On restorative yoga
Restoration. Healing. Rejuvenation. Refreshment. Therapeutic. Curative. Antidotal.
All of these terms can describe any spiritual practice or method of cleansing. Yet over the course of the last two decades as the ancient practice of yoga has exploded into an American industry, the term “restorative” has become connected to a passive state.
Meanwhile, physical therapy has suggested in the last few years that healing predominantly happens through movement. Compression therapy is a series of relational movements. Psychotherapy is based on working with the movements of the mind and emotions. All ancient modalities of healing that are still used today are based upon movement.
So we can deduce that aside from emergency physical trauma, where a passive therapy is required to keep a person alive, all other restoration and healing comes through an actively engaged state where the unique power of the human will is capable of taking the reigns.
Meditation is a very active state. As I typically suggest to students, the act of meditation is not going somewhere else…it is instead being very, very actively “here.”
And it is the same when we are actively engaged in healing our bodies. Whether we are engaged in the restraint of our emotional outbursts or engaged in the stabilization of the elbow joint, it is our connection and empowered discernment of our own healing that actually makes it healing.
Natarajasana is an interesting posture for many — it is full dancer pose, as you see here in the photo. To grab onto the foot with the hands in this way, for most, requires a very unique rotation of the shoulders. Recently, I’ve been teaching it, or a modification of it, daily to my students. As many students come to the practice of yoga fearing the use of their shoulders and arms, this pose is one that opens the shoulders, cleanses the rotator cuff, engages the biceps to keep the shoulders structurally supported, opens the heart space and alivens the upper back, and that’s just the upper body.
There is no blanket or bolster or passive position that can promote the health of the shoulders like this, or like chaturanga dandasana. Together, they open and strengthen the front and back of the heart like few things can. And so all of a sudden, a big standing backbend and a strongly engaged push up position become “restorative.”
But, would my grandmother call this posture restorative? Maybe when she wasn’t a grandmother. So restoration is all relative to the individual seeking the universal. So while one yoga practice one day for one person might be exactly what she needs, that same yoga practice for someone else could be detrimental, depending on what it is.
But…how many practitioners are actually seeking a state of universal restoration? How many practitioners are even being taught to seek a state of universal restoration? How do we know if a practice is intended to offer us restoration?
Krishnamacharya was quoted in 1989 as saying:
“Yoga is the least systematic of exercises. If one practices postures addressing needs, no routine is established, because needs change from day to day. One should act on the present and the future and not worry too much about the past.”
So based on what he says here, the yoga practice evolves to become very personal, as there are no two bodies that have the same needs every day. So it has to go back to the responsibility of the individual practitioner. With the mindset of a solid daily spiritual practice as a way to seek a state of universal restoration, we gain more and more clarity. That clarity allows us to expand our capacity to offer ourselves exactly what we need every day. Being able to discern our unique daily needs becomes a milestone in the practice.
But in this culture, in this society where anyone and everyone is on the ready to “heal” you, it’s easy to allow any individual and present-minded practice to fall by the wayside and to move into a more passive place where anything else takes the place of healing movement, calling it a “surrender.”
Surrender is the relinquishing of power. Not succumbing to unpleasant external circumstances.
Interestingly, it is the same power that is found through a focused mind/body on a universal mindset of restoration that creates the power that we can ultimately relinquish.
The next time Natarajasana is called in a class, consider the restorative quality of the pose — not as something to fight against because it’s a challenge, or as an obstacle to overcome — but as a journey that brings a practitioner to a more healthful place.
An actively healthful place. A place where every mindful movement is a restorative movement.