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What is Restorative Yoga?

viparita-karani
Viparita Karani (“Legs up the Wall Pose”). Great Posture for those who are on their feet all day, or those with varicose veins. Image Source: http://www.yogaartandscience.com/poses/restpos/vk2/vk2.html

Restorative yoga is just what the name implies:  the purpose is to help you rest and revitalize.  Restorative yoga provides relief and recovery from stress, exhaustion, and injury.

The origins of restorative yoga are often linked back to the yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, a student of Krishnamacharya and one of the most important figures for bringing yoga to the West.  Iyengar designed restorative postures and sequences for his students to heal from physical ailments and injuries.  Restorative yoga also helps lessen tension and heal sore muscles.  It may assist relief from chronic pain and some illnesses.  Select poses in restorative yoga sequences, such as Viparita Karani (“Legs Up the Wall Pose,” see image at top of page) have been known to decrease inflammation or swelling; Viparita Karani is especially good for those suffering from varicose veins, or anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet.  For everyone, restorative yoga facilitates recovery from fatigue, worry, or just a busy day.  In terms of the actual embodied experience, after a restorative yoga class, it usually feels like your own personal battery recharge!

One of the ideas behind this method is that restorative asanas (poses) gently open up the body in order for the organs to better oxygenate and hence recuperate.  In order to achieve this, you stay in these postures for a longer time than in most yoga classes, usually at least five minutes.  Some of the postures are even held ten to fifteen minutes.    This might sound daunting at first, until you see how you remain in a pose for extended lengths of time:  Restorative yoga incorporates lots of comfortable props such as blankets, bolsters, and cushions.  Yoga straps  are sometimes used so your body can relax as gravity does the work for you (note the strap on legs of the student in the photograph at the top of this page).  In restorative poses, you often look like you are sitting or lying in a cloud of pillows and, in essence, you are!

 

salamba bharadvajasana, yogaistherapy.com 2
Restorative Salamba Bharadvajasana (“Supported Bharadvajasana’s Twist”) Note how the gentle support of the bolster allows the student to hold poses longer, and release any tension. Image Source: http://www.yogaistherapy.com/restorative-yoga-with-lyndi-rivers-2/

 

Restorative yoga is a relaxing yoga, but it is not just “lazy.”  Human physiology requires deep relaxation for healing, especially in such stressful times as in today’s society.  Additionally, though restorative postures are most often comfortable and easeful, to get the most benefit out of restorative yoga, you do need to pay disciplined attention to precise alignment.  Deep comfort, relaxation, and healing require mindfulness as well as long-term dedication to self-care.

In addition to holding poses longer with the gentle assistance of props, restorative yoga often includes breathwork (Pranayama), such as slowing your breath and noting the count of inhales and exhales.  These practices are simple to do, but have enormous benefits that are often instantaneous.  Consciously extending the exhale, for example, calms the body, physically as well as emotionally or mentally.  How?  This action activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the portion of the autonomic (or “automatic” or “involuntary”) nervous system.

Because restorative yoga poses activate the parasympathetic nervous system, these postures elicit a physiological relaxation response within the body.  This is a state of rest that results in benefits similar to that of sleep, yet it is a different state, both physically and in terms of consciousness.  Hence, you can strike a restorative yoga pose that time of day when you feel a lull; it will rejuvenate you without making you feel groggy, and it will not interfere with your sleep later that night.  In fact, restorative yoga is routinely recommended for those with sleep disturbances, including insomnia.

Another portion of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known for overseeing the “fight or flight” (also more recently known as “fight, flight, or freeze”) reaction of the human body.  When triggered through a threat or simply the thought of threat (aka “stress”!), the sympathetic nervous system impacts the adrenal glands above the kidneys.  These secrete hormones including adrenaline.  This system dilates the eyes, increases heart rate, restricts digestion, and tenses the muscles, as well as many other stimulating physiological responses that prepare the body for immediate action for survival.  In contrast, doing restorative yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.  Hence, effects of trauma and stress, often exacerbated by prolonged reliance upon the sympathetic nervous system, can be reduced or even countered with regular practice of restorative yoga.

As Judith Hanson Lasater is one of the most well-known Iyengar yoga practitioners and teachers of restorative yoga, and has been perfecting it for over forty years.  Lasater explains, “The asana [pose] is not the yoga.  The residue the asana [pose] leaves in your nervous system is the yoga.”  Just as the flight or fight responses can remain in your physiological system long after the external stimulus has passed, so, too, can we use restorative yoga to retrain the nervous system and stimulate “rest and digest” responses that endure long after we end our restorative yoga class.

supta baddha konasana with strap
Supta Baddha Konasana (“Supine Bound Angle Pose”) For how to do this pose, scroll to the bottom of our most popular post “Why Use a Yoga Strap?”  Image Source: http://thestickymat.blogspot.com/2011/04/restorative-gasp-yoga.html

Restorative yoga is a wonderful method to improve the health of your body; yet the mental and emotional benefits are sometimes even more impressive.  As with all yoga, direct experience and routine practice are more important than accumulating information.  Want to try some restorative yoga poses yourself?  Read about one pose (scroll down to the bottom of the page, to section entitled Supta Baddha Konasan (Supine Bound Angle) with a Strap:  How-To“) here.  You can also e-mail us (alligatoryoga@gmail.com) to reserve a spot in our next restorative yoga class at AHA! Yoga, or subscribe to our mailing list  to receive future posts and announcement of yoga opportunities, including Restorative Yoga.  Always feel free to contact us with any questions.

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Sources:

Cook-Cottone, Catherine P.  Mindfulness and Yoga for Self-Regulation:  A Primer for Mental Health Professionals.  New York:  Springer Publishing Company, 2015.

Cummins, Claudia.  “Relief with a Twist.”  Yoga International, on-line edition.  Last modified May 30, 2013.  https://yogainternational.com/article/view/relief-with-a-twist

Fierer, Lisa.  “What is Restorative Yoga?  Learn How to Breathe Easy.”  Gaia, on-line edition.  Last modified May 19, 2016.  http://www.gaia.com/article/what-is-restorative-yoga

Lasater, Judith Hanson.  Relax and Renew:  Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.  Berkeley, California:  Rodmell Press, 2011.

Levine, Peter A.   In an Unspoken Voice:  How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.  Berkeley, California:  North Atlantic Books, 2010.

McCall, Timothy.  Yoga as Medicine:  The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing.  New York:  Bantam Books, 2007, pages 63-67.

“Restorative Yoga.”  Yogaenlightening.com [Publishing date unknown.]  Date Accessed:  August 11, 2016.  http://yogaenlightening.com/styles/restorative-yoga/

Disclaimer:  Always consult your healthcare provider before practicing yoga, or any other exercise program.  The information provided on this web site is intended for educational purposes only, and not as a substitute for medical advice or treatment.  The author, illustrator, editor, and publisher assume no responsibility for injuries or harm that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program.

restorative-legs-up-the-wall studio shot
A class does the restorative Viparita Karani (“Legs up the Wall Pose”) Image Source: http://yogaenlightening.com/styles/restorative-yoga/