Stress begins with a physiological response to what your body-mind perceives as
life-threatening. For our ancestors, this may have been defending against the aggression of a
animal. For modern-day humans, this may be living with the fear of losing a job in a sagging
economy, or the health crisis of a family member.
Whatever the stressor, the mind alerts the body that danger is present. In response, the
adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, secrete catecholamine hormones. These adrenaline
noradrenalin hormones act upon the autonomic nervous system, as the body prepares for fight
flight. Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness, and muscle tension are increased. The
adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell and
body begins to sweat. The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the
of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair, and reproduction.
These adaptive responses have been positive for the survival of the human race over
thousands of years. For our ancestors, a stressful situation usually resolved itself quickly.
fought or they ran, and, if they survived, everything returned to normal. The hormones were
used beneficially, the adrenal glands stopped producing stress hormones, and systems that
temporarily shut down resumed operation.
To his detriment, modern man is often unable to resolve his stress so directly, and lives
chronically stressed as a result. Still responding to the fight or flight response, the adrenals
continue to pump stress hormones. The body does not benefit from nutrition because the
digestion and elimination systems are slowed down. Even sleep is disturbed by this agitated
In a chronically stressed state, quality of life, and perhaps life itself, is at risk. The
capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or
or creating a new one, including high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction,
reproductive problems, and depression. These conditions add stress of their own and the cycle
THE RELAXATION SOLUTION
The antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply. This rest is
different from sleep. Deep states of sleep include periods of dreaming which increase
tension, as well as other physiological signs of tension. Relaxation is a state in which there is
movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet.
Common to all stress reduction techniques is putting the body in a comfortable position,
with gentle attention directed toward the breath. Do these techniques really work? Scientists
researched the effects of relaxation and report measurable benefits, including reduction in
tension and improved circulation.
Among the first to study relaxation was Edmund Jacobson, M.D. In 1934, he wrote
You Must Relax about the benefits of his progressive relaxation techniques. He
reported success in using his approach to treat high blood pressure, indigestion, colitis,
and what he called "nervousness."
One of the foremost writers and researchers in the field of stress reduction today is
Benson, M.D., who coined the phrase "Relaxation Response" to describe the physiological
mental responses that occur when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book,
defines the relaxation response as "a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate,
metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns."
David Spiegel, M.D., author of Living Beyond Limits, reports, "In
we are learning that physical problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, can be
influenced by psychological interventions, such as relaxation training. Indeed, the Food and
Administration issued a report recommending these non-drug approaches as the treatment of
choice for milder forms of hypertension. Mind and body are connected and must work
and this should be a powerful asset in treating medical illness."
Indeed, body and mind are connected. Relatively new in medicine is the specialty
psychoneuroimmunology, another way of saying that body and mind-or psyche, nervous
and immune system-are connected. This specialist understands that the health of the psyche is
reflected in, and partly created by, the health of the body, and vice versa.
Among those whose scientific study supports the body-mind connection is Dean Ornish,
M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease. He
studied those with atherosclerotic heart disease and concluded that daily periods of relaxation
essential in preventing further deterioration. Ornish also created a unique lifestyle program
includes diet, yoga, and meditation.
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, the scriptural language of ancient
and means "to yoke" or "to unite." Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization of 2000 to
B.C.E., yoga practices are designed to help the individual feel whole. Ancient yoga texts
teachings that include the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. The
physical aspects of yoga--poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama
)--are the most popular in the West.
Traditionally, a yoga class or personal practice session begins with active poses
by a brief restorative pose. In this book, I'll place the entire focus of practice on the
poses. The development of these poses is credited to B.K.S. Iyengar, of Pune, India. Author
the contemporary classic Light on Yoga and numerous other books, Iyengar has
teaching yoga for more than sixty years. Widely recognized as a worldwide authority, he is
of the most creative teachers of yoga today.
Iyengar's early teaching experience showed him how pain or injury can result from a
straining in a yoga pose. He experimented with "props," modifying poses until the student
practice without strain. Iyengar also explored how these modified poses could help people
from illness or injury. It is because of his creativity that the restorative poses in this
of which have been developed or directly inspired by him-are such powerful tools to reduce
and restore health.
I often refer to restorative yoga poses as "active relaxation." By supporting the body
props, we alternately stimulate and relax the body to move toward balance. Some poses have
overall benefit. Others target an individual part, such as the lungs or heart. All create
physiological responses which are beneficial to health and can reduce the effects of
In general, restorative poses are for those times when you feel weak, fatigued, or
from your daily activities. They are especially beneficial for the times before, during, and
major life events: death of a loved one, change of job or residence, marriage, divorce, major
holidays, and vacations. In addition, you can practice the poses when ill, or recovering from
illness or injury.
HOW RESTORATIVE YOGA WORKS
Restorative poses help relieve the effects of chronic stress in several ways. First, the
of props as described in this book provides a completely supportive environment for total
Second, each restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These
movements illustrate the age-old wisdom of yoga that teaches well-being is enhanced by a
spine. Some of the restorative poses are backbends, while others are forward bends.
poses gently twist the column both left and right.
Third, a well-sequenced restorative practice also includes an inverted pose, which
the effects of gravity. This can be as simple as putting the legs on a bolster or pillow, but the
effects are quite dramatic. Because we stand or sit most of the day, blood and lymph fluid
accumulate in the lower extremities. By changing the relationship of the legs to gravity, fluids
are returned to the upper body and heart function is enhanced.
Psychobiologist and yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of
California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms, has done preliminary
on the effects of inverted poses. He found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus
reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a
slowing of the heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body that comes from
reversing the effects of gravity.
Fourth, restorative yoga alternately stimulates and soothes the organs. For example, by
closing the abdomen with a forward bend and then opening it with a backbend, the abdominal
organs are squeezed, forcing the blood out, and then opened, so that fresh blood returns to
the organs. With this movement of blood comes the enhanced exchange of oxygen and waste
products across the cell membrane.
Finally, yoga teaches that the body is permeated with energy. Prana, the
masculine energy, resides above the diaphragm, moves upward, and controls respiration and
rate. Apana, the feminine energy, resides below the diaphragm, moves
and controls the function of the abdominal organs. Restorative yoga balances these two
of energy so that the practitioner is neither overstimulated nor depleted.
Many of us sit at work for much of the day with the spine rounded and the arms
of the torso. As a result, tension accumulates in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders.
In response, most of us have the urge to stretch our arms upward and bend backward. That is
what this pose helps us to do, but in a supported way.
The length of your torso will affect your comfort in this pose. Some short people have
long torsos; some tall people have short ones. If you are long from shoulders to hips, place a
double-fold blanket on the bolster to increase the height. This modification will allow you to
lightly on your shoulders without crunching your neck against the floor. If you are short from
the shoulders to hips, you may be more comfortable with less height. If you use props that are
too high for you, your head will hang without support.
Be careful not to put too much weight on your cervical spine (neck). Place the long-roll
blanket under your shoulders. If too high, unroll it until you are comfortable. This support
to maintain the natural curve of the neck and allows your throat to open and relax. Keep your
knees bent throughout the pose to protect your back and relax the abdomen. If you find it
comfortable, let the knees rest against each other. Rest your arms on the floor, either above
head or out to the side, whichever is more pleasant. Breathe naturally.
Stay in the pose for thirty seconds to determine how you feel. If you experience any
discomfort in your lower back, slightly move off the bolster in the direction of your head. If
falls to relieve it, slightly move off the bolster toward your feet or place your feet on a folded
blanket. Make sure that your chest is open and your ribs lift away from the abdominal
If none of these adjustments make the pose feel good, roll carefully to one side and sit
The following adjustment usually does the trick: Reduce the degree of the arch. Place the
side of a block against the front of the long side of the bolster. Sit on the block and use the
support of your hands on the floor to lie back. Continue to use the roll under your shoulders
enhance your comfort and to protect your neck. Your tailbone and part of your buttocks
be supported by the block. There should be some arch in your back, especially at the level of
your shoulder blades. Close your eyes. Place the eyebag over them.