Six months ago, I returned to New York City after nine months away and found that the city now presented a shock to my newly recalibrated nervous system. I immediately discovered a weekly sound meditation class at The Studio, a Katonah Yoga studio.
After a few weeks of observing the end of the Katonah Restorative class that took place immediately before sound healing, I decided to give it a try. I’ve been hooked ever since.
The Discomfort of Backbends
A Katonah Restorative yoga class is not like other restorative yoga classes, which aim to quiet the nervous system through comfort in the poses, dimly lit rooms, and essential oils. Katonah Restorative is more active, and more about putting the body back together than “naps on props.”
Like other types of renovations or restorations, it’s not always comfortable.
In Katonah Restorative, we start every class with a backbend. Usually in a seated bound-angle pose, but sometimes in a seated hero’s pose, or a supported bridge pose. Regardless of the lower body set-up, the upper back is propped up on hard wooden blocks, which provide “scaffolding” to support the body.
Physiologically, the pose takes us out of the habitual hunched over pose that so many of us fall into during the day as we sit over keyboards, steering wheels, phones, etc. The supported backbend also brings the lungs forward, which facilitates deeper breathing.
It’s not comfortable, especially if you’re someone with limited mobility and extension in the thoracic spine, which I am.
Most of the Katonah Restorative classes I’ve taken have been with Kyle Henry, who masterfully weaves in the theory and metaphor of the practice while offering adjustments that put the body back into alignment.
Each week as I lay in this supported pose, I listen to Kyle explain how backbends take us out of what we know as personal. Backbends are also known as heart-openers in yoga, and they are vulnerable poses. Backbends expose us, because they expose our hearts. They also connect us by forcing us out of our shell, which is one reason why we do these poses to start a practice done in community.
Yet this opening up to others, especially so early on in a class, is not comfortable.
So on all levels — physically, emotionally, and energetically — backbends are not comfortable.
Technique: Setting an Adhiṭṭhāna
As we lay in the supported backbend, Kyle offers us ways to work with the lungs through the breath. One technique we use is to set a large number and count the breaths to that number. Each inhale and exhale is one breath cycle, and you count until you reach the number.
This is an Adhiṭṭhāna — a Pali word meaning “resolve” or “determination.”
The purpose of setting the Adhiṭṭhāna is to calm the nervous system. In every situation, the nervous system wants to know: How long will we be here? When is this going to end?
Setting a number gives us a direction to where we’re going.
Maybe we’ll reach it before Kyle is ready to take us out of the pose, in which case the instruction is to count backwards. Or maybe the number is so big that we never reach it.
The number itself is actually irrelevant; it’s almost a distraction technique — a way to trick ourselves into maintaining focus on the breath. The point is in the counting.
Counting keeps us focused on the breath, and therefore in the present moment — because the breath is the only thing that is truly in the present. If you’re focused on your inhales and exhales, you cannot also be reflecting on your to-do list, reminiscing about some event from the past, thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner after class, or any of the other things we might tend to think about when we’re in a challenging yoga pose.
Using an Adhiṭṭhāna to Navigate the Coronavirus
This concept feels so relevant to the challenge that many of us face right now.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to some unprecedented situations. In New York, California, and many other places across the country life is shutting down. We are being forced to stay inside unless absolutely necessary to leave. Many people must acclimate to working from home while also overseeing kids who are home from school.
We are out of our routines, out of what we know as personal, and in a position that may be quite uncomfortable both physically and emotionally.
Our nervous systems are asking: How long will we be here? When will this end?
And nobody has the answer.
In this situation, it’s easy for the mind to get lost in reflection on past events or to spin out with what-ifs and catastrophic thinking.
Neither of these help us find peace in the midst of discomfort. This is not like 9/11 or a hurricane or even past disease outbreaks. The what-ifs are an endless game of speculation that take you out of the present and deplete your energy and focus.
Even with longstanding practices and a deep well of experience in navigating uncomfortable situations, I have found myself pulled into the swirl more than once a day. It’s been a relief to me to hear from some of my teachers that they, too, are getting caught up in this.
The stronger the pull of the force, the more we must root in our practices and rituals to stay grounded.
Taking the Practice Off the Mat
Yoga and meditation are not just practices that we do in a studio or on the mat. The value in them is in how we apply them in life off the mat. Yoga is not about reaching the perfect pose, but about what you learn in your efforts to get into the pose, and how you apply that in the rest of your life.
One of my missions as a yoga teacher is to help my students take their practices off the mat. Yoga is a practice of navigating change and uncertainty, and the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect opportunity to tap into our practice.
This is where the adhiṭṭhāna comes in. Here are two ways I’m using this technique in my daily practice off the mat:
Setting a Time Frame
First, instead of listening to the various speculations about how long we might be in this current state of being shut in, I decided to set an adhiṭṭhāna for it, for myself. What that means is that I put my own number on it, setting in my head a number of weeks that I expect life to be disrupted in this way.
It’s arbitrary — as all numbers are. I have no idea if it’s rooted in reality. And it doesn’t matter. By giving myself that number, I’ve told my nervous system an end date. Now it doesn’t ask anymore how long this will last. This is how it is until something changes or we reach the number.
Returning to the Breath
Second, in any moment where I notice I start to spin out or get hooked into virus porn, I put down the screen and tune into my breath. I give myself an adhiṭṭhāna and count my breaths to that number, as a way to return to the present moment. It’s a forced time-out that resets the system, reconnecting me to my breath and my body so that I don’t get swept up in the swirl of panic and fear.
The coronavirus is pervasive and persistent, but we will survive it if we can tap into our practices, our resources, and our determination to stay present.