The Healing Power of Storytelling: A Q&A with Jillian Pransky

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Mindfulness expert and world-renowned restorative yoga teacher Jillian Pransky, a frequent Kripalu presenter, has been teaching yoga for more than 20 years. Before coming to yoga, she identified herself as a “work hard, play hard” Type A personality. It wasn’t until she spent a year suffering from low-grade illness that she took herself to a yoga class and was able to listen to her body and reflect on how hard she was pushing herself. She describes experiencing a “lightning bolt moment” when she realized she needed to change the way she was living. Since then, Jillian has devoted her career to studying and teaching mindfulness practices, deep relaxation, and compassionate listening. Her debut wellness book, published by Rodale, is forthcoming  in October 2017. 

Kripalu presenter Lisa Weinert—founder of Archer Publishing, a frequent speaker about narrative medicine, and a yoga teacher trained in therapeutic and restorative yoga—spoke with Jillian about her work.

Who are your most influential teachers?

Eric Schiffman, Pema Chödrön, and Ruella Frank. I also follow the work and writing of Herbert Benson, Richard Davidson, Daniel Siegel, the Dalai Lama, Tara BrachSharon Salzberg, and Krista Tippett.

What do you focus on in your training programs in restorative and therapeutic yoga? Who are they for? 

My goal is to be open with whoever it is we’re working with, whether it’s a student, teacher, practitioner, or patient. I teach many skills to yoga and Pilates teachers, bodyworkers, nurses, doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The underlying skill I’m interested in accessing is how we can be with ourselves and with another person in the present moment so openly that we can learn by doing it.

What is narrative medicine, and how does it relate to your work with restorative yoga?

For me, narrative medicine is not about fully understanding our story of life, but rather that we remain an open channel for that story to continually ebb and flow through us. Sometimes we acknowledge our story and then we exaggerate it, making it harder to process. Sometimes we ignore it or diminish it, keeping it lodged and hidden. I’m looking for that place of relaxation where we don’t have to hide or ignore our stories. We relax enough so they can flow through us and therefore be told in a nourishing way that's no longer charged and doesn’t affect our well-being.

My understanding of narrative medicine is if we can be ourselves as teachers, practitioners, patients, or students, then together we can bear witness to life as it is happening for individuals and for the human race.

What do you see as the role of yoga teachers in creating an impact in the medical community?

Every one of my primary relatives has been saved by our magnificent health-care system, from heart disease to cancer. By bringing yogis into the medical community, we can support the healing environment for all the amazing curing that doctors do. While doctors specialize in aspects or parts, we can set the conditions for the whole system of a being to be healed. Together, we can widen our understanding of healing the whole human being.

When restorative yoga helps patients initiate their relaxation response, then whatever treatment a patient is undergoing will be far more effective. Also, restorative yoga sets the conditions for doctors to be more successful and also helps develop the doctor-patient relationship—because when patients are relaxed, they can really listen and respond to the doctor. Relaxation heals, just like good medicine.

Here are the top six things doctors and caregivers should know about relaxation:

  1. Everybody can do it if they find the right technique for them.
  2. Relaxation doesn’t always look like stillness.
  3. Breathing is the primary focus to initiate relaxation.
  4. It’s portable—you don’t need to be in a yoga studio or on a meditation mat, you can do it anywhere.
  5. It helps us hear ourselves and others better, creating more loving relationships with ourselves and others.
  6. It sets all the conditions for self-healing to happen.

What happens in the body when we practice relaxation and compassionate listening?

When we’re stressed, cortisol sets us up to perceive that our neighbor could be our enemy—we’re more apt to respond to those around us with a bias of fear. When we are relaxed, we receive oxytocin and serotonin and all the other hormones that allow us to “tend and befriend.” We are more present and able to listen to what someone is saying, and not obsessively following our own thoughts. We can hear what someone is truly saying without the need to finish their sentence or fill in our own meaning.

How do you see the role of storytelling in caregiving, and how do you use it in your own work?

The best way to understand this is through the placebo effect. There are three things that mark the effectiveness of the placebo: 1) the patient/student believes what they’re doing is right, 2) the doctor/teacher believes what they’re doing is right, and 3) they both believe in the relationship. This can be translated into listening and hearing: The student has an authentic place to tell their story and feel heard, and the teacher benefits from being present for someone else. When we are fully present with each other and relating through storytelling, the relaxation response is enhanced, and a bond is turned on between us that has a deep healing effect.

Jillian Pransky, E-RYT 500, is an international presenter and the director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks. Her Calm Body, Clear Mind DVD and Relaxmore CD have garnered excellent reviews from Dr. Mehmet Oz, Yoga Journal, and many others. Jillian is a featured yoga expert for Prevention Magazine. A student of Pema Chödrön’s work since 1998, Jillian infuses her yoga classes with mindfulness practices, compassion, and ease. Her debut wellness book will be published by Rodale in fall 2017. jillianpransky.com

Lisa Weinert is passionate about powerful voices and storytelling. She founded Archer Publishing to offer a better, more engaged publishing and publicity experience to authors and publishers. Archer publishes and promotes a range of authors focusing on topical nonfiction and literary fiction, with a special interest in narrative medicine, women’s leadership, social advocacy, health, and spirituality. Lisa is a frequent speaker about narrative medicine and a 500 RYT yoga teacher trained in therapeutic and restorative yoga. archerlit.com