Peter Levine, who developed a psychobiological method for resolving trauma symptoms called Somatic Experiencing, writes that "when faced with threat, the body and mind mobilizes a vast amount of energy in preparation for the 'fight or flight' response. This preparedness is supported by an increase and diversion of blood flow and release of 'stress hormones' like adrenaline and cortisol (Nature's Lessons in Healing Trauma)". Biologically speaking, all of that energy must be released in order for the body to return to normal homeostatic functioning. This is called completion and resolution.
Restorative Yoga, the use of props to support the body and mind in comfort and ease to facilitate health and healing, is a remarkable tool for resolving the effects of chronic stress. The process of physiological relaxation, which takes about 15 minutes, results in a slowing of the heart rate, brain waves, and breath rate, as well as muscle release and the activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which inhibits the production of stress hormones.
This is the 20-minute restorative practice that I used on a morning when I felt stuck in "fight or flight" from the stresses of daily life and work. 20 minutes of restorative practice daily does wonderful things for sleep, anxiety, and peace of mind. It is well suited for anyone who is exposed to chronic stress. If, as my teacher, Jamie Lyn Skolnick says, "stress is like plaque", then Restorative Yoga is like brushing your teeth.
1. Supported Seated Angle Pose
Find a space where you can sit, uninterrupted for 20 minutes. Arrange three blocks as pictured, one at it's highest height, and two at middle height. Prop a bolster against the blocks and stack with blankets until comfortable. Support the knees with blanket rolls and the hands with blocks or more blankets. You can also do this pose with fewer props by simply folding over a bolster, stack of pillows, or stack of blankets. Just make sure that you are supported enough to completely relax. Spend 2-5 minutes with your head turned to the right. Gaze toward the right shoulder and then close your eyes. Spend 2-5 minutes with your head turned to the left. This pose is particularly good if you are feeling anxious or have menstrual cramps.
2. Basic Relaxation Pose
Lay on your back with a blanket under your head. Roll up the edge to support your neck. Support the knees with with a bolster or a thick roll of two blankets. Support the ankles with a blanket roll. Allow your arms to fall out to your sides. Cover your eyes with an eye pillow or towel, and weight your hands with small pillows. I am using blankets here to weight my lower body, which is very grounding. You can also draw an open blanket over your entire body. It's important that you are warm and feel held. Stay here for at least 10 minutes, more if you have time. Basic Relaxation Pose with the knees elevated reduces fatigue, stress, anxiety, and insomnia. It lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and enhances immune system function.
Peter uses the example of an impala being chased by a cheetah to illustrate the physiological stress response. The impala is flooded by stress hormones, freezes in fear to ward off his predator, and then literally shakes to discharge the energies it mobilized for survival. I used a visualization during this pose of myself as an animal frozen in fear, and imagined the stress seeping from my heart and stomach into my limbs and out through my fingers and toes.
If either of these poses is not accessible to you, please contact me for additional variations. I look forward to writing more about Restorative Yoga, and would love to know if you have any specific questions. I am also available for Skype sessions and consults if you need help getting set up.