Settling into Stillness: The The Unexpected Challenge of Being Present
by Nicole Clark
Restorative yoga can be unexpectedly challenging. Before class, you walk in, grab your props, lay out your mat, take your place and prepare to embody the stillness. And then, just as you’re getting situated...it begins. Thoughts swirl, distractions from within. Work, school, family, life. Noise. Your “monkey mind,” restless and capricious, won’t let go of the world outside.
What do you do with those unwanted thoughts when you’re trying to be still and present?
As many do, I fell into teaching restorative yoga by accident. I didn’t take a restorative training or anything of the sort. I trained with Ana Forrest, who leads a practice that is far from restorative. At the time, for me, it was all about the asana––and boy, did I feel like I was full of wisdom. Truth is, I didn’t know anything. I was given an exceptional foundation and the proper tools to build a strong practice, but that just scratched the surface. At the beginning of my journey, I had barely confronted my greatest obstacle: settling into the quiet.
We live in a society of overstimulation. We are wired to DO––to produce, to grow, to achieve, to compete. We are movers and shakers. We connect and express and share, even posting our yoga on social media as if enlightenment comes through being seen on Instagram. We race from place to place, from appointment to appointment, and our minds race to keep track of it all. Intentionally or not, we have trained our minds to do this. Slowing them down doesn’t come easily.
Restorative yoga can be the perfect remedy to relax, refresh and refocus. But going from your busy day straight into a restorative class can be like hitting a wall. As you slow your body, your mind races even faster. Thoughts run wild: anything from the grocery list to events from earlier that day, a song on a loop in your head, a reflection on something you read, a past trauma that needs healing. This is the challenge hidden beneath the surface of this restful practice: without stillness, without presence, it’s just going through the motions.
Restorative yoga is about the mind as much as it is about the body. More to the point, it’s about how the two work together. Slowing down helps us to explore inward and release the patterns of tension that can cause us discomfort. In long, supported holds, through breath and presence, things begin to unwind. This to me is the key to advanced practice, but it can also be a place to begin.
When I call it a challenge, I mean it. There is no single, simple trick to calm the monkey mind. Some spend a lifetime developing the skill through disciplined meditation or other methods. But anyone can benefit from restorative yoga. Here are a few things you can keep in mind to help you get the most from your restorative practice:
Choose your teacher with care. Your teacher is your guide, and no two of us are alike. In addition to yoga, I pursued studies in functional anatomy, myofascial release, pain, and orthopedic evaluation, energetic bodywork, and cranio-sacral therapy to train my eyes and hands and to have a better understanding of the ways a body can find balance, unwind and heal. These are all tools that I can use to help my students settle into the quiet.
Don’t try too hard. “That which we resist persists.” Don’t try to push your distracting thoughts away. Acknowledge them. Breathe into them. Stay in the moment. If needed, bring a journal to write things down. Anything to make your process easier.
Be patient. Being actively passive and moving slowly is challenging. So remember: baby steps. Give yourself permission to take breaks. Give yourself permission to move a little, or even change the shape if necessary. Remember, this practice is for YOU.
Ask your teacher for help or guidance. In my room, we even offer (with your permission) hands-on work to help ease you into a deeper relaxed state. In addition, my team is trained well and we are there to assist you in modifying any shape so you can find the ease in it.
Challenges aside, restorative yoga can feel luxurious, soul-nourishing, even decadent. Like any practice, it gets easier and better over time. Give yourself permission to indulge. You deserve it.