Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Interview with Dr. Gail Parker about "Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma"

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Gail: I am a psychologist, certified yoga therapist, yoga therapist educator, author, and a lifelong practitioner of yoga. In the late 1970’s I began to blend psychology, yoga, and meditation practices as effective mind/body self-care strategies that can enhance emotional balance, and contribute to overall health and well-being. Five years ago, after forty years, I closed my psychotherapy practice. I now teach aspiring yoga therapists how to utilize yoga philosophy and practices as therapeutic interventions to aid in psychological well-being. I became president of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (BYTA) Board of Directors in 2020. Our mission is to support the educational and professional development of black yoga teachers and to serve as a catalyst to connect our members with opportunities to train and teach.

Priya: You've just had a book published on how individuals who experience ethnic and race-based stress and trauma can benefit from Restorative Yoga. How did you get interested in this topic?

Gail: I became interested in Restorative Yoga’s potential to ease the wounds of racial distress in my yoga teacher training 20 years ago, during the 9/11 attacks. My son who was in college at the time called to say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center and was worried that his father’s high-rise office building might be targeted too. It was a traumatic time for all of us. Restorative Yoga was my go to practice for the next five months. It is what kept me on an even keel. Part of yoga teacher training involved writing a final paper on an aspect of yoga. I chose to write about Restorative Yoga’s benefits to aid in the recovery of emotional trauma.

It occurred to me then that this practice might also be useful as a therapeutic practice to heal race-based traumatic stress injury. I share stories in the book about the emotionally harmful impact of race related events that have occurred within the United States, including yoga spaces, and I share stories of the healing potential of Restorative Yoga to alleviate the pain and suffering associated with racial wounding. When you live in a racialized culture, you cannot escape the impact on those who are wounded, and on those who, whether intentionally or unintentionally, do the wounding. Regardless of race, whether you realize it or not, we are all affected.

Priya: Why do you think this is an important subject to write about?

Gail: Ethnic and race-based stress and trauma have been neglected areas of inquiry in most trauma-informed therapeutic modalities, including trauma-informed yoga. Yet ignoring ethnic and race-based traumatic stress as real and as a unique form of trauma, runs the risk of re-traumatizing people and interferes with the ability to derive maximum benefit from therapeutic intervention and yoga practices in general.

As members of a global community, different from each other yet connected, sometimes segregated but not separate, yoga teachers, educators, and therapists who are aware of race and the harmful effects of racism are, with proper preparation, better able to effectively deal with issues associated with race and ethnicity when they come up.

Priya: How does the Restorative Yoga that you recommend help lessen stress and trauma?

Gail: In the Restorative Yoga practice that I recommend you are working with the nervous system to evoke the relaxation response, the opposite of the stress response. It is a biologically innate response built into every human mind and body, characterized by a slower heart rate, slower metabolic rate, slower rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns, all of which support positive health outcomes. Restorative Yoga reduces reactivity, supports mental clarity and emotional calm, all of which enable more effective responses to race related events when they arise.

Priya: What are some of your favorite restorative poses for reducing stress and trauma?

Gail: I really love practicing and teaching supported reclined bound angle pose, Supta Baddha Koṇāsana, which is almost always the last pose I teach and practice in a sequence. It is a wonderful way to end the practice, although some people like to end their practice with a more traditional supported Sávāsana, which I also love.

Priya: Do other styles of yoga help in the same way? If not, can you explain why?

Gail: Restorative Yoga is a receptive form of yoga that requires no physical exertion. To avoid stimulating the nervous system and to minimize stress and tension, it is practiced in stillness without the use of muscle energy or stretching. Props such as blankets, bolsters, blocks, neck pillows, and eye masks are used to support the body as it remains in various yoga postures for extended periods of time. Breath is used to focus awareness and attention throughout the practice. The entire practice, from the very first pose to the very last one, is designed to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the involuntary nervous system that supports rest and recovery.

Practicing stillness without using muscle energy or stretching is a critically important aspect of the practice. Learning to relax in stillness while remaining awake is a very advanced form of yoga. It requires alert awareness to remain still when you’re bored, agitated, or emotionally impacted, all of which can occur in a Restorative Yoga practice. Restorative Yoga calms the nervous system, releases stress, supports resilience, restoration, health, and growth. It reduces hypervigilance, reactivity, and teaches that there can be safety in stillness and wisdom in pausing before speaking or acting.

Priya: Does the Restorative Yoga need to be coupled with trauma-informed yoga (a separate practice)?

Gail: Race-based traumatic stress injury is not the same as other forms of stress and trauma. In order to offer this practice in a way that is optimal for reducing and recovering from race-based traumatic stress, one needs to understand its unique nature including: the context in which it occurs; the core stressor which is emotional injury; the ongoing, reoccurring, cumulative nature of it; and the culturally specific issues that trigger it. Research shows that trauma-informed yoga supports recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the context in which PTSD occurs is different from the context of race-based traumatic stress; the frequency with which it occurs is different, the core stressor which is life threat is different, and the triggers are different. One size trauma-informed yoga does not fit all.

Coupling Restorative Yoga with trauma-informed yoga without understanding context and the other variables mentioned, can be re-wounding at worst, and limited in effectiveness at best. One of my purposes in writing this book, is to highlight those differences, and to bring awareness to this unique but overlooked form of stress and trauma.

Priya: Although this book is written for people of color who have experienced ethnic or race-based trauma, can the recommended practices benefit people in general who have experienced other types of trauma? Or even people just experiencing great amounts of stress?

Gail: I’m really glad you asked this question in this way. Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race Based Stress and Trauma is actually written for people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities and invites everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, to examine how living in a racialized world affects each one of us; from the stress and trauma of the daily lived experiences of racial wounding that people endure to: ‘White fragility’, a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, and triggers a range of defensive reactions; to those who are oblivious to the realities of living in a racialized world, and how that lack of awareness can result in harming others; and how an intentional comprehensive Restorative Yoga practice can help.

This book is intended to be a guide for all who are ready to do the work that is necessary to heal our internalized and often invisible race-based wounds. Unless and until one deals with one’s own relationship to race and ethnicity, starting with themselves, they will not be in a position to help anyone else deal with race-based stress and trauma, and might even do harm. This book aims to shine a light on race-based emotional wounds including the wound of ‘White fragility,’ and offers practices designed to heal those wounds. Race-based stress and trauma affect us all.

Priya: When a student finishes a Restorative Yoga session, are there long-term benefits that stay with them?

Gail: Restorative Yoga is an important self-care strategy that supports physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual health. It is ideal for those times we feel depleted or overwhelmed, or are recovering from an illness or a physical or psychological injury. It offers physical revitalization and psychological renewal, and fortifies us spiritually. It can be a buffer against secondary trauma and trauma in general. It helps us self-regulate, restore resilience, and establish physical and emotional balance.

One long term benefit of a Restorative Yoga practice done regularly is a balanced and toned nervous system. When the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in balance, physical, emotional,and mental health are restored and supported. A balanced, toned nervous system keeps people out of reactivity. It teaches people to pause and introspect before they act, and supports clarity of purpose.

Priya: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Gail: I invite you to contemplate Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.1: Atha yoganuśāsanam—And now the inquiry of yoga begins.

Issues of race tend to be highly emotionally charged. Regardless of your race or ethnicity, living in a racialized culture impacts you and it impacts others. Contemplate these questions: What is the impact on me of living in a racialized culture? What is the impact on others of living in a racialized culture? What is the impact I have on others living in a racialized culture? What is the impact I intend to have?

Intentionality is key. As long as you are ignoring or freaking out about race-related events, or frozen and unable to take appropriate action when necessary, you cannot be helpful. The practice of on-going compassionate self-study regarding one’s relationship to race and ethnicity is essential. That, coupled with a regular Restorative Yoga practice that balances the nervous system, can help you remain non-reactive in the face of race-related events that are emotionally triggering. When we are self-aware and non-reactive, we are better able to have an impact that elevates emotionally charged situations and make them better.

To order Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma go to

Gail Parker, Ph.D., C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is a psychologist, a certified yoga therapist, a lifelong practitioner of yoga, and author. She is well known for her pioneering efforts to blend psychology, yoga, and meditation as effective self-care strategies that can enhance emotional balance, and contribute to the overall health and well-being of practitioners. Her broad expertise in behavioral health and wellness includes forty years as a practicing psychotherapist. She is the President of the Black Yoga Teacher’s Association Board of Directors.

Dr. Parker currently teaches and mentors yoga teachers and therapists in utilizing Restorative Yoga as a therapeutic intervention that reduces stress and supports recovery from emotional trauma associated with race-based traumatic stress injury.

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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