Restorative Yoga: The Yoga of Meditation
by Tresca Weinstein
Jillian Pransky, E-RYT 500, is director of Restorative Yoga for Yoga Works and leads Bright Spirit Teacher Trainings. She draws from extensive training with Erich Schiffmann, John Friend, and Pema Chödrön. Here, Yoga Bulletin editor Tresca Weinstein speaks with Jillian about her teaching, her program, and the practice of restorative yoga.
Before you became a full-time yoga teacher, you had a high-powered job as a marketing director at a publishing house, and you found it wasn’t so easy to leave that behind. Can you tell us about that transition?
I had been teaching yoga part time, so I was straddling this world of incredible growth in self-awareness and on the spiritual and physical level, and at the same time reading Variety and People magazine during the day. I loved my job, I loved my office, I liked feeling important, but the draw toward yoga gradually became unavoidable—it just sort of pulled me along. In addition, my sister-in-law passed away at 34, when I was 30, and in her passing there came that immediate question, Am I spending every minute in a way that completely allows me to engage life as fully as possible? I didn’t want to leave my job but I knew I needed and wanted to teach yoga full time. So I left my job on a Friday and I asked for it back on a Monday! That weekend I felt as if I was freefalling. I wouldn’t have known how strongly I identified with my job until the absolute anxiety I experienced when I left. So I went back to work for another year and spent that time visualizing and preparing for my actual exit. I put away a year’s worth of rent so if my fantasy of making a living from yoga didn’t work I could actually flounder for one year. That gave me a level of confidence that attracted everything I needed. I never had to go into that savings!
It sounds like you’re a bit of a Type A, which is almost a contrast with the practice of restorative yoga.
If I had been interviewed 20 years ago I would definitely have thought of myself as a Type A, but I don’t think of myself that way anymore. My yoga practice has revealed that I have a great desire to manifest but not necessarily a need to push, and that being receptive is equally as important as manifesting. Restorative practice by nature is a receptive practice, and in that receptivity you can guide yourself toward a more healthy state of being. Restorative yoga is much more like meditation or relaxation or yoga nidra than it is like hatha yoga. When you are in passive postures supported by props, using no muscular effort, the focus is on relieving the grip of muscular and inner tension, and you can be more spacious and receptive. There’s no goal of stretching or strengthening. You’re exploring what happens when you slowly release your habitual way of holding—what are you left with?
What are the benefits of the practice?
As the relaxation response kicks in, you are balancing the nervous system and optimizing energy flow to the organs, lowering heart rate and blood. Beyond that, you create the opportunity to see where you hold habitual tension. When I was a kid would go to the dentist and they would give out these little packets that you would bite, and the color would adhere to whatever plaque was left in your mouth. Restorative yoga is like that—it shows where the condensed areas of your body and mind are. Little by little you start to create more space in those places that are holding tension, putting awareness on them so they begin to change or loosen in ways they haven’t for months or years. We’re so used to holding ourselves together to create solidity in ways that make us feel safe that when we first start to let go we begin to feel anxious and uncomfortable.
That sounds a lot more intense than the way we usually think of the restorative yoga experience.
Restorative yoga is typically known as the yummy practice, the luxurious practice, the one you do every now and then because you need a treat, like having a massage. But much more can happen in a restorative class. It’s a very advanced practice because it is essentially meditation, and you’re asking people to be still and to release their tension. For that reason it’s very important that the poses have a real integrity in the way they’re set up, so that when someone lets go they feel a sense of support, a cocooning or swaddling. The architecture of building a pose needs to be very skillful. It’s a real science, down to what texture the props are, how soft or hard depending on the results you want. If someone’s feeling a lot of anxiety, they’ll need harder props to feel as if they’re held up. In my teacher trainings, I set up six stations of the exact same pose with different kinds of props and at different heights so people can feel the same pose in various ways and feel how the energy shifts.
You also need to support the mind, so when you gently guide your students into poses and they begin to let go, you need to give their minds a job—a meditation technique, focusing on the breath, an affirmation. In supported yoga, since there’s nothing to do except relax, the mind can freak out, because what’s it going to do when there’s nothing to do? How you handle the mind is as important as how you handle alignment in a hatha yoga pose.
I think of restorative practice as a bridge to meditation, especially for those who are not drawn to meditation, or who feel challenged sitting up. Restorative yoga can be a doorway between the two, a great segue between active practice and meditative practice. When I started teaching yoga in 1996, most people found yoga through their gyms, and eventually they would make it to a yoga studio, because once you start practicing you can’t help but want to go deeper. Restorative yoga is the back door to meditation the same way gym yoga was the back door to a deeper hatha yoga practice.
Tell us a little about your restorative yoga teacher training at Kripalu in November.
The training will allow teachers to taste the various subtle layers of the practice, to understand the complexity and experience it themselves. I’ll be teaching restorative yoga in chairs for the elderly who can’t get down to the floor; how to use different props; and how to do restorative poses with minimal props—one block, one blanket, one rolled-up mat—and how to make props from linen, phone books, dishcloths, so you can bring the practice into a private session at someone’s home or into a hatha yoga class. We’ll explore how to be a guided relaxation teacher, a meditation teacher, a healing presence. When you teach restorative yoga, you’re dealing with a very vulnerable, very open energy system and it requires great awareness.
How does the practice of restorative yoga translate off the mat?
For teachers, when you study restorative yoga, you become a really dynamic hatha yoga teacher, because you learn to see the energy body and you can take that understanding into a more active practice. When I watch people do yoga, I’m seeing energy bodies doing yoga. The body literally expands when it relaxes—you can see in a restorative pose how it’s like a dry sponge that goes from wet to saturated. You see parts of the body expand when tension is released in that area, you see the body change in size and texture. You can take that vision into teaching hatha yoga, adjusting students where they need more energy flow. It gives you more tools to address students at any level, in any style, much more effortlessly and organically, when you start to see them as an energy body.
For practitioners of restorative yoga, because we’re studying how we hold ourselves together, we wind up noticing where we habitually tighten up out in the world, where we’re defending or protecting ourselves, and we become much more skillful in staying open and relaxed.
For more information about Jillian and her Relaxmore CD, used at the Heart Institute at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, visit www.yogajillian.com.