January 20, 2014

Restorative Yoga Literally Saved My Ass (& the Rest of Me, Too).


I don’t feel old most of the time. I’m letting my hair gray these days, but it’s an adventure rather than a resignation. I am not wrinkled, and my spine is still straight and fairly flexible.

The only time I feel old, and I mean desperately, creakingly, painfully ancient, is after I work a lot in a short period of time. My job is very physical, and involves lifting heavy boxes, standing for hours to stir, pare, stuff and frost, and walking around to keep platters and carafes full. At the end of a four or five hour gig, my feet ache, my arms are tired, and my shoulders and lower back are nagging and whining for hot water, an Aleve and some rest.

Two weeks ago I had back-to-back events, which meant there was no break between them besides dinner and sleep. By the end of the second job I was thrashed in a way that felt irreparable. When I got home I eased out of my Dansko clogs standing up (I couldn’t bend over to take them off with my hands), and then shuffled through my house hunched over, like…an old lady.

[Confession: I am much better about the mind and spirit parts of “mind, body and spirit” than I am about, you know, the “body” part. I rarely forget to meditate, but I am not great about regular yoga practice. I walk outside when the weather’s good, but we are in the midst of Tundra Season right now. So I don’t. I have a treadmill, but I kind of hate it. I tell myself that I get plenty of exercise at work, but this story clearly demonstrates that I am lying to myself about that, and that years of lurching between balls-to-the-wall exertion and couch potatohood has not done me any favors].

So anyway, I was literally kind of broken. My feet hurt so much that mere contact with blankets was uncomfortable. Joints hurt, muscles hurt, and my tailbone felt like it had been beaten with a lead pipe. I had fallen down some rabbit hole of pain and emerged not as a reasonably hip middle-aged woman but as a granny in a housecoat and slippers with a tight cap of permed and blue-rinsed curls.

Desperate, I tried lots of things. Tiger Balm which comes in a really adorable jar but made me, my clothes and my house reek of camphor. Too many Aleve, which made me throw up. Lots of hot showers and heating pad sessions, which provided only temporary relief

I talked to my yoga teacher friend, who suggested restorative yoga. I didn’t really know what that was, so I did a little research. It seemed like it might help, all that passive stretching, but there wasn’t a class soon enough or near enough. Besides the which, I was really truly not sure that my body could withstand the rigors of getting bundled up and going out in the arctic blast, taking class, bundling up and coming home.

I was one sad, messed up little old lady.

As it turns out, I was able to find a 30 minute restorative yoga video through my cable provider. I watched it through first, feeling increasingly skeptical that lying around with bolsters and pillows and blankets holding me up was actually going to do me any good. Although I am neither a skilled nor a regular yoga-doer, I am always competitive.

When a teacher comes towards me with a block or a bolster my flow is interrupted by this: “She thinks I need that! She thinks I look too fat/old/inexperienced to do this pose and I am not any of those things and I will make it happen!”

(I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me all the ways in which that is tragically backwards).

So the restorative yoga thing with all of its props violated all my self-imposed rules of prop-less martyrdom. On the other hand…I couldn’t really move my other hand because my arm hurt so much and it really couldn’t be any worse than lying around moaning or taking pills that made me sick.

I gathered up a soft pillow, some towels, a chair and a harder bolster, and I spent thirty minutes slowly, passively opening up the tight places and easing my suffering. I could feel the Chi, the breath, the peace moving into the knots and untying them, simultaneously soothing and energizing.

At the end, in savasana, I understood that I didn’t have to be an Old Person, but that my body could no longer alternate easily between minimal activity and hard labor. It needed to move daily, to keep the knots untied, the joints fluid and the muscles strong. It needed practice and discipline as much as my mind.

As I put away my props, I cried with relief. I really hadn’t realized how frightened I’d been, sure that I’d turned a corner towards years of medication, limitation and the loss of my job. With the tears, more things loosened, softened, found a place of balance.

There will come a day when I can no longer meet the physical demands of my job, but it’s not today. It’s probably not tomorrow or even next year.

My body has taught me a hard lesson about what it needs─ a varied diet of movement, from the gentlest morning stretches to long walks and crazy, improvised (and private) dance sessions. And the seed of this lesson, the source of this understanding was the very non-competitive, soothing caress of restorative yoga.

And I’m back to regular yoga now, grateful in every asana for my strong legs, my mobile joints and the muscles that stretch with my breath and tell me their limits if I’ll listen. When I’m broken, though, when my mind or my body cries out for a re-set and a return to some cosmic cradle of self-love and tolerance, I’ll be back for more restorative yoga, healing and tears.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: My Yoga Online, on Flickr


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