Friday, February 21, 2020

If It's Not Working For You, It's Not Working For You

by Nina Zolotow

Did you ever do a yoga pose, breath practice, or meditation and start to realize that what it was supposed to be doing for you wasn’t exactly taking place? Well, I certainly have. When I started taking a pranayama class from my favorite yoga teacher, Donald Moyer, after the class I felt irritated and depressed instead of calm. Meanwhile, everyone else was raving about how quiet and relaxed they felt! I gave the class four tries, and every time ended the same way. So I quietly dropped out. 

Eventually I gathered up the courage to tell my teacher about my reaction to the style of pranayama he taught. He surprised me that he understood because he’d come up with his own way of teaching pranayama after he’d had negative reactions to the way his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, taught pranayama. He then counseled me to practice whichever way did work for me, even if I was in class with him where he was teaching his style of pranayama, or else I could just refrain from doing any pranayama and quietly relax. Thank you, Donald!

I think it’s essential for everyone to understand that traditional yoga relaxation techniques don’t work for all of us. People are just very different from each other and have different things going on at any given time. For example, simple breath awareness is considered to be calming and a good way for a beginner to meditate. But some people, especially those with anxiety, find that focusing on their breath makes them feel panicky. And for people with depression, certain practices, such as meditation and yoga nidra, can even be dangerous because sitting or lying still with their eyes closed can send them into a downward spiral. 

In addition there are other purported benefits for particular yoga poses and practices that not everyone experiences. For example, supported forward bends may be quieting and soothing for many people but for some they’re aggravating or depressing. Likewise, backbends are traditionally considered uplifting, but they might be agitating or just not effective for others. 

So it’s important for all of us to be honest with ourselves when we are not experiencing what we were expecting. And if you conclude that a practice is not working for you, it’s not working for you! Once you acknowledge this, you can open up to some alternatives. The wonderful thing about yoga is that it is such a rich and varied tradition, with so many different options and possibilities, that there’s a good chance that by exploring and experimenting you will find something that works for you.

In today’s post, I’m going to make some suggestions for things to try when your relaxation techniques are not working for you. One good thing about these alternative techniques is that if you feel more relaxed, less anxious, or less depressed when you’re practicing them, then they are working! 

When Relaxing Isn’t Relaxing

When you’re stressed out, anxious, or depressed, it’s possible that a more active yoga practice will be easier for you—the physical challenges and mindful movements will engage your mind. That will give you some respite. So in general, if an hour of Restorative Yoga makes you restless or miserable, try an active practice instead. However, it’s still important to try to reduce your stress levels. So here are some ideas for different things you can try at the end of an active practice when classic relaxation techniques just aren’t working for you.

Eyes Open: If closing your eyes in Savasana, in any restorative pose, or in meditation causes agitation or brooding, try keeping your eyes open but with a soft focus. Gaze downward instead of straight out at the world. Try opening your eyes fully, one half, or one quarter, and see what works best for you. These positions are actually traditional and are called full-moon eyes, half-moon eyes, and new-moon eyes. 

Covering Yourself: Sometimes lying on your back can make you feel exposed and vulnerable, especially when you’re anxious. So for Relaxation pose or any restorative poses where you lie on your back, you can try covering yourself with a blanket. Sometimes that helps you feel more protected. If not, try the next suggestion.

Crocodile Pose: If lying in Relaxation pose on your back makes you feel uncomfortable, you can try lying on your belly in Crocodile pose (Makrasana) instead to see if that is more comforting. If your lower back curves too much in Crocodile pose, place a folded blanket (long rectangle) under your lower belly. 
If you don’t find Crocodile comfortable, you could try a supported version of Savasana (because raising your torso higher than your legs might feel better than being flat on your back) or even a side-lying Savasana.
Supported Child’s Pose: If classic restorative poses where you lie on your back, such as Reclined Cobbler’s pose, supported versions of Savasana, and Bridge pose with straight legs, make you feel exposed and vulnerable, practice Supported Child’s pose instead. Many people actually find hugging their bolsters very comforting. You can turn your head to the side and keep your eyes open if that helps; just be sure to turn your head to the other side for an equal amount of time. If you can’t practice on the floor, you can practice this pose using two chairs or you can try it on your bed at home.
Supported Inversions: A supported inverted pose is any supported pose where your heart is higher than your head, even just slightly higher. Examples of supported inverted poses include Viparita Karani (with legs up the wall or legs on a chair), Standing Forward Bend with head support, Supported Bridge pose with bent or straight legs, and more (see All About Supported Inverted Poses). 
Because spending time in a comfortable pose in which your heart is above your head triggers the Relaxation response due to our basic physiology, these poses don’t require a mental focus the way meditation and restorative yoga do. So you can keep your eyes open and even listen to relaxing music while you are practicing them and you’ll still quiet your nervous system. These are also great alternatives to forward bends, which cause some people to brood and others just find unpleasant. Of course, as with any pose, if you feel bad in an inverted pose, come out of the pose immediately. 

Choose Appropriate Breath Practices: I actually feel that for some of us (like me!) breath practices can have a very powerful effect on the nervous system. So I think that if doing a breath practice makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, either during or after the practice, you should not do it. For one thing, contrary to what you may have been told, not all breath practices are calming. Practices that encourage you to take a longer and/or deeper inhalation are stimulating and can actually be agitating for some. For some of us, it is generally a better strategy to practice only calming practices, which encourage a longer exhalation, or balancing practices, which have inhalations and exhalations of the same length. But if all the practices you try don’t work for you, they’re not working for you! Try practicing simple breath awareness instead.

Sometimes doing breath practices in Child’s pose where you sense your breath in your back body rather than your front body works well for those who feel anxious doing breath practices on their backs or even in a seated position.

However, if none of these alternatives work for you—for some, focusing on the breath in any way makes you anxious—the solution is to do other things instead. Try meditating with a mantra or an image you hold in your mind rather than on a physical sensation in your body.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. I really appreciated it and it confirmed to me that Yoga practices are best taught one to one for students to learn of different techniques and find the technique that is suited to their body/mind at that time and their Dosha imbalance/balance etc.