Sunday, April 10, 2016

Restoring Homeostasis

Our bodies, our psyches and the ecosystems we inhabit have an innate ability to return to a balanced state. Change, upheaval, extreme conditions and the pull of various forces on our systems test their ability to return to center, to return home, to homeostasis. Here's a definition of homeostasis as applied to the body:

The tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes. A simple example of homeostasis is the body's ability to maintain an internal temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, whatever the temperature outside. (

When you think about your own naturally healthy tendencies, you realize that balance is integral to a state of good health: we don't want too much or too little of any given quality, and all qualities working in harmony make up the whole of a healthy individual. There are many little actions we perform which have equal and opposite counterparts to keep us balanced: when we sweat we rehydrate, when we exert ourselves we rest afterwards, when we sit we feel the need to get up and walk around, when we feel cold we seek warmth. These equalizing actions are obvious, but there are also subtler mental balancing acts we perform to keep our lives balanced: when our lives are too predictable we seek out creative change, and in times of crisis or upheaval we find ways to anchor ourselves in comforting routines and sensations. When we feel stressed by mental challenge we can shut off our ruminative minds with a comforting daydream. There are so many maneuvers we employ, both physical and mental, to keep ourselves in an optimal state of homeostasis. 

In yoga practice, there is a concept of staying in balance called pratikriya, a Sanskrit word meaning counteraction, opposite action or remedial measure. For every yoga pose, there is a counter pose. For every existing or desired state of the mind/body, there are specific balancing techniques we use involving breath, movement, meditation and rest. Instead of a simple routine we mindlessly repeat, when we apply the concept of pratikriya, we pay attention to our need to stay balanced and structure our practice according to what we need each day. Within a yoga sequence, we use specific poses to compensate for any imbalance created by certain other poses. There is an art and a science to developing any yoga sequence.

Often in my sequencing of my own practice, and even in the classes I teach, pratikriya is intuitive as much as it is planned in advance. When I do a backbend I follow it with a pose to neutrally extend the spine, to rest, and then to fully counterbalance by forward bending. Sometimes I do these things simply because it feels better, and not because I am consciously thinking about pratikriya. 

I practice and teach restorative yoga because resting in restorative postures is the perfect counterbalance to leading a stimulating and physically active life. Restorative yoga is the Sabbath of yoga asana practice, the fraction of time I give my body to completely relax with awareness. I tend to skip my own restorative practice quite often, but I do teach one restorative class per week and can feel the balance it restores from teaching my more active classes. Restorative yoga is not for everyone. Some people feel that their lives are already too sedentary due to the nature of their work and lifestyle, and they feel most refreshed by an invigorating asana sequence in the one or two classes they make time for each week. Other people may be recovering from illnesses or dealing with what feels like an excessive amount of stress, and restorative practice feels right. Whether or not any particular form of yoga practice is beneficial depends entirely on the individual doing the practice. 

I invite you think about your own natural tendency toward homeostasis, and the methods you use in your life to apply pratikriya, in your yoga practice and in general. Make a habit of checking in with yourself week to week and choose the type of practice which will guide you back to your healthy center. 

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