December 21st was my dad’s favorite day of the year. While he was definitely of the yang, high-energy, non-stop activity camp—not a fan of the short winter days—he loved the fact that after Winter Solstice, the days would begin to lengthen. For my dad, it was all uphill after December 21st.
As a culture we’ve chosen to fill the year’s darkest days with a relentless schedule of holiday gatherings and events. Perhaps this is how the West deals with the very real phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the malaise that sets in for some of us as we feel starved for light and warmth. As a culture of “doing” we tend to ignore our natural tendency to move into “being.” Instead we power through it, often wearing ourselves out in the process.
I propose a different way of relating to the year’s coldest, darkest days—a way that harmonizes with the season’s natural inward flow, and restores and buoys our energies. Restorative Yoga is the perfect counterforce to December’s busyness. And Restorative Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Restorative Bridge Pose) is a perfect counter to the malaise of SAD.
Many of us are conditioned to believe that only fast-paced, kick-butt Yoga can reap benefits. From the outside Restorative practice might look like just lying around on bolsters and blankets, but the truth is that it changes us at profound and subtle levels of being that a hurried practice cannot reach. A vigorous practice does yield benefits, but Restorative practice gains us access to deeper levels of being, the gateways to a quiet mind. In the process we are healed below the surface of our being, at the underlying spring of prana that feeds us.
Restorative Bridge Pose is a backbend. As a backbend, it opens the front body, a counteractive position to that of depression, the main symptom of SAD. The head position—neck flexed and head below the heart—activates the baro reflex, a reaction that suppresses the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and moves us into the parasympathetic (rest and digest) side. In the parasympathetic side, we restore and replenish our prana.
How to Practice the Restorative Bridge
To practice Restorative Bridge, gather five firm blankets or two Yoga bolsters and one firm blanket. You can also use a combination of one bolster and three firm blankets. Firm sofa pillows can also work in a pinch. If you are using blankets, fold four of them, each one into a bolster size (about 12 inches wide by 36 to 40 inches long). Make two stacks of two blankets each. Place one stack about a foot or more from the head end of a Yoga mat. Place the other stack perpendicular to the first stack, parallel to the lengthwise sides of your mat, forming a T shape. If you are using bolsters, simply make a T shape with your bolsters with the top of the T a foot or more from the head end of your mat. Roll the other blanket into a roll that’s approximately six to eight inches in diameter and place it at the bottom of the T.
Sit on the stem of the T and lie back. Scoot back toward the top of the T until your shoulders come off the edge and the tops of your shoulders touch the floor. You should feel as if your ribcage is spilling off the edge of the blankets. Your head and neck should be relaxed and level. Now stretch your legs out and allow your ankles to rest on the blanket roll. Rest your arms at your sides in whatever position is comfortable. You may want to cover your eyes with an eyebag.
Settle in. Relax your breath. Allow your body to breathe naturally. Release the weight of your body into the pull of gravity. Do nothing. You can stay in Restorative Bridge for as little as five minutes or as long as 30 minutes or more. When you are ready to leave the pose, roll gently onto your side and rest for a while. Then push yourself up to a sitting position. Check in with your body/mind. How do you feel?
Georgia O’Keefe famously said, “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small. It takes time. We haven’t time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” It is almost impossible to connect with the present when we are continually running. Slow down. Make a friend of your body. Give it time to replenish and restore itself.