So many of us discovered yoga through challenging asana classes that it is often difficult to see the benefits of a class in which there are few poses and very little movement. There’s no doubt about it, restorative yoga is way different from basic hatha and especially flow/vinyasa styles in which there are lots of poses requiring stabilization and weight bearing. The best way to approach restorative yoga is to view it as a separate practice and not to choose one style over another but rather to see that there is equal value in both within your regular yoga practices.
The typical hatha class builds stability in the joints, strength and flexibility in the muscles. It affects us energetically and mentally as well but is primarily a physical practice. Restorative yoga is the method that allows us to go deeper into our energetic and mental bodies because it creates the space for it. A restorative class is typically comprised of less than ten postures and often less than five. The body is supported by bolsters and blankets and within that cocoon of safety, our brain is given the gift of the relaxation response. Contrast that with a hatha or flow class in which holding standing postures elicits a low level of stress around which we breathe and relax, and therefore make us more resilient to day-to-day stressors. That’s great and we need that, but the high amount of day-to-day stressors in contemporary society make it paramount that we complement that practice with one in which there is no stress involved, not even the minute stress of holding our joints in alignment. In restorative yoga, we just get to relax, melt, surrender and let go. Sounds good to me!
The S Word: Stress
It’s funny how day-to-day stressors have changed throughout the evolution of the human species. It used to be that we would move into the fight-or-flight side of the autonomic nervous system when our lives were immediately threatened by a predator. Nowadays, we shift into that side of the brain over comparatively mundane events that are nevertheless considered by the brain to be stressful, like traffic jams, long lines at the grocery store and job/school deadlines. The problem with shifting into fight-or-flight so regularly lies within its effects on the body: stress hormones are released by the adrenal glands, heart rate and blood pressure both elevate, muscle tension increases, and systems that don’t assist in escaping the stressor are basically shut down, mainly the ones that oversee digestion, elimination, tissue growth and repair, and reproduction. It becomes even more problematic when stress becomes chronic, when we just get used to “being stressed,” often a symptom of overscheduling that has become an unfortunate norm in our culture. Unlike our ancestors who would calm back down after the immediate threat to their survival was gone, this ongoing, albeit lower-grade stress wreaks havoc on our digestion, our ability to assimilate nutrients from our food, our immune system and our sleep cycles. Can you see why it would be important to have a practice that balances the stress we inevitably experience in life?
The relaxation response—our brain’s shift from “fight or flight” into “rest and digest”—helps us to counteract the toxic effects of stress by slowing our breathing rate, relaxing our muscles, reducing blood pressure and slowing down our brain wave patterns. Relaxing means resting deeply…and that is what restorative yoga is designed to help us to do. If we can allow the body and mind to relax, we naturally feel better and we have more clarity on all levels of being.
How Restorative Yoga Works
Restorative yoga is great for everyone but is particularly beneficial for people who are under stress for whatever reason or those who are chronically ill. Here is how it works so well:
*bolsters and blankets allow the postures to be held effortlessly
*the postures gently open the spine in all directions, which soothes the nervous system, energizes the subtle channel which houses the seven chakras, and nourishes the spine and all the muscles on the back body which often maintain stress-induced holding patterns.
*organs are soothed by supported forward bends which forces blood out of them and stimulated by gentle, supported backbends which then soak the organs with fresh oxygenated blood.
*Here is where I get to—yet again—talk about my favorite pose, Legs Up the Wall Pose! It is a wonderful restorative pose to include because it reverses the lymphatic flow and brings this vital body fluid back into the upper body (by the way, blood flow never “reverses” from inversions but lymph does!) It also lowers blood pressure, dilates the blood vessels in the upper body, balances hormones, reduces brain arousal and fluid retention. Legs Up the Wall Pose, people…do it!!
* the attention to the breath facilitates that feeling that you are letting go of tension and stress. Here are two techniques to try during restorative yoga:
1. Deepen your exhalation: it always helps bring about the relaxation response
2. Try the Centering Breath which is great for people who are new to breathwork: Take a long, slow, gentle inhale and exhale through the nose, followed by several cycles of normal breathing through the nose. Repeat this up to ten times.
In summary, if you have never tried Restorative Yoga, all the koshas (layers) of your body are in for a real treat. We currently offer it at 7pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. Arrive with enough clothing layers to feel warm; socks are a grand idea. Your teacher will help you get set up for each postures and then all you have to do is relax, forget about all your chitta vrittis (the phrase Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutras which basically refers to all the thoughts, memories and stuff in your head), relax and smooth out your breath, and enjoy the feeling of surrender that is experienced in each posture. If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org.