Still and Quiet

June 23, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Posted in learning and growing, observations, poses and asana, practice off the mat | Leave a comment

I did an experiment with my Friday morning yoga class last week.

The gas crunch has inspired me to coast as often as possible. Whenever I’m on a hill (and it’s safe to do so), I engage the clutch, pull the car out of gear and let Sir Issac Newton power me along. I’m telling you this because it’s a metaphor for a big idea I’m circling around lately as a part of my yoga practice; the idea of releasing oneself to the flow and taking advantage of the energy that’s available to us all. I don’t need to power my car down hills – the Earth will do that for me (and, it turns out, just this act of coasting has increased my gas mileage by almost six miles to the gallon!). Coasting isn’t just a behavior; it’s an attitude, and I wanted to see if I could get my yoga class to step back from themselves and disengage for a few minutes.

I warned them the week before that I’d be adding a single restorative pose to the practice for the coming week. For those of you who don’t know, restorative yoga is a practice which puts practitioners into supported poses and leaves them there for long stretches of time – up to 20 minutes in some cases. The idea is to reach a state where the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response – is shut down and the parasympathetic system – the relaxation and restoration responses – are turned on. The student is given an opportunity to be completely still, to relax completely into the pose, and to experience the sensations of the quiet of body and mind that ensues, with the added benefits of healing and a little bit of rest thrown in for good measure.

What I’ve learned about the population of student who frequents my class is that, for the most part, they are all profoundly uncomfortable with still and quiet. I habitually put students in savasana (the final relaxation at the end of a class) for little more than about 6 or 7 minutes, and even THAT is too much for most of them; they fidget, they sniffle, they wiggle and roll around. Has society gotten so frenetic that we’re unable to lie still for 5 minutes? It seems so.

A few weeks ago, I experienced an epiphany in a restorative yoga class, and I wanted to offer my students an opportunity to play in the quiet spaces of their own inner selves. I explained to them that, for some people, this was going to be the hardest part of the class – some of them, I said, wouldn’t be able to be still for the 10 minutes I was going to leave them in this pose, and that was okay. All I asked was that they do the best they could.

True to my expectations, in a class of 11 people, only 2 of them were able to fully engage in the practice. There was the usual sniffling and shuffling that I hear in savasana (I hear it because I sit in easy pose with my eyes closed, trying to steal a little still-and-quiet for myself, even though my classes aren’t MY practice). I was neither surprised nor disappointed – I had a pretty realistic expectation going in. All I was looking for was exposure, really, and I got it.

When I called them back to themselves and up to a seated position, I asked them to debrief. The 9 who were fidgety said that I was right – it WAS hard (well, two of them said so – the other 7 nodded agreement). The two who were able to sink into the pose echoed my praise of the practice – while they’d never done restorative yoga before, they could certainly see the value in it. Everyone agreed that it might be a good thing to include in the practice on a fairly regular (though not weekly) basis.

I’m pleased by the experiment. It’s often difficult to introduce new elements into established classes – students come to the sessions expecting certain things and can be quite resistant to anything that messes with their comfort levels. My aim as a yoga instructor, though, is to stretch my participants’ experiences so that they’re willing to at least ENTERTAIN a new idea every once in a while. I’m pretty sure they’re not ready to OM just yet, but my teaching them to coast a little more often will certainly do them some good.

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