Yoga is a beautiful practice that relieves stress, increases strength and improves flexibility. However, there’s a form of yoga that’s particularly beneficial to black and indigenous people of color — communities consistently exposed to forms of race-based traumatic stress. This tradition is called Restorative Yoga, a therapeutic practice that offers space to disengage, embrace stillness and bathe in the comforting warmth of self-love.
Dr. Gail Parker is a leading clinical psychologist, yoga therapist and the author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma. I connected with her to learn more about her work and discover how Restorative Yoga serves as a salve, delivering deep healing from the often immeasurable wounds resulting from living in a racialized society.
What is Race-Based Trauma and Stress?
The Center for Health Care Strategies describes trauma as the “exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.”
Dr. Parker, who has been a guest on Oprah Winfrey, explains that race-based traumatic stress is associated with experiences of racial events that are negative and emotionally painful. An event can be experienced as race-related based on a person’s perception that a racist act has occurred.
“Repeated experiences of racial stress and trauma result in hyper-vigilance, which is a heightened state of alertness accompanied by behaviors that aim to prevent physical and emotional danger. In an inhospitable world where racial stress is ongoing, recurrent, and cumulative — with no opportunity to recover before the next experience — it becomes chronic. Symptoms include defensiveness, depression, anger, low self-esteem, shame, and sometimes guilt,” says Dr. Parker.
According to Dr. Parker, learning to feel safe enough to rest in stillness is necessary for healing unprocessed, undigested pain and suffering. Restorative Yoga allows you to access your valuable inner resources to counter the harm caused by racism and discrimination.
“Stress can negatively impact our health, overwhelming the nervous system and deactivating the body’s ability to heal itself. Your body knows how to function properly and bring itself back into balance. The body can be a self-healing organism. The actions in a Restorative Yoga practice reach deep into the nervous system and bring the body, mind, and emotions into a state of equilibrium where health, growth and recovery from stress and trauma can take place,” adds Dr. Parker.
Qualities of Restorative Yoga
Hatha, Ashtanga or Bikram are examples of active yoga practices. They may involve stretching, the use of muscle strength or movements performed in a rapid succession — in varying degrees.
On the other hand, Restorative Yoga is based on Savasana, the final restorative pose of every yoga practice.
“It is restful and supported yoga. In this practice, props such as blankets, bolsters, yoga blocks, chairs, neck rolls, and eye pillows are used to support the body in yoga poses. Restorative Yoga is a receptive form of yoga that is practiced in stillness, ideally in a dark, quiet room. There is no stretching or use of muscle strength. Instead, the focus is on stress reduction and the release of tension,” explains Dr. Parker.
Tips for Practicing Restorative Yoga
Dr. Parker recommends starting your practice by doing what you have time to do. Dedicating at least one hour a week is ideal. However, lying in stillness and bringing awareness to the breath for as few as 10-minutes is also beneficial.
“Restorative Yoga teaches you to pause before you take action, increasing the chances of you making wise choices. In other words, knowing when to be still, knowing when to take action, and discerning the best action to take,” says Dr. Parker.
In addition to her aforementioned book, Dr. Parker’s latest book, Transforming Ethnic and Race-Based Traumatic Stress With Yoga, is a self-care study guide and workbook that offers supportive practices to chart a journey of healing.
Here, she outlines three simple yet comforting exercises you can begin incorporating into your day:
- Lie on your back with a blanket roll or bolster under your knees.
- Lie on your back with your legs extended up a wall or with your knees draped over the seat of a chair, or over your bed.
- Sit in a chair and do diaphragmatic breathing — deep breaths that engage the belly.
Dr. Parker adds, “Restorative Yoga poses are soothing — as relaxing as a massage, and more restful than a nap. The practice is like pushing a restart button.”