By Gwendolyn Ren
Two of the things I appreciate about social media is the way it can lead to deepened relationships and shared ideas. One day, when checking my Instagram feed, I saw I was tagged in the wonderful photo of a restorative pose you see above. I saw it was from a customer who recently purchased a lot of Salamander buckwheat filled bolsters and many of them were in the photo. Not being a restorative yoga expert I was intrigued by the placements and interested in knowing more about what I was looking at. This lead me to learn of the wonderful work of Gwendolyn Ren, her poetic relationship to practice, and her brilliant and practical advice. Plus I had a chance to experience this deeply grounding practice for myself, which is a treat you will enjoy given the time and the inclination.
When I went to Gwen’s post I encountered these words.
A LOVE LETTER TO STILLNESS //
Stillness is not always synonymous with non-movement. The ways in which your body changes shape make room and takes the room, ever-evolving, morphing, adapting. The ways the mind flickers illuminates. Your stillness a synonym for autonomy – your depth of discovery untethered, limitless in its quiet expanse. Your stillness, not stillness.
I love the way Gwen describes the stillness of restorative practice and I reposted this with her permission and asked her to fill me in more so I could share details of the practice in this blog. Below you will find my interview with Gwen edited for length and clarity. Also attached below is a printable “recipe” for setting up Foothills in your own home or studio.
YLS: What is your background, training, experience with restorative practices?
Gwen: To say that Restorative Yoga changed my life barely does it justice. I was almost through my first 200-hour yoga training in 2014 when I took my first restorative class, almost on accident. At the time I worked 60+ hours a week in the event industry, as a designer, planner, and decorator. I still joke to this day that when I stood up, I felt like I had gone to therapy, church, and gotten a massage in that 75 minutes and never looked back. Inspired and encouraged by my teacher, and now collaborator, Hope Hood, of Abide Yoga in Cleveland, I began teaching Restorative in 2015 and my passion and advocacy for rest grow every day.
Through study, I have clarified purpose and intent, but it is through living it that I feel I understand the practices of Restorative Yoga from this deep, cellular level. It is through love, grief, uncertainty, and change that rest and I have found each other, have carried each other. Largely self-taught, it is through my own practice and unrelenting inquisition that I introduce deliberate rest back into our community as an accessible, creative, fluid practice – something reminiscent of its Iyengar lineage but also something new and intuitive at the same time.
YLS: The Foothills set up, where did it come from? What would you say the key elements are?
Gwen: The inspiration struck for this pose a day or two after all my new props arrived – I’d just ordered 12 salamanders because I loved my personal one so much. Inspired by the classic “Mountainbrook” I replaced the traditional blankets with salamanders and added on from there. Maybe instead of a mountain brook we might think of ourselves as earth – rolling foothills. I imagine vast countryside and soft, green ground. The pose offers an opening to the chest, sternum, collarbones, and throat and draws awareness to the breath into the lungs, the expansion of the ribcage. That said, even more prevalent than the openings is the sense of grounding. Isn’t that the best thing about a salamander? Its weight. How it contours. The juxtaposition of the two is something really special to me.
YLS: I am intrigued by the three Salamanders on the feet. Can you tell me what each one is for?
Gwen: It offers two below: one under the ankles and the other just touching the bottom of the heels, so an actual grounding point for proprioception, an awareness of our body in space. A foothold. The third lay on top of the ankles – it’s just the right amount of weight to help settle the feet into the ones below. Together, they’re satisfying and pacifying.
YLS: I love the Salamanders on the upper thigh and lower abdomen, two places I work regularly since I tend to hold tension there. What do the Salamanders in those spots do in this setup?
Gwen: Any elevated points: the knees, the chest, I was inclined to keep as an opening. But openings can be vulnerable, you know? It made me want to balance it with grounding points. The low belly and the thighs are some of my favorites, too. They are areas we don’t even realize we hold tension but by creating a qualifying sensation we can begin to release. I really recommend a folded blanket under the seat. It creates a little bit of lift and takes some pressure off the tailbone, offering a softer opening and more support to the low back.
YLS: I never would have thought to use a Salamander as an eye pillow, but when I look at the photo it makes perfect sense. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
Gwen: Since the original picture was taken I’ve played with turning the salamander so that one end rests on the ground, it crests the top of the head, and the tail sits on the third eye, between the eyebrows. The width of the salamander mostly covers the eyes and it feels incredibly stabilizing. I am also a big fan of the ace bandage as an eye wrap, it doesn’t move around or shift and the light pressure is great for headaches or migraines.
YLS: To get a benefit from this set up how long should one stay in the pose?
Gwen: I would recommend exploring this pose anywhere from five to fifteen minutes depending on how you feel and what you begin with (stiffness, anxiety, etc). You might experience something emotionally foreign when first staying with an opening pose for this length of time, be willing to stay with it – but you should not be experiencing physical pain or discomfort. If you are, sit up and readjust. The same support does not always serve us all.
YLS: I know some people have trouble being still. In your love letter, you suggest focusing on the ways the body is changing and shifting as well as the flickering of the mind. That is great but what about folks who get caught in thinking in such a way that they don’t come in contact with subtle reality. Or people who become fidgety as soon as they stop moving? Any advice for these people?
Gwen: I think that refuting, or refusing what comes up is a surefire way to get caught in its cycle. The best antidotes for me are really breath and patience. If you’re practicing at home, without a facilitator, set a timer for yourself – it keeps you from wondering and makes you really realize how expansive five, ten, fifteen minutes can feel. Sometimes it takes a really long time to settle in, in those cases just trust that it might be around the bend, maybe in a breath, two breaths, twenty breaths, we always have the capacity for that shift and it might happen at any moment. If you’re counting breaths, do it in cycles, maybe just to ten. If you reach it, just start again. Notice for anything that might be occurring. Don’t be in a hurry to find that magical place, but trust that it’s there in you somewhere, and you’re just creating space for it to appear. Even if you don’t make it all the way into blissful nothing this time around you aren’t doing anything wrong. Trust in the practice.
Truth in Blogging
Before preparing this blog I wanted to experience the pose as laid out. Ironically, I do not have 10 salamanders at home. I only keep one inflatable and 3 buckwheat filled Salamanders, so I supplemented with 6 Tadpoles a couple of extra blankets rolled up and a couple of cotton yoga mat rugs rolled up. Also I love the feeling of something on my breastbone and added a Tadpole there and forgot the Salamander under the ankles.
Not as lovely or as easy to set up as when one has 10 matching Salamanders but the experience was still divine.
Also, the prep I did for this was basically working all day and when I hit the mat I really did not know if I could settle in since I was so revved up. What I found was that doing the setup, testing, and shifting things to get it right was enough transition from my busy day.
Then, when I lay down, I quickly felt a lot of sadness. Taking the time to give to myself like this is unusual and it brought up a lot of difficult feelings. Fortunately, the grounding of my heels against the Salamander and the binding of my ankles with weight from above held me in place and helped me to stay with it. As I did, the comforting touch of the bolsters on my belly and hips, breastbone, and especially between the eyes, were very soothing. Then I noticed as the tension started leaving my body and my back, arms and legs all softened. My sadness shifted to relaxed happiness and playful interest in what would come next for me. Little by little I lost contact with my body and found myself in dreamlike scenarios and then I lost contact with those. 20 minutes after I lay down, my furnace roared to life, startling me into wakefulness. I was disoriented for a moment thinking I was in a different room and wondering what the sound was, but soon I remembered where I was and what I was up to and I felt deeply rested and abundantly ready to get back to work, thankful that my vocation allows me to spend time in this sort of exploration.
Thanks and Kudos to Gwendolyn Ren for Sharing this delightful practice. For more information about Gwen please go to www.gwendolynren.com
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