate and animate.

As my body settles into a pose, the breath inspires more connection, fuels a sense of spaciousness.  The steadiness of my gaze, whether towards an internal or external point, allows the mind to quiet, to let go of enactment and take a step closer to embodiment. 

Guru: teacher

It's so easy in this world of instant information and endless access to social media to lose connection to our own guru, or inner teacher.  With a constant bombardment of messages on how to be better, not good enough and do more - we forget that we are already devoted to a guru.  We sit at the foot of a guru the instant we sit in silence.  The moment we turn away from the external and sit in the weight of our own experience. 

Meditation on the Nadis

If we want to bring more presence into our lives, the easiest thing we can do is to breathe more consciously.  However, Westerners have become a culture that does not breathe intentionally.  One of the wonderful gifts of starting a yoga practice, and perhaps the most important, is to learn how to breathe.  

For students who are new to the practice, this can seem daunting and often create more tension and anxiety when a teacher is leading the student through Pranayama.  Our Prana is that which calls us into existence.  It's the force that animates us.  It is the very inspiration that can guide us out from the maze of suffering that can often feel suffocating and claustrophobic. It's the muse that motivate us to create and live an artful life. 

When we talk about breath, we talk about the flow or stream of breath - the way that the breath moves.  According to yourdictionary.com, the word stream comes has it's origin in the Indo-European form of sreu, which means to flow from source.  A steady flow of Prana and Consciousness can soothe the nervous system in way that softens the edges of narrative that can lead to a place of reactivity.  When we breathe consciously, it's as if we are following the origin of a river back to it's source.   How do we define this source?  For me, it's the recognition of all that is true and meaningful.  It is a remembrance of deep seated love and compassion that is patiently waiting for you to access it.  

When I teach Restorative Yoga, I like to offer students the opportunity to connect to breath in a way that doesn't feel too controlled or regulated.  There is a fine line between being aware of breath and trying to interfere with it. Visualization is an excellent skill to open up the Pranic pathway without overstimulating the nervous system.  The following guided meditation uses the system of nadis (energy channels) and alternate nostril breathing to bring awareness to the fullness of breath. 

Nadi Meditation

Begin seated or lay down on your back with a rolled blanket or bolster supporting the backs of your knees. Feel free to use any other support that would allow the body to rest comfortably.  

Let your breath begin to deepen without any strain or force.  Tuning into your normal, natural breath pattern.  

First, let your attention move to the pelvic floor.  Imagine the space just in front of your spinal column running from the pelvic floor to your throat.  This is the Sushumna Nadi: an energetic superhighway that allows Prana to flow through all the different parts of your body. Think of it as the great river. Imagine your breath as a stream of water flowing freely along this major energy channel.  Notice if there are places where your breath becomes stuck or jagged.  Can you smooth out the rough patches?  Notice where you feel a freedom of movement in your breath along this pathway?  

From the Sushumna nadi, run a series of smaller nadis.  Think of these as nerves, vessels, meridians or ducts.  Continuing to see your breath as a ball of light, breathe in through your nostrils in a single stream and then it branches off of the Sushumna nadi and spreads to the different parts of your body.  As your breath flows out, you can imagine these small tributaries of energy moving up and out carrying your attention beyond your body.  

In addition, to the Sushmna nadi, there are two main energy channels called the Ida nadi and Pingala nadi.  The Ida nadi begins and ends on the left side of your body. The Pingala nadi resides on the right side of your body.  The channels criss-cross the Sushumna in a double helix pattern.  

Visualizing Alternate Nostril Breathing

Bring your attention to the left nostril.  Inhale your breath through the left nostril and visualize the flow of your breath down the left side of your body.  Hold the breath in.  Feel the prana growing in intensity.  As you breathe out, let the flow of breath travel up the right side of your body. 

Inhale right nostril, allow the breath to flow down the right side of your body. Hold and feel the Prana swirling and churning within the body.  Exhale the breath up the left side of your body out through the left nostril.  Repeat for 5 more cycles.  Notice the effects of your practice.  

During this practice you may notice that within the subtle energy channels you encounter a knot or blockage.  These are called granthis in Sanskrit.  As we let our breath flow from source, we can use this current to break apart or break through these obstructions.  You can imagine as the rivers and streams begin to thaw, there is a flood of water rushing towards the sea.  The force of water has the potential to move logs, debris and rocks out of its path.  Our breath can serve as a similar force in overcoming obstacles.

References:

The Inner Tradition of Yoga by Michael Stone

The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work by Donna Farhi

Meditation for the Love of It by Sally Kempton

Om: the vibratory sound of everything

I feel Om as a deep resounding vibration, moving from my pelvic floor, into my heart and finally, in the space between my eyebrows. The silence following the Om leaves my body pulsing with connection to something bigger.  I feel deeply rooted to the present unfolding of this one moment.  

To participate more deeply in the Universe means to have our inner and outer states reflected in one another.  To be able to notice the state of our heart and have our hearts be in the same place as our head and the rest of our body.  As Mark Whitwell writes, " . . . . all the power and intelligence of life is appearing in you, as you." 

Adhikara: your gifts

Overlooked, unseen or denied . . . I sometimes have an inability to what is unique or special about ourselves until we step into a particular challenge, problem or opportunity.  And then it seems my gifts and talents make themselves know.  Sometimes I haven't honed a particular skill  . . . I know what I want to cultivate, but sometimes its hidden beneath the fear and doubt.  Then I must coax those strengths out from underneath that heavy cloak of denial . . . as I settle into my own skin, a recognition emerges that I do have something to offer - sage, explorer, writer, teacher thinker, nurturer, listener, partner . . . 

Sankalpa

I align my practice to the qualities of strength, ease and peace for my body, mind and heart.  It's more of a wish that my practice will allow me the ability to remember this intention.  On my mat, my intention is held within the inner sanctum of my heart . . . stepping off of my mat requires a lot more tenacity to hold steady to this vow, this promise, this resolution.