Restorative Yoga: Sweet Surrender

Restorative yoga class
Photo by aprilhelen

Restorative yoga is a gentle practice designed to promote deep relaxation. Like more familiar yoga asanas, restorative poses can be sequenced to move the spine in all directions—backbends, forward bends, twists, and inversions. But in restorative poses, gravity becomes your partner, gently encouraging release and openings while you are completely supported by bolsters, blankets, pillows and other yoga props. It’s a recipe for surrender.

Flagstaff teacher, Emily McRobbie, views restorative yoga classes as an opportunity for her students to release stress and tension. She says, “I think people are craving quiet, healing space in their lives. Restorative yoga brings people closer to themselves and opens the doors for spontaneous healing and aha! moments.”

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Most of us have practiced a restorative pose in regular yoga classes, such as Legs-Up-the-Wall. Senior Iyengar instructor, author and physical therapist, Judith Lasater, describes this and other poses in her book Relax and Renew, a superb resource for students and teachers. She developed restorative yoga, adapting familiar asanas and suggesting therapeutic sequences.

Restorative yoga poses do for the body what meditation does for the mind—create a clear space grounded in the present moment. When postures are practiced for 15 minutes or more, the mind can slow down, and the nerves become quiet. McRobbie likes to start her classes with 20 minutes of guided relaxation in Mountain Brook Pose (a supine heart-opener with support underneath the knees, back, and neck). She finds this time helps students shift their focus inward.

Too easy, you say? Restorative yoga is a lot more challenging than it sounds, especially for those of us who spend the day multitasking, seeking the rewards of accomplishment and striving to maintain control over our busy lives. If you find yourself resistant to the idea of surrender or dismissing restorative yoga as “lazy” or “too simple,” you might instead think of it as “active relaxation,” a term Lasater uses to describe how restorative yoga combines stimulation and relaxation to move toward greater balance.

Restorative yoga lowers blood pressure and heart rate, releases muscular tension, reduces fatigue, improves sleep, enhances immune system response and can help to manage chronic pain. Individual poses target specific areas. For example, Supported Child’s Pose (with the torso resting on bolsters or a stack of blankets) helps to release the lower back or soothe menstrual cramps. On a more subtle level, restorative yoga poses teach “being” versus “doing” and help students get out of their heads and into their bodies.

Nearly everyone can benefit from a restorative yoga class now and then—when recovering from jet lag or a cold, during menstruation or menopause, while healing an injury, or when experiencing insomnia or anxiety. It is an ideal practice for people with hypertension, headaches, chronic fatigue, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancer. Restorative poses are gentle enough for first-time students, elders and, with modifications, women in the latter months of pregnancy. Restorative yoga is also great for yoga teachers who have developed stress injuries or who want a nurturing practice after teaching classes all week. Like Emily McRobbie says, “We all need that opportunity to be quiet, to receive and restore and that place of just being.”

As for me, I love the way Supported Bound Angle Pose feels like floating downriver in an innertube. What’s your favorite restorative pose?

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