We could all use a little nap. It seems that many of us just keep going until too much stress upsets our normal balance.
According to the American Psychological Association, a third of us are living with extreme stress that can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, heart disease and a host of other health problems. We worry, plan, over-schedule and maybe not pay enough attention to what's going on inside ourselves. Maybe we are simply exhausted. Restorative yoga is a way to help you relax deeply for a few minutes a day. And no, it's not an infomercial.
Here is where modern science and the ancient practice of yoga merge. B.K.S. Iyengar, author of the classic book "Light on Yoga," first introduced props and blankets to his students who had difficulty holding specific yoga poses. He then discovered that he could help them recover from their illnesses and injuries with supported gentle yoga poses that not only stretched the spine in healthy ways but also enabled students to rest deeply in the poses.
Iyengar taught that to relax is to cut tension, and as you practice restorative poses you feel harmonious and balanced. This works by returning the nervous system to its natural state, a state in which the body has the ability to heal itself. The goal when doing the poses is to be aware and passive, not falling asleep. (The sleep state is different from the state of deep relaxation).
The Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center studied restorative yoga and looked at its positive impact on emotional wellness in ovarian cancer patients. Imaging studies show significant increases in left-sided brain activity when one relaxes or meditates, which is associated with healing positive emotional states.
In her book "Relax and Renew," renowned yoga teacher Judith Lasater suggested thinking of restorative poses as taking a short holiday right in your home that it adds to one's energy rather than subtracting from it. It's particularly helpful when you feel tired or weak, during big life-changing events, or recovering from an illness.
"Twenty minutes of restorative yoga is the equivalent to a one-hour nap," Lasater wrote.
And that's just the energy benefits. The healing benefits abound.
Here are two simple poses to try: one at home, and the other at the office. The first one is Legs--Up-the-Wall--Pose. It refreshes your legs, especially swollen jet-lagged legs, enhances the health of your circulatory system by the mild inversion and gently calms the nervous system. (Don't do this pose if you're pregnant or if you have sciatica.) From a seated position on the floor, swing your legs up onto a wall, so that your tailbone and butt are not lifting off the floor. Your back should be completely supported by floor. If your chin is lifted towards the ceiling put a small pillow under your head to support your neck. Your chin should be slightly lower than your forehead, not strained. Keep your legs straight and relaxed with your arms comfortably out to the sides, palms turned up. Relax and take several long, slow breaths. Feel like your back is completely supported by the floor and your chest is open and free. Stay here for five to 10 minutes, and take your time when you come out of the pose.
The second nap is Desk Forward Bend, nice for a break at the office, at your desk. Lasater likens it to school days when she would simply lean forward and rest her head on her desk. Place your chair near your desk so you can lean forward, feet flat on the floor, and then lean forward and place your folded arms on the desk. Let the desk support your arms, head and worries, and relax completely for three to five minutes. When you're ready to come up, inhale, and use your arms to sit up. Sit for one more long breath before carrying on with your day, refreshed.
Connie Aronson is an American College of Sports Medicine-certified, ACE Gold Level status-certified, and an IDEA Elite Level-certified personal trainer. She works at High Altitude Fitness and the YMCA in Ketchum.