Elemental Rest: an Ayurvedic Approach to Restorative Yoga
Regardless of training or lineage, teachers of Restorative yoga share a common language of ecology and mothering. We naturally gravitate towards the grounding and support of a restorative pose, buoyed up by props. We are sensitive to the flow of circulation, the glow of internal resolution, the rippling oscillation of breath, and the expansiveness of mind and heart. These common terms express the elemental powers of earth, water, fire, air, and space. They allow the bodymind, in rest and quietude, to understand and enjoy its coherence with the living world.
Perhaps without knowing it, we’re using the language of Ayurveda: India’s elegant and intuitive method of embodied poetics.
In this article, I’d like to make this Restorative-Ayurveda connection explicit, so that we can become more fluent about what Restorative does therapeutically: nothing less than the creation of maternal care and the preverbal expansiveness of early childhood. Beyond sympathetic relaxation, Restorative offers the opportunity to remember our elemental and constitutional communion with the world that makes us, and to see where we have stiffened in relation to this communion. The language of elements (bhutas), moods (gunas), and constitutions (doshas) provides a rich and comprehensive vision of how this communion unfolds. With Ayurveda on board, Restorative yoga truly becomes holistic medicine.
One of the main distortions that Hatha Yoga has endured during its centuries-long importation to western culture is the stripping away of its naturopathic context. Ayurveda has always been the backbone of health assessment and maintenance for those who wish to practice asana, pranayama, and meditation. Today, yoga culture is faced with a strange paradox: practitioners look to the eight limbs as their primary evolutionary support, but when they are ill they rely on a compartmentalized and objectifying medical system which cannot generally reflect their holistic values. There are few things more disconcerting than to be immersed in the whole-person approach of yoga, and then find yourself in front of a lab-coated doctor who is only trained to look at you through a single lens. How much better would it feel to be seen by a holistic gaze, rather than a medical gaze? In my opinion, there’s no better way for Ayurveda to re-enter the language of yoga in modern times than through the medium of Restorative, in which the therapeutic intention is explicitly given, in which the postures are simple, comfortable, and held for long enough that the integration of flesh and consciousness can be explored at a leisurely pace. Ayurveda has always been the medicine of hatha yoga, and the Restorative classes of modern yoga culture are the ideal learning theatres for this very old system of healing.
What does the ayurvedic view offer to the Restorative teacher? We can start with the elements.
Earth is central to Restorative. Most postures unfold in full contact with the earth. Props form a kind of moldable soil for spinal and limb support. The objective of each pose –passively received instead of actively sought – is to surrender to gravity and compression, to sink down and find connection with the experience of limitless support. Earth element invokes trust. Earth provides the still, quiet affirmation that everything is supported, and that everything returns home. This is powerful medicine for the ungrounded, for the dissociated, for those far from home, for those in unstable relationships with other others or with their sources of support, for those who tremble subtly with anxiety.
Water is medicine for the dry, the dissatisfied, the wasting, and those in grief. It restores emotional availability, the capacity for pleasure, and libido. Water lives in the pelvic bowl. Whenever the hips are gently mobilized by external rotation, water is released into its natural flow. Water saturates the tissues with emotional nourishment. When a Restorative pose releases an upwelling of sentiment, water begins to rush. (Reclined butterfly will so often lead to tears.) Water is empathy and contentment, and should trickle through the instructor’s cues. Water is the lake and sea: places of deep dreaming and subconscious unfolding. An awareness of water element in Restorative yoga encourages the practitioner to plunge slowly into that part of herself she does not yet know. But water should be quite visceral in a Restorative context as well: a dry room can be mitigated with a vaporizer, and the instructor’s hands can be moisturized with pure oils. Prana transmits through touch when conducted through water element.
Fire pervades the tissues, but is centered at the navel: keeping internal fire centered and quietly radiant is at the heart of Restorative practice. A candlelit room encourages internal trataka and nourishes the “slow burn” of healing. The practitioner should never be cold. But unlike the tapas provoked by vinyasa, the fire of Restorative is still, radiant, and expresses the quiet certainty of sankalpa: I commit to this process, this life. I have an inner light that guides me.
Restorative yoga is felt, above all. It is an art of internal touch. Air is the medium of the tactile: immersing the skin and entering the respiratory channels to expose and vitalize all inner surfaces. Of course: Restorative yoga is breathed, transforming raw air element into its intelligent and structured evolute, prana. When the breath is full and calm, and when inhale and exhale are equalized, our inner and outer ecologies commune, and anxiety recedes. Air, both tactile and connective, resolves the tensions of our individuation.
Space pervades in abstract and functional forms. Abstract space simply contains everything – all other elements and their actions. The space occupied by this text, in whatever form you are encountering it, is not changed by the text, anymore than the space of the sky is changed by its clouds. This unchanging space becomes the primary metaphor for awareness in all Indian philosophies: space is the eternal observer, consciousness that sees without reacting – even the process of seeing and non-reacting.
Functional space is the queen of medicines in both Restorative yoga and Ayurveda. Virtually every therapeutic action we encourage involves the addition or sculpting of spaciousness. We seek space in the hollow regions of the body. We seek to expand skeletal structures for improved circulation and organ decompression. We seek space in the breath and senses, and, coherent with mindfulness instructions, we look for the space between breaths and sensations. We investigate all pauses, pregnant with meanings yet to unfold. Space in Restorative yoga bathes us in unexpressed potentials for a freer life, a more open identity.
The gunas (which I’ve started to translate from the Sanskrit as “moods”) are fundamental to Ayurvedic and Yogic views alike. Our hour-by-hour experience of life is captured in the competing thralls of gravity (tamas), urge (rajas), and resolution (sattva). We sink into dreamless sleep, rise towards a desire, and rest temporarily in the fulfillment of desire. Restorative yoga occurs within this rest, this sattva, this satisfied pause in the story of life.
We live in the most rajasic culture in history. Our dissatisfactions mirror our infinite possibilities. Urges to travel, to accomplish, and to accelerate have never been stronger. Technologies have refracted our natural mental agitation to a baffling order of magnitude. Ayurveda seeks to create a temporary space alongside of our endless desires in which the full satisfaction of the bodymind can be made apparent. In Ayurveda, it is said that the natural intelligence of the tissues, winds, and humours is only re-established during this rest. Restorative yoga provides the ideal physical space for many such unconscious realignments to occur. Rajas, which governs our typical conscious and conceptual states as well as sympathetic nervous response, is only applied in homeopathic doses in Restorative yoga, to identify sources of dissatisfaction, and to encourage gentle effort towards their dissolution.
Moving from the contracted and jagged actions of rajas to the buoyant clarity of sattva is not an easy task. Very often, gravity is necessary. Sandbags on the limbs, compression of the senses through a head-wrap, dimming the lights: tamas quells rajas to sleep, and perhaps a clearer internal light emerges. One of the deepest adjustments you can give to the person lying in savasana is to lay a bolster across the upper quadriceps, place your feet on either side of the person’s waist, and slowly ease your sitting bones down into the centre of the bolster. This is a graceful, earthing, tamasic action: to ground your student’s femurs into the earth with the full force of your gravity. Once tamas is established, sattva can blossom in its buoyancy: our naturally-rising answer to everything that falls.
The Doshas as Psycho-Somatic Forces
In our nascent global Ayurvedic culture we mainly speak of the doshas in diagnostic terms: “My vata is high.” “Pitta is burning.” “I have kapha imbalance – I’m congested.” These impressions and evaluations have great merit in therapeutics, but it’s best to begin with the notion of what the strength and purpose of each dosha is, so that beyond our imbalances we come to feel the support of kapha’s stamina, the focus of pitta’s gaze, and the openness of vata’s sky.
The humours (as we’ve called them in the West since Hippocrates) are each a swirling conversation of elements and moods. Kapha is the clay of earth and water elements, presided over by the mood of tamas. It governs the structure, stability, and stamina of the flesh. Pitta is the fluid radiance of water and fire elements, stoked by rajas. It governs metabolic functions. And vata is the mobile and subtle turbulence of air and space elements, lightened by sattva guna. Vata governs movement and thought.
Restorative yoga will nurture kapha by calming the lower body, encouraging lunar-type breathing, invoking devotion and familial coziness, and by building back up what has been worn away. The instructor might murmur: Relax into the earth, your mother; this is a time of stillness and rebuilding. Restorative will hold the heat of pitta dosha in the moisture of relaxation, and turn its sharpened flames into waves of soft radiance: Let your desires soften into their root, which is a warm glow. Restorative also provides an excellent laboratory for pitta dosha to exercise observation and discrimination: Search inside for sources of chronic gripping.
But it is vata dosha that we pay most attention to in Restorative. Vata is responsible for movement and communication between all tissues, organs, as well as being the physical basis for thought. Every imbalanced condition is initiated by the overaction, underaction, or chaotic action of vata. On the side of vata pacification, we always seek to move from speed to slowness, to smooth the air currents of breath and thought, and to contain and hold the potentially dissociative expansion of space. When vata is calmed, prana deepens and roots to the flesh. As stillness falls, sattva grows. As contractions loosen, space is found. As movements become quieter, the mind releases fear, anxiety, and general chatter. On the side of vata encouragement, it is invoked to encourage flexibility in self-perception. The instructor might say: With relaxed breath, and in spacious relaxation, find a new vision of yourself.
Understanding the functional strengths of of the doshas means understanding that each posture in Restorative yoga offers tridoshic promise. Kapha dosha and the earth and water regions of the body are the foundations of stability. Pitta dosha and the fire regions are the foundations of radiance: the slow burn of sustainable transformation. Vata dosha and air/space regions are the containers of breath. Ideally, the Restorative instructor is looking for an exquisite balance of these functions and qualities in every pose they teach.
An example here will help: supta virasana (pictured below) will ground the femurs in internal rotation and compress the lower limbs into the ground, enhancing the physiological rooting of kapha. The watery aspect of kapha dosha is activated by the undulation of breath rolling through the pelvis and overflowing through the lengthened groin. Pitta dosha rests warmly in the space of a lengthened diaphragm. The abdominal extension softens the navel area, which in turn will soften and possibly redirect the heat of personal will. The air of vata dosha flows sweet and moistened through the upper respiratory cavities, giving autonomic grace. The space of vata is felt in the upper lungs, the oral cavity, the sinuses, and the crown of the head. As space pervades the senses, it is very difficult to have a self-limiting, accusatory, or ungenerous thought.
Using the Doshas Therapeutically
Of course, certain postures will focus upon certain doshic energies, and can be therapeutically directed. The passive backbends (supported backbend, viparita dandasana, etc.) of Restorative yoga will gently mobilize the heaviness of kapha, and deepen the respiratory support of vata. But primarily, any reversal of natural thoracic kyphosis will stimulate the radiance of pitta. This can be therapeutically useful for those who need gentle stimulation of digestive fire, the smooth release of emotional frustration, or the kindling of personal will or autonomy.
The supported forward fold (balasana, kurmasana, adho mukha sukhasana etc.), will sink kapha into its earthen home, and cool the hyperacidity of excess pitta. But its primary value is in the calming of vata dosha through the principle of compression. Just as the supported backbends will expand the space of vata as it circulates through the lungs, so supported forward folds hold and soothe this space within the sheathe of the upper body. Think of Temple Grandin, who was only able to calm the internal chaos of her hyper-vata autism by building a “hugging machine”, which bound and squeezed her ever-expanding internal space within a womb of safety. The compression of the forward fold is profoundly therapeutic for those of us who feel overwhelmed by the limitless and ungrounded possibility of a quickening and disembodied world.
Any elevation of the legs (viparita karani, supported sarvangasana, bridge pose, etc.) will cool overactive pitta dosha and bring maternal weight into the upper respiratory. But the main therapeutic action here involves the quiet mobilization of kapha dosha: the coolness and stability of earth and water elements rise up into the torso, lightening the legs, and preparing the feet to descend into a renewed relationship with the ground. These poses are particularly useful for those who are weighed down by the kapha imbalances of lethargy, pelvic congestion, and melancholy. They reverse sensory orientation, and offer the ground of the body to the sky.
Postures According to Constitution
If we accept the proposition that every asana is tridoshic when executed with full awareness, and that examining the range of 30 common Restorative poses yields only ten or so that might promote distinct constitutional rebalancing, the notion that one could somehow develop a “Restorative sequence for kapha people” – or for those of either of the other two primary physiognomies – is a bit of a stretch. The gifts of Restorative are broad and apply more readily to all citizens of postmodern technological culture, rather than to the unique constitutions of individuals. Restorative yoga may not be a panacea, but we can say that it speaks to the primary dis-ease of our day: vata aggravation. Everyone we know is vata-aggravated, more or less. It really doesn’t matter what your natal constitution is: Restorative yoga will speak to the heart of your disquiet: the excess speed, cognitive overload, and disorganized space of our flailing human ecology.
That said, it is also true that the different constitutional types need different therapeutic qualities from the Restorative postures they practice. The vata-predominant student (ectomorph), with their thinness, dry joints, ungrounded feet, and vulnerability to a disturbed home life and dissociated emotions, is crying out for the sinking, moistening, and decelerating balm of Restorative. (Of course you’ll have to entice them away from the floatiness of their primary series practice!) Every instructor will know the vata-types well: they will silently slip into the classroom and find a corner. They may yammer (if vata is high) with the instructor or their peers, or they may withdraw. They will need lots of blankets. And they respond very deeply to touch, especially if it lingers, is firm, and has a maternal quality.
The pitta student, with their ruddiness, elevated blood pressure, wiry and explosive musculature, and their tendency to anger, can benefit immensely from the invitation to general receptivity that Restorative yoga offers. But with these mesomorphs, you’ll have to get them away from spin class and out of the squash court. You’ll have to give them space, relate to them in a spirit of fraternal objectivity, lay off the new-age platitudes, give them permission to mother themselves, and limit all emotional connection to what can be expressed briefly and frankly. The key with the pitta student is: let them believe that they are running the show, and that they already know what you have to teach them (you’re just jogging their memory!).
Does the kapha person need Restorative yoga? Perhaps not at all: the endomorph’s natural mood is quite relaxed to begin with. She certainly doesn’t need it as much as the vata and pitta types, quite frankly – even though she may be exquisitely drawn to it, as it will likely encourage her weakness for chilling out. It is the kapha types who fall asleep instantly in Restorative poses. If they practice Restorative, they would benefit most from generating wakeful and penetrating concentration upon the movement and texture of their breath. Don’t let them sleep. For kapha, Restorative yoga should be delicate and focused work.
There’s a lot more to say. I’m looking forward to developing these themes as co-teacher with Pat Harada Linfoot at the upcoming Restorative Yoga Teacher Training later this spring at Octopus Garden…