Restorative yoga: A doubter's journey

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Lying around on bolsters and calling it “yoga” used to bring out the cynic in me. Two incidents several years apart have now convinced me of its value.

When I completed my yoga teacher training in 2000, the routine I’d been learning was to begin with the relaxation pose, “savasana,” lying supine. It was fine in a class, but at home I’d plunge headlong into the tough stuff, seeking to “improve”. I had three young children aged under five, so no time to waste!

One day I rolled out my mat and was so very tired that I didn’t even want to practice. So I lay down. It felt good. I still remember that delicious moment of simply lying down flat, letting all my muscles and bones relax, and letting my mind notice that happening (rather than getting caught in thoughts about why I shouldn’t be allowing myself this luxury!). After around 10 minutes, without thinking, I rolled over, stood up, and did a short but satisfying yoga practice. It was amazing how those few minutes had such a strong restorative effect on me.

Fast forward to 2019. The yoga industry has boomed over the past 19 years, and restorative classes have proliferated. Once the preserve of the serioulsy stressed (aren’t we all? you may ask) or those with major physical restrictions and serious health issues, it now seems the done thing to arrange comfy bolsters, light candles, and lie back. Yet yoga is supposed to be a physical practice; a means to connect with our mind through the body, and unravel long-held patterns of thought and action through strong physical challenge. We see in children how beneficial movement or exercise is on the mood and for supporting a good, deep. So why skip the movement part and go straight to an extended lying-around session? Even having learned my long-ago lesson of the value of relaxation within a yoga practice, I remained cynical about an entire class of supported poses.

Meanwhile, in 2010 I had developed a programme for Lisnavagh House & Gardens for a new Yoga & Sleep retreat. Emily, lady of the hosue and herself a yoga practitioner, and at the time mother of very young children, thought that if she needed more sleep, probably others did too, and proposed the simple idea to me. She was right. It’s been a hit – nine years later it’s grown steadily in popularity and is a regular feature on their retreat schedule. It includes some gentle, restorative yoga, which always receives positive feedback.

pam butler yoga 20100602 48151000savasana995With all the signs pointing in the same direction, I enroled on a CPD course with Ciara Cronin in Dublin to explore this phenomenon more deeply.

Again, despite all the support of scientific studies, it was the personal experience that gave me the strongest conviction. Our first session consisted of lying in various arrangements of bolsters and blocks. After a while, when we’d come to our final resting pose (“corpse pose” is the popular translation from Sanskrit for the supine relaxation pose), Ciara’s voice drifted in: “So, it’s coming up to 3:15 now...” Impossible, I thought. We started at 12:30; that would mean that we’d been draped over bolsters and blocks for 2 hours and 45 minutes.  

We had, in fact, been draped over bolsters and blocks for 2 hours and 45 minutes. I felt great.

As we discussed and experienced through the rest of the course, the relaxation response can be learned, and triggered through environmental cues. The breathing, sometimes deep and controlled, sometimes allowed to take on its own rhythm, has a plethora of positive neurological and physiological effects that are being explored and  documented by the scientific community. The sympathetic nervous system (“fight-or-flight”) can be overridden by the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest-and-digest”). This is gold dust in our agitated age of disconnected-connectedness. They are tools that can also assist with deeply held trauma, when used with skill and care.

IMAG4258suptabBaddaArmed with this information, and with a new feeling of ease, I am implementing more restorative practices myself at home, and offering more restorative options at certain seasons – as we approach the holiday season, for example, which can be a fraught time of year.

I still believe in the tough stuff too, though. There’s a place for everything!

 

Join Pam’s restorative yoga workshops on Saturday 19 October and Saturday 14 December, 4-6pm, in Carlow Mandala Yoga Studios. Details and booking at http://pambutleryoga.com/workshops

 

For information on retreats, see http://pambutleryoga.com/retreats


 

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Experience a daily yoga practice, developing the rhythm and skills of foundation-level Shadow-style hatha yoga. This workshop is open to all, including beginners.

Though the full week is recommended in order to develop a rhythm and deepen your practice, for pragmatism discounts are offered to those who cannot commit to the full week.

 

Monday - Friday, July 8-12

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5 days €70

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A regular yoga practice brings many benefits. Here are five benefits that are of particular interest to men are:

  • Social
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Relaxation and mind-body connection
  • Functional fitness

 

1. Social


groupSocialbwAs 'Movember' 2017 approached - a month of awareness-raising about men's health issues - a recurring thought arose again: Men weren't well served in my yoga community. I decided to jump in and, in the name of Movember, start a men-only yoga class.

As a female teacer, I felt some trepidation - would men accept a female teacher for a men's class? And did I know enough to cater for men specifically? I've been teaching hatha yoga for 18 years, with a steady but thin stream of men all along, and my gender had never seemed to be an issue for them. In any case, any doubt I had fell away when I heard one new arrival say to the fellow next to him, "Isn't it great to be able to try this without being the only man in a roomful of women!" His colleague agreed. I realized it wasn't about me, it was about creating a comfortable space for men to try this female-dominated thing called yoga.

2. Flexibility

flexiblebw

Ironically, the one reason men regularly cite as an obstacle to practicing yoga is a lack of flexibilty. But as a Yoga International article points out, "Men’s comparative inflexibility is not a reason for them not to do yoga; rather, it makes yoga even more important. And the good news is that, when embarking on a program of stretching, men seem to make gains in range of motion at a similar rate to that of their female counterparts."

After only three weeks in an introductory class, an athlete in his mid-20s said to me that he was stretching differently in his warm-ups now - he was thinking of relaxing the muscles he was trying to stretch, and felt much more supple for it.

So while it takes a while for those hamstrings to cooperate, simply buidling awareness can improve your chances of gaining greater flexibility, whether for sports or for life in general.

3.Strength

BalanceStrengthbwMen tend to have greater upper body strength than women, which influences what poses I might draw into a yoga class. On the other hand, in my experience, men seem to fight or force their way into poses to "achieve" a pose, rather than settling gently into it and working gradually from a manageable place. It is valuable to focus on the idea of finding a easier place to start, and to maintain a smooth, even breathing rhythm. That is a basic tenet of yoga anyhow, but helping men focus on the smooth breath can be of great benefit.

Quite a lot of core strength can sneak into a yoga class, which is very healthy - as my sporty 14 year old athletic son has observed, "if you have core strenth then you can use the strength in your arms and legs better." It doesn't take too long for the realisation to dawn that slower movements present their own challenges. Regularly moving through plank pose, for example, while breathing smoothly, takes some effort and cultivates strength of body and concentration of mind.

4. Relaxation and Mind-Body connection

relaxbwAll the men who signed up for that first 'Movember' term were over 50. They were curious about yoga, interested in the mind-benefits as well as the physical exercise, and most had a certain stiffness around the hips and hamstrings.

Recently, a rugby player in his early 20s joined the Yoga for Men class. He specifically wanted "more of the breathing" to help him relax, as well as his desire to strecth to complement his rugby game.

The college at which I teach a weekly yoga class usually has as many young men as women, many of them sportsmen. It's a big class and  usually I assume they must be finding the class beneficial if they're coming back. Yesterday, two soccer players started telling me how they feel so relaxed, so different, after the class (which includes a short relaxation). For them, it has become a touchstone in the week. One of them said he missed the yoga very much during their training season, and was finding all the stiffness that had built up was slowing being released.

5. Functional Fitness

sidestretchbwFunctional fitness teaches muscle groups to work together.This valuable principle is present througout a yoga practice, and is useful to athletes and body builders who may work muscles in isolation or in a particular pattern repeatedly. Fuctional fitness can mean maintaining basic movements in older people when joint and muscle stiffness begins to threaten everyday activities like being able to reach up to a cupboard, bend to pick up something from the floor, and kneel to reach under the bed or play with the grandchildren.

Quite a lot of core strength can sneak into a yoga class, which is very healthy - as my sporty 14 year old athletic son has observed, "if you have core strenth then you can use the strength in your arms and legs better."

With the huge variety of movements, yoga - gentle though it may be - keeps all the joints moving and all these basic physical postures available.

If you'd like more information about Yoga for Men or yoga generally, please feel freet to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 See also this amusing and insightful blogpost by yoga teacher Adam Hocke. 

 

Below is an exerpt about yoga for men, from a Yoga International article about starting yoga aged over fifty:

Researchers have long-noted that women tend to be more flexible than men, a gender gap that is slight in preadolescence but increases toward seniority (when older women maintain greater range of motion in many joints than older men do). This difference may be due to a combination of muscle size, tendon elasticity, hormones, and the kinds of activities that men or women are more likely to engage in.

The fact that aging-related declines in flexibility appear to be joint-specific, with, for instance, the shoulder and trunk experiencing greater losses in range of motion than the elbows and knees, indicates that habitual joint usage patterns play a role in these losses.

Statistically, men tend to participate in more vigorous physical activities than women, do more strength-training activities, and play sports twice as much (or more) than women do. But muscle bulk, the wear-and-tear of repetitive movements, and the scar tissue that results from injuries may contribute to losses in flexibility.

Men’s comparative inflexibility is not a reason for them not to do yoga; rather, it makes yoga even more important. And the good news is that, when embarking on a program of stretching, men seem to make gains in range of motion at a similar rate to that of their female counterparts.

See the full article here: https://yogainternational.com/yoga-over-50

 

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