Restorative yoga to support healing from race-based stress recently talked with Gail Parker, PhD, C-IAYT, about ideas from her book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma.

Restorative Yoga emphasizes the deliberate practice of mindful rest, something with which many in the West have little experience. Poses are usually held for 5 minutes or more, with the body fully supported by the floor, pillows, bolsters, blankets, etc., to cultivate a sense of ease and comfort that encourages the nervous system to relax.

Dr. Parker is a psychologist, IAYT-certified yoga therapist, and lifelong practitioner of yoga. She became president of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance board of directors in 2020.

What is the difference between PTSD and ethnic and race-based stress and trauma?

Ethnic and racial stress and trauma result from the danger related to experiences of discrimination, threats of harm and injury, and humiliating and shaming events—in addition to witnessing harm to other individuals because of race-related events. Researchers have made a clear connection between ethnic and racial discrimination and negative outcomes like depression, anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, guilt, and various physical reactions. People of color, African Americans in particular, face multiple threats to physical and emotional safety throughout their lives. (These issues are well-documented, particularly in the United States; starting points for learning more include the United Nations, this article from the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, and this report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.)

The race-based traumatic stress injury model is a clinical model, attributed to psychologist Robert Carter, that contends that trauma from racial wounding is not a medical condition or a mental illness, but rather an adaptive response to an external situation that causes emotional, psychic, or physical injury. In other words, the problem does not reside within the individual, but rather within the circumstance that caused the pain. This model emphasizes that emotional pain is a normal and healthy response to emotional injury, not something that needs to be treated as a mental illness. It focuses on the harm caused by race-related events, not on fixing the reaction of the person who has been harmed.

Race-based stress and trauma are ongoing, cumulative, and recurrent. This frequent exposure intensifies symptoms of trauma, putting those affected at greater risk for developing ongoing psychological distress. Because there’s no opportunity to recover before the next experience, every personal or vicarious encounter with racial hostility, discrimination, and violence contributes to this chronic stress and worsens symptoms of trauma.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is regarded as a psychiatric disorder, which is loosely defined as a medical condition that affects moods and manifests as disturbed behavior. It is diagnosed by a mental health professional and categorized and treated as a mental illness. In PTSD, the core stressor is due to a past life-threatening event that leaves the individual unable to shake off the trauma, sometimes even after treatment.

How can yoga therapy support people dealing with race-based stress and trauma? And why restorative yoga specifically?

Yoga therapy is uniquely positioned to make a significant contribution to the study of therapeutic interventions that support self-care practices. Such practices can build skills that help people to effectively manage ethnic and race-based stress and trauma; people who are exposed to its pernicious effects need self-care that supports rest, rejuvenation, and recovery.

Restorative Yoga (and meditation, which is part of yogic practice) offers opportunities to purposely step away from repeated experiences of ethnic and racial wounding while building resilience in the nervous system. This resilience is needed to develop effective coping strategies that lead to stress reduction and trauma recovery. For maximum effect, research indicates that mindfulness meditation practices should be adapted to be racially, ethnically, and culturally relevant to the populations being served; we can expect that the same applies to Restorative Yoga practices.

In this supported forward-bending twist, a bolster supports the torso and head. The legs can be in any comfortable position.

Can you share a few of your favorite restorative poses?

My favorite restorative poses are supported versions of forward-bending twist (salamba bharadvajasana), legs up the wall (viparita karani), and reclining cobbler (supta baddha konasana). I like them all, but those are my personal go-to poses.

These illustrations, by Justine Ross, are featured in my book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma and are offered here with permission from the publisher.

Supported reclining cobbler makes good use of whatever props you have handy. Here, a large bolster or cushion supports the spine (at any level that feels good); more cushions support the outer knees (or thighbones), which gently open out to the sides; and another cushion grounds the inner edges of the feet as the soles rest together.

Supported legs up the wall is a gentle inversion, meaning the heart is below the legs. A cushion can support the back of the hips, and the legs rest against a wall, door, or even a headboard. (Those with uncontrolled high blood pressure or other pressure-related issues like glaucoma should exercise caution with this pose.)














Please note that, like the other information provided on this site, these practices are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone; the poses shown can be adapted for most individuals, but contraindications exist for each one. You are encouraged to consult your personal physician with questions or concerns.

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