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Do you recall the story Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll where Alice enters a reversed reality on the other side of a mirror’s reflection? Have you ever either experienced anything similar or perhaps contemplated the possibility of following Alice? I have, last spring during the Restorative Yoga Teacher’s Training with Judith Hanson Lasater.
Obviously, the training had nothing to do with leaving reality behind; neither the vital reality of one’s home, family and work, abandoned for the time of the workshop, nor the noisy reality flooding busy streets of London entwined with colors and smells of cherry and apple trees blossoming on the corners. On the contrary, the workshop had everything to do with restoring the very primal uncontaminated observation of reality. Admittedly, at the time, I found it difficult to grasp the essence of what I was experiencing, while learning to provide subtle support for others and myself in the relaxation poses. During the training, Judith made a mysterious remark that after such an intensive restoration our perception might become more sensitive and that we may experience seeing colors or hearing sounds better. Initially I understood that by releasing major physical tensions in my body and enabling a flow of fluids and oxygen to reach the brain my perception would improve, yet the very process proved to penetrate far deeper dimensions of being.
Let us begin with a short exploration of the idea of restoration. To restore means to reverse the multidimensional effects of both physical and mental exhaustion induced by chronic stress. The very latter seems to function as a scary magical phrase or even a jinx nowadays, and not without good reason. As the latest scientific research proves, there are many troubling effects of chronic stress in the brain and body. There is scientific evidence that long term stress may interfere with our cognitive skills, memory in particular, which in turn affects the quality of being here and now. Therefore, a great need emerges to address the problem of chronic stress in order to live fully.
One of the possible means of doing so is Restorative Yoga. Given its growing popularity I suppose you have either practiced Restorative Yoga yourself, or at least heard of it. You may be familiar with its general characteristics - people lay down in restorative poses with maximum support and minimum distraction for approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
I myself relate this to the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Thanh: ”We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing...We don't allow our bodies to heal, and we don't allow our minds and hearts to heal”. If we truly face a time when we are no longer able to relax and be at ease, a vital need arises to restore this ability. Since genuine rest can be inaccessible we need tools to reach it and these tools are props such as blankets, bolsters, or blocks, deliberately used to support the body and thereby enable the symphatetic nervous system (SNS) to calm down. However, the use of props in Restorative Yoga amounts to art, underpinned by certain wisdom which changed my own view on this subject.
Being tought in Iynegar yoga, with its passion for precision and supporting the body with all kinds of props in almost every posture I found myself thinking ”what possibly may be different here, what might I not know?”. The answer arrived quite soon.
While Iyengar yoga tends to be very intellectual (in its most drastic form you may leave the class with your head overloaded with technical details) Restorative Yoga despite its equally "excessive” use of props is a profoundly quiet practice and leaves you still and positively withdrawn. How does it work? Judith says we manipulate the nervous system to encourage a state of deep relaxation. We provide the body with a very intricate vertex of subtle support concentrating on the areas that are under stress everyday (although often unconsciously) the neck and wrists for instance. During the workshop we arranged the props in an attempt to create a kind of soaking state of the body in order to enhance the same state of soaking-ness within one's mind. As Judith expressed "Only the soft earth absorbs the rain. The practice of yoga is not about becoming more flexible but rather about becoming softer so you can fully receive life” (94) - a quote that I find grasps the essence of Restorative Yoga practice. To become soft means to let some space into a primally solid structure. Of course, solidness is an advantage in some circumstances. Solid earth due to its endurability may provide a brick and become useful. However, being attached or trapped in this state forever proves destructive to life that otherwise might have emerged from within.
At this point you may ask: what has it all got to do with reversing perception? If we consider closely the very notion of exhaustion we may easily discover that it implies reduction. These anxious thoughts lurking inside our heads that despite working extremely hard we feel trapped in a stage where there seems to be no progress, are really the symptoms of such mental reduction. As the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland put it, "It takes all the running you can do to to keep in same place." To become exhausted means to be mentally reduced to the last strain, stretched beyond capacity to hold one’s world together, to maintain control. Simultaneous to this reduction process, our perception of the reality changes, it becomes narrowed.
This reminds me of an excellent observation made by Dona Holleman in her exceptional book Dancing the flame of life, that our awareness functions in two possible modes. The first is that of the predator, placed at the front of the brain. The predator is extremely focused, dominating, and aggressive, his perception is by nature external. We may easily guess that this kind of perception, attributed to the yang extrovert energy, is indeed highly encouraged in modern society, dominated by corporations, since it enables and enhances the most effective goal oriented functioning. However beneficial this kind of perception may seem, it requires a constant tension which if unreleased, leads to exhaustion.
The narrowing of perception is precisely the factor that makes it so difficult for us to allow ourselves to enter a state of deep relaxation. The fact that such perception seems to leave a lot of reality behind can result in a loss of empathy. Inability to empathize with the world oppresses the genuine creativity within us. Metaphorically speaking, the narrower the path the less we are prone to wander about and explore, resulting in our becoming less empathetic. Objects from the outside world need to become very intense and force their way into our world to be noticed.
The other mode of perception is withdrawn into the back of the head, the reptilian brain, which allows perception of the whole spectrum of surroundings, in other words to soak it in. Things appear more as they are, not as they seem to be. Dona Holleman attributes this kind of withdrawn awareness to meditation as enabling a total attention in which there is no I but only an act of paying attention. I believe it is also very characteristic of Restorative Yoga, which is neither simple relaxation nor resting. We are prone to commodify relaxation and confuse it with simple charging of the batteries in order to facilitate better functioning in the goal oriented race. But Restorative Yoga means restoration on many profound levels and essentially implies a reversal and resumption of perception.
I found it quite astonishing how quickly, once we do let go of control, we might reverse to this very primal perception of the surrounding world. Emerging into the deep relaxation mode, which is far form falling asleep, allows us to catch a glimpse of the other side of the mirror - the ever silent, empathetic, peaceful, and creative side of the mind. Back there, depending on how long we have been locked away, things look as they really are. By shifting the oppressive control mode in our mind, we restore the quiet beauty and peaceful stillness within. So perhaps, following Alice, first we face our own reflection in the mirror, than we see it is reversed and this very fact, like a koan in zen meditation, may open yet another door.
Dona Holleman. Dancing the Flame of Life: The Vital Principles of Yoga. YogaWords, 2009.
Judith Hanson Lasater. A Year of Living Your Yoga: Daily Practices to Shape Your Life. Rodmell Press, 2006.
Judith Hanson Lasater. Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. Rodmell Press, 2011.
Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.
Robert Cole. Conditions for Calm. Joga Journal, December 2008.
Robert Sapolsky. Robert Sapolsky discusses physiological effects of stress. Stanford Report, March 2007. Found at: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/march7/sapolskysr-030707.html
Thich Nhat Hanh in Exclusive Interview With Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Huffington Post, May 2010. Found at: huffingtonpost.com/marianne-schnall/beliefs-buddhism-exclusiv_b_577541.html