THE BLOG
04/09/2013 03:45 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Yoga: Restorative Medicine for Body, Mind and Soul

Yoga has been around for several millennia, and North Americans are relative newcomers to its practice. Yoga is a holistic technology that balances mind, spirit, and body and is central to Indian health practice. Many North Americans consider yoga to be a substitute for Pilates or a good workout -- just another form of exercise. New research demonstrates that yoga has many positive and measurable health benefits from helping with lower back pain, anxiety, depression, moods, stress, mobility and has been shown to play a role in preventing illnesses. In other words, it's medicine without all the nasty side effects. As I typically work in the area of psychological well-being I will focus on how my yoga practice has helped my ability to reduce stress and make way for a regular meditation practice.

I came to meditation like a lot of other people: in crisis mode. In 2005 I was diagnosed with cancer. My routine and my life were tilted upside down; my equanimity had vanished. Trying to regain a solid footing, I tried meditating and experienced just how difficult it was to clear my mind. Focusing on just one thing, be it your breath or a mantra, takes an enormous amount of practice and discipline. I've tried it alone, in groups, sitting up, lying down, with music, in silence, from books, and from teachers, with uneven results.

As a life coach, I often recommend meditation for the benefits it brings, especially to my clients who suffer from anxiety, mood swings, or stress. Until recently, I haven't had what you would call a rigorous practice. I felt like a hypocrite recommending it when I don't practice regularly myself. Although I am a very calm person, there are times when I really need to be practicing on a daily basis.

When I successfully clear my mind, I have far less stress, I'm more relaxed, and I'm happier with more equanimity. Clinical research on meditation indicates that it is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, great for relieving stress and it promotes a feeling of well-being. Unfortunately, those most vulnerable to stress and anxiety find meditating particularly difficult. I have a client whose chest is so tight he cannot breath deeply nor can he hold his breath for more than a few seconds, which severely limits his ability to relax.

Which brings me to restorative yoga. Although I've been practicing various forms of yoga for the past 13 years, I recently discovered the practice of restorative yoga at Octopus Garden. To be honest it sounded to me like yoga for seniors. Although I'm getting on in years I wasn't ready for yoga that sounded like it was safe for old people. The studio offered a free month of yoga so I tried it out and I'm hooked. I go three or four times a week and it has changed my life.

Restorative yoga combines supported yoga poses with the opportunity to meditate four or five minutes at a time. Support comes in the form of sitting or lying down on a bolster, block or blanket. The poses can be challenging but rather than flow yoga where you are basically doing calisthenics, we hold a pose for five or more minutes. This give the body time to adjust and muscles time to stretch and relax. Holding the pose for so long gives me time to clear my thoughts and focus on my breathing or often on the place(s) being opened up.

Each pose has a purpose in stimulating different organs in the body. Ed, a fellow student, claims that yoga has helped him reduce his high blood pressure without any other intervention in a period of a few months. I've notice that I'm much more in touch with my body, I'm calmer, more joyful, more patient, and I feel mentally and physically healthier. As a bonus I don't feel like a hypocrite when I recommend meditation!

Restorative yoga came into my life at a time when I really needed to feel grounded. I was in crisis again. My mother was in hospital for months and she wasn't getting better. I needed something for me. Restorative yoga was just the ticket and I am working toward a daily practice, one that will keep me balanced, grounded and joyful. If you find meditating difficult and feel you want to try something different, I couldn't recommend restorative yoga more.

At the end of a good class I feel, well, restored. My mind is clear and my body feels vibrant. I feel lighter. Even though my life is calm these days, I plan to continue my practice because I know a new stressor is bound to appear just as certainly as the sun rises tomorrow. For me, yoga is good medicine for body, mind, soul and spirit.

Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Yoga should be seen as an alternative therapy to enhance other forms of treatment.

For more by Bradley Foster, click here.

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