The style of yoga most familiar to people in the West is Hatha yoga. A flowing sequence of poses performed mostly while standing on a mat. The numerous benefits of a regular Hatha yoga practice are well documented. However, Hatha is only one of several styles of yoga. A style of yoga you may not be as familiar with is Restorative yoga. Restorative yoga is performed while seated on a mat and has numerous physical and mental benefits. In Restorative yoga you hold supported seated and reclined poses for 5-15 minutes per pose. Holding the poses for a longer time allows for a natural relaxation response in the nervous system. This process of relaxation can boost immune function and enhance the process of digestion and allows the whole body to relax into a state of deep healing, growth and repair. Beyond these physiological benefits, the holding of restorative poses also creates the opportunity to see where you hold habitual tension in your body.
So where did Restorative yoga come from? B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped bring yoga to the West in the 1950s, invented a style in which holding poses longer and using props are an integral part of the yoga practice. Iyengar included restorative sequences in his classes. One of his former students, Judith Hanson Lasater, brought restorative practice into the mainstream when she wrote a book on Restorative Yoga in 1995 and created a special teacher certification. Since then, Restorative yoga has continued to attract students.
In a restorative yoga practice, the focus is not on stretching or strengthening but on releasing. We release tension in the muscles and gently stimulate the organs through long-held poses designed to support and comfort. To achieve comfort a variety of props such as blankets, blocks, bolsters, sandbags, and eye pillows may be used.
Restorative yoga allows us to practice relaxation and helps us regulate our stress response and re-balance the nervous system.
Restorative yoga is incredibly supportive for our nervous system and overall stress levels. The practice helps us strengthen our connection with the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a branch of our Autonomic Nervous System, the system that controls involuntary functions in the body like our heart rate. When we are in states of stress, or what is often termed “fight or flight,” we are in an elevated Sympathetic state. In contrast, during periods of rest and recovery, we are in an elevated Parasympathetic state.
It is important that we can access both of these states. A certain level of stress can be healthy and can accompany incredibly generative tasks like applying for a new job, asking someone on a date, or talking in front of a large audience. However, when stress becomes chronic we start to experience imbalance in our body that can adversely affect our overall health with a range of problems like poor digestion, hormonal imbalances, fertility dysfunction, or disrupted sleep. Restorative yoga can help us reconnect with our Parasympathetic Nervous System and strengthen our ability to move between states of stress and rest with more ease. By helping us learn to relax, Restorative yoga can also reduce the production of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), improve the function of our immune system, reduce muscle tension, help with insomnia, and so many other vital benefits.
Scientists don't fully understand why the practice makes people feel not just rested but restored. However, a growing body of evidence suggests it has measurable health benefits. Cole contributed to one study that showed a six-point-greater drop in blood sugar in a group of prediabetics who practiced restorative yoga (at least 30 minutes three times a week for a year) compared with those who did stretching exercises. There's more: The restorative folks lost two pounds more than the stretchers, along with nearly a half-inch more from their waistlines. "We were surprised by the weight loss," says lead study author Alka Kanaya, MD. It made researchers think that another mechanism that they weren't able to measure—possibly more mindfulness, relaxation, or better sleep—might be at play, Kanaya says. Studies also suggest that restorative yoga can decrease hot flashes during menopause, as well as reduce fatigue and boost quality of life in women with breast cancer. "Long-term practice can also become a buffer to chronic stress," says Aditi Nerurkar, MD, an integrative medicine physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School.
Give restorative yoga a try. Restorative yoga can be a great way to relieve stress and enjoy long, meditative stretches. By trying a group class, you can get a feel for whether it may be a good fit for you. Try taking a restorative class on a rest day from a more vigorous practice. Learn to cultivate patience with yourself and enjoy the stillness of your body and mind. It takes some getting used to, but after a while it becomes easier and you may be amazed at the benefits.
Meditation is for everyone. It’s not about becoming someone different. It’s about training your awareness and getting a healthier perspective. It’s now practiced by CEOs and companies to increase focus and decision-making, and decrease stress and feelings of fear. Meditation is the practice of sitting and either focusing on your breath, a mantra, or perhaps on a particular feeling you would like to cultivate, such as loving kindness. While the practice has been around for millennia, meditation has recently emerged as a popular approach to improving physical and mental wellbeing. Whether it’s used at a yoga studio, in a boardroom, or done at home, meditation is proving to have wide appeal due to its calming nature. And now the science is weighing in. What ancient practitioners knew all along, modern science is now beginning to demonstrate. It helps train your attention and awareness and achieve mental clarity, while also calming and stabilizing the mind. Let’s look at a few of the benefits in greater detail below:
1. Stress Reduction
Perhaps the biggest impact that meditation has on our health has to do with counteracting the debilitating and wide-ranging effects of stress. A medical consensus has emerged over the past decade that chronic stress causes all sorts of problems including higher blood pressure, decreased immunity, and impaired cognitive functions. When you feel stressed, your body releases the “stress hormone,” cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol in your system is a problem on various levels and finding a way to reduce that level could help prevent a number of health issues from developing down the road. This is where meditation comes into play.
According to a 2013 study by the journal Health Psychology, the practice of meditation was shown to have an impact on the reduction of cortisol. The study followed its subjects for 3-months during a meditation retreat where they were trained in mindfulness, controlled breathing, and other meditative practices. Their cortisol levels were measured before and after the 3-month retreat and the researchers found that the cortisol level tended to trend downward for the participants.
2. Lower Blood Pressure
Once stress is reduced, then you can begin to analyze more specific effects of meditation on your health. The first area to take a look at is blood pressure. Meditation can help normalize blood pressure because of what’s called the “relaxation response,” which helps produce more of the compound nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps blood vessels open up which then helps reduce blood pressure.
Doctors are prescribing meditation for patients with high blood pressure to assist in the reduction in the need for common blood pressure medications. In one study, over 60 percent of patients found that the relaxation response worked to lower their blood pressure to the point that they could stop taking some of their medication.
3. Increased Immunity
A vigorous immune system is obviously crucial to living a healthy life, which is why we do all kinds of things to boost it, like taking vitamin C and drinking Echinacea tea. A number of recent studies have shown that meditation can also play an integral role in maintaining and even strengthening your immune system. According to researchers at the Infanta Cristina Hospital in Spain, meditation, specifically Transcendental Meditation (one of the various schools of meditation), was shown to increase the level of cells in our blood that fight off viruses and bacteria. These cells, specifically subsets of leukocytes and lymphocytes, were found in higher levels of those who practiced medication versus those who did not.
Another study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that meditation in older adults could prevent the expression of a certain group of genes that activate inflammation. New studies are coming out on a regular basis probing the positive impact that meditation has on the complex immune system.
4. Brain Development
Perhaps one of the most exciting areas of meditation research is the brain. A slew of studies have come out linking meditation with an increase in cortical thickness, an increase in grey matter in both the hippocampus and frontal areas, and an overall increase in brain volume, as well as a shrinking of the amygdala. With medical imaging technology, researchers can actually watch what meditation does to the brain in real time and over an extended period of time.
Take for instance a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by a team at the University of Oregon. These researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to map how meditation changes the structure of the brain. They found that with as little as two weeks of regular meditation, the brain begins to build axonal density, which means a greater number of signaling connections. After a month of meditation, the number of signaling connections continued to increase, while an increase in myelin (a protective tissue around the axons) also began to increase. Additionally, the amygdala shrank, which may explain why meditation decreases anxiety and creates more calm.
5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Meditation is also linked to what goes on in your gut. This is especially important for the 10 to 15 percent of the population that suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a disorder that effects women in disproportionate numbers compared to men. Specifically, utilizing mindfulness meditation can help women reduce the severity of IBS symptoms, which include chronic abdominal pain along with irregular bowel habits.
A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology shows that an 8-week program of meditation targets the mental problems linked to IBS, such as anxiety, stress, and depression, and helped to reduce the severity of the IBS symptoms compared to a control group who did not participate in the meditation program. A 3-month follow up was done, which showed that the positive impact of meditation continued beyond the initial 8-week training. Another study published in PLOS ONE by a team of researchers associated with Harvard University confirmed the positive impact that meditation can have on IBS and also linked meditation to the alleviation of Inflammatory Bowel Disorder, a chronic condition associated with Crohn’s Disease.
In short, meditation allows the mind and the body to integrate into a more grounded and rested state of being quite effortlessly. What’s most important is that we take time to meditate. Set this time aside for yourself...every day, maybe even twice a day. Attend a meditation class at Firefly Yoga Center or schedule a session at home... we have no problem making so many other appointments with so many other people. Schedule this time for you. Literally add it to your date book, set an alarm as a reminder, whatever it takes. You are worthy of the time to rest and heal and develop that greater sense of self and you will be better for all of those around you for committing to that time. All of those stresses and things from our past and expectations of the future... they are no longer relevant to us in the here and now. Our body wants to get rid of all of that junk... we must provide it with the ability to.
Give meditation a try and start reaping the benefits today.
With hundreds of thoughts circling through your mind from moment to moment, it’s no wonder many seek out the solace of meditation to calm the chaos, relax and restore.
But what does meditation mean to you? Do you meditate regularly, or do you see it as simply a form of escapism, or perhaps you avoid it because you tried it a couple times and decided you “failed” because you couldn’t quiet the constant thoughts?
There is quite a bit of misinformation floating around about meditation. And even more dogma around the “right” style of meditation. So I decided to address some of the most common myths around meditation, and decisively state that meditation is for everybody. Everyone can reap the many physical and psychological benefits of meditation.
So let’s start with eight common meditation myths… and next month we will cover 10 reasons why meditation should be a twice daily habit for you, just like brushing your teeth.
1. Myth: Meditation Requires Wiping Your Mind Clear Of All Thoughts
While it’s certainly true that during meditation you may find brief moments where you are between thoughts, that is a byproduct of regular meditation practice—we don’t actually try to wipe our minds clear of thoughts to meditate. It’s quite the opposite! Meditation asks us to focus our mind, seeing the mental chatter for what it is, just our brain at work, and learning to not attach to those thoughts. Meditation is about taking a moment of relaxation in stillness so that you can focus better when you are dealing with the stresses of life, thereby allowing you to make clearer, more creative decisions. Stress makes us stupid. Meditation makes us smarter. But more on that later.
2. Myth: Not Everyone Can Meditate
Everyone can meditate. Repeat after me. Everyone can meditate. Meditation is like exercise and food—there is a type of meditation to match every goal and taste. So if you have trouble sitting alone in a silent room and blocking out all earthly distractions (a Zen-style of meditation), try exploring other types of meditation—such as the Lila Method (based on Vedic meditation, and what I teach), Qi gong, yoga nidra, or even a walking mindfulness meditation, which challenges you to be present as you walk, focus on your surroundings, and feel the benefit of movement in your body.
3. Myth: I’m Bad at Meditation
This is similar to Myth 2 but is more personal. Maybe it’s not that you can’t meditate. Maybe it’s the style you tried didn’t work for you. That’s why I created the Lila Method of meditation. It incorporates ancient meditative techniques with 21st century understandings of neuroscience. It is adapted to our busy, western, modern lifestyle. I’ve utilized this technique with lawyers, executives and yoga students with great success. So if you have “failed” at blocking out all of your thoughts and negative talk based on previous attempts at meditation, take heart. I know other styles of meditation can be challenging. The Lila Method is a simple, elegant style of meditation that has worked for my super busy Type A lawyer mind, and can work for you.
Last point here before I move on. I make it a point to never judge my meditation practice by the time or quality of my meditation. Shorter or longer. Busy mind or quiet mind. Instead, I consider the aftereffects of my practice—for instance, did I get more work done in the afternoon? Did I sleep better? Was I more relaxed sitting in traffic? Meditation isn’t about what happens while you meditate. It’s about the wonderful after effects.
4. Myth: Meditation Is A Religious Ritual
If meditation brings to mind shorn-headed monks or yogis in robes, sequestered in a far-away monastery or ashram eating vegetarian food, you may be overthinking things. You do not need to change your lifestyle, or live in a cave to receive the benefits of meditation. Meditation is for anyone who is striving to reconnect with a more peaceful and less stressful way to live life. And anyone who wants to be more productive with ease and grace.
5. Myth: Meditation Encourages Escapism
If you fear that meditation is a way of running away from life’s problems—think again. Rather, meditation provides the tools to face and overcome life’s problems (i.e., fear, anxiety, depression and panic). Meditation practice also teaches us to accept life and people for what and who they are, and provides the inner strength necessary to live in the present with confidence.
6. Myth: I Don’t Have Time to Meditate
Sure, most of us are super busy and we don’t have time to add extra obligations to our day. However, even if your spare time is rare, you can benefit from taking a few minutes to unplug and relax. Try eliminating 10-minutes of scrolling through social media. Take a mid-morning or mid-afternoon break. Instead of hitting up the local coffee shop or vending machine for a jolt of caffeine, meditate. Go to a local park bench or a quiet meeting room over lunch for a 15 minute meditation and return more energetic and focused. Those who say they have no time to meditate benefit the most from a brief time out.
7. Myth: Meditating is Selfish
In order to meditate for even 10-minutes you need to take a bit of time for yourself. For many, that might be considered selfish, when it’s time you could be responding to emails, finishing that work report, studying, or spending time with your kids or spouse. If a brief moment of meditation seems self-indulgent to you; then consider the positive effect it will have on others when you return more focused, calm, happier, and able to devote your whole attention to them.
8. Myth: Meditation Takes Away Our Competitive Edge
The goal of any type of meditation is to help you live and experience the now, including the emotions that come from present experience. The idea that meditation strips us of our competitive edge is contrary. Rather, meditation practice teaches us to be more in tune with our emotions, our goals, and helps us to disengage from unhealthy negative talk, as well as emotionally draining people and situations. Leaving us empowered to attain more, with greater clarity, and with more energy and focus, than if we didn’t meditate.
I hope this has dispelled some of the most common myths around meditation that I hear. With the right training, anyone can meditate with success, be less stressed, anxious and exhausted, and more engaged, empowered and resilient.
Not sure how to start meditating? Getting started with a sustainable meditation practice is just an email away.
Lana Layton is a recovering lawyer and judge who decided it was time to make a change. She began practicing yoga and meditation, which led to her actually waking up, stop miserably going through the motions of life, and move into a career that matches her personality and skill set. Meditation profoundly and positively changed her life, and it can change yours too. Lana is available for corporate and private meditation trainings, coaching and more. You can also catch one of her meditation info sessions and classes at Firefly Yoga Center. Email us for more information or to set up a training or sample coaching session.
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
Whether or not it’s your first time hearing this story, it serves as an important reminder of the power we have over our experiences and emotions.
Imagine we have two “wolves” inside of us. The one we feed is the one that will be dominant in our life. When we feed the wolf of fear, the mind is consumed with danger and worry. We may feel overwhelmed by anxiety or sadness and paralyzed in life. When we feed the wolf of happiness and of well-being (santosha/contentment), we live in a place of ease, ready for what life offers. We are in the flow.
If accumulated stress has created a groove in your brain that feeds the wolf of fear, then it may be time to create a new groove for your brain's circuitry to follow.
When the wolf of fear is the deeper groove, the Inner Critic takes over our thinking. We get stuck in a rut. Anger, jealousy and anxiety can take over. It takes conscious effort to forge a new path and then deepen that path into a good rut, so that our brain feeds the good wolf.
Here’s what you can do to move toward feeding the good wolf:
• Start noticing which wolf is in charge.
• Then gently shift your focus to what your eyes see. Name a few things that you notice that are pleasing to your eyes.
• Notice what your body is feeling. Our body is a compass. It tells you how it feels about a situation if you will listen. When you feel relaxed, at ease, or energetic, you are feeding the wolf of happiness and well-being. Bring a sense of relaxation and ease into your body.
• Whenever your attention lands on something pleasing, describe it to yourself, as if you were telling someone who was fascinated by your perceptions.
• Allow a subtle shift of energy within, finding a focus of kindness, compassion or peace to fill you and create a sense of contentment.
• Breathe in and out slowly for a few cycles of breath.
These few simple steps can decrease fear thoughts saturating the mind with stress chemicals. The more often you engage these simple steps, your body enhances its capacity for well-being. Imagine your brain has grooves from past repeated thoughts. Remember, if you want to feed the good wolf, you must create new grooves for your brain to follow.
Create a ritual, or a time period in your day for feeding the wolf of well-being and contentment. When fear or anxiety start to take hold, see if you can shift your reaction to the situation. Observe the situation as if a third party. What advice would you give to a friend in your situation? See if that allows for a shift in perspective.
Take some slow deep breaths, journal, move your body. Whatever you need to do to discharge the energy created by the wolf of fear, and access your inner wolf of ease and happiness.
Sometimes we look to external objects to feed the wolf. We develop expectations that these things (a new job, a relationship, a lavish vacation, a brand new pair of shoes, a glass of wine, etc.) will finally make us feel the way we want to feel. And while this may bring momentary gratification, it isn’t realistic to maintain this long-term. Instead focus on activities, hobbies or work that allows you to create more times of being in the flow. Flow represents the times in life where you are so enjoyably lost or absorbed by what you are doing that time flies by. Find a way to incorporate more flow in your life. This way you can feed the good wolf from within, instead of looking externally. True lasting happiness comes from making an active choice to be happy, rather than depending on external things to make you happy.
You already have the tools you need to be content. You are whole as you are, right now. The feeling and experience of happiness comes from regularly feeding the good wolf. As the good wolf’s groove in your brain becomes deeper, you will be better able to handle life’s challenges from a place of peace. If you choose to feed only the good wolf, then that is the wolf that will win.
And best of all, when you apply these strategies, the only side effect is more relaxation, happiness and contentment, and less anxiety, anger and fear.
“Practice of asanas (physical postures) without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
After practicing yoga for awhile, you may begin to notice the positive effects not just on your mat, but off your mat as well. And you may become curious about how to continue to incorporate yoga into your life. Or you may have had a yoga teacher mention the Yamas or Niyamas in class.
The Yamas and Niyamas are two of the eight limbs of yoga, and invite us to remember that yoga is a way of life. They are the foundation of an open heart and a peaceful spirit upon which we can build our lives. Without them, the rest of the eight limbs become simply technique. How can we focus the mind, when it is full of cravings and aversions? How can we hold a posture if we do not have self-discipline? How can we enjoy the fruits of savasana if we are unprepared to surrender?
In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text written between 200 BC - 400 AD, the first guide map for yoga was written. A step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind. The ultimate goal: to help practitioners cultivate a steady mind, leading to calm bliss. The first two stops on the path are ethical principles that are supposed to guide how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves. They’re called the Yamas (social restraints) and the Niyamas (self-disciplines).
The Yamas and Niyamas are like guideposts, to assist the yogi toward self awakening and bliss. As you read, consider how they can be incorporated into your yoga on and off the mat.
These 5 principles have mostly to do with our behavior and thinking toward other beings.
Ahimsa. No-harming, non-violence or, maybe more practical, “doing as little harm as possible”. We all do some harm to others in living; whether we eat cows or kale, we take a life. The idea of Ahimsa is to do our best to be loving and compassionate. For many yogis it means eating without using animal products… for others, being kind and caring to others. What is the least harm you can do?
Satya. Truthfulness, in one's thought, speech and action. See and communicate as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. Satya requires that we constantly look within to discover what is true in every situation. When we lie, we disconnect from our higher self and we cannot trust ourselves. Satya usually works best when keeping the spirit of Ahimsa in mind – being honest while doing as little harm as possible.
Asteya. Non-stealing. Again, this principle is clear but not always easy to implement. Look not just at non-stealing from others, but also from oneself. What numbing, escapist, unhealthy activities might you be engaging in that is stealing time from taking better care of yourself and the ones you love? Be totally present where you are. When your aren’t, you steal from yourself the experience of being alive in the moment. If you do that most of the time, you will miss your life.
Brahmacharya. Following a middle path. Overindulgence can deplete your prana, your life force. Be mindful of when you are overindulging, whether in thoughts or actions. Turn your mind inward, balance your senses, and free yourself from dependency and cravings. Sometimes translated as abstinence of sexual behavior.
Aparigraha. Non-hoarding. Think of the minimalist movement. Letting go of greed and acquiring more than we need to live comfortably. We can be generous and sharing – in fact, this is what brings abundance. We live in a universe that is abundant; there is enough for everyone, there’s no need to hold on to excessive things.
These principles have to do with our thinking and behavior toward and within ourselves.
Saucha. Purity, cleanliness. Pure mind, body and spirit. Being clean in our thoughts, as well as what we consume through both our mouths, but also our eyes and ears. Being mindful not just of the food we eat, but also the media we subject ourselves to and anything else that is toxic. Yoga reminds us that our true self already exists, lives in us inherently and perfectly. Our task as yogis is to strip away the outer layers that obscure our true nature. Many of the yogic techniques are practices to cleanse ourselves inside and out.
Santosha. Contentment. To be content is to accept and enjoy life as it is. We may still use our creative abilities to change and develop situations, yet doing so from an attitude of contentment greatly enhances our effectiveness and well-being.
Discipline and willpower are sometimes extremely helpful. But sustainable change happens when we are first content with who we are and where we are in the present moment. From that place of equanimity, we can then initiate change and pursue our calling.
Tapas. Fiery Discipline. Cultivating a sense of self discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away impurities physically, mentally and emotionally to pave the way to our true selves. Some days tapas may mean sitting for meditation and observing the mind. Other days it may mean getting onto your mat for yoga practice. It’s having the discipline to do what we know is good for us even when we don’t feel like it. It takes three weeks to create a habit. Commit to one area of your practice for three weeks and notice positive benefits.
Svadhyaya. Self-study. We develop an ever-deepening understanding of ourselves through self-inquiry, meditation, mindfulness, study of texts, and/or any other method that reveals the truth of who we are. Think of it as polishing the mirror. So that we can see ourselves as we truly are. Looking beyond the strategies and stories, often from our childhood, and sometimes maladaptive, so that we can see through to our highest self.
Ishvara Pranidhana. Sweet surrender. If you have a spiritual faith, it can mean surrendering to that higher power. It can also mean surrendering to your true self by letting go of ego. When we let go of ego, and realize we are divine and perfect, Yoga is achieved.
Contemplating the Yamas and Niyamas can bring higher awareness to parts of ourselves that we don’t always notice, and help us live in a way that doesn’t cause harm, which in turn allows for less regret and a more peaceful mind. But in the beginning, it might seem overwhelming to integrate all of these principles into our daily life.
So how can you incorporate these time-tested techniques into your own life and practice? My suggestion would be to pick one or two and see in which situations you can apply them, and how it helps your life. If you can’t choose, perhaps start with Ahimsa and Santosha and invite some more kindness and contentment into your life.