How often do we dedicate time to mindfully rest? Restorative yoga is a rare and precious gem of a practice because it encourages me to do just that. It is a style of yoga where the intention is to use asana to place my body in a state of deep relaxation. This allows inner healing to kick in, restoring health and wellness. It’s not about performing "Instagram-able" asanas, getting my foot behind my head, or rocking a killer cardio flow. It’s about the beauty of rest and stillness.
Restorative yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar in order to help people with injuries or illness in order to experience the profound healing benefits of yoga without placing their bodies under additional strain. Iyengar encouraged the use of props and modified asanas to allow the body to relax into poses. Since it's inception, Restorative yoga has been developed further by teachers such as Judith Lasater, and variations can now be found offered at many yoga studios. (Learn more if you're wondering Who Was B.K.S. Iyengar?)
If you're interested in trying out this style of yoga, here I'll explain what you can expect from a Restorative yoga class, all the benefits of its practice and if it's the right style for you.
Experiencing a Restorative Yoga Class
Some describe Restorative yoga as being akin to the last 10 minutes of a “regular” yoga class. It cultivates the surrender and relaxation of savasana (corpse pose) and sustains it throughout the whole class. Restorative yoga classes are characterized by their longer holds of poses. Sometimes I’ll stay in one asana for up to 20 minutes. This prolonged hold allows my body to melt, releasing muscular tension that I may not have known I had. In some asanas I will feel a stretch or an opening, but this happens naturally, with my own body weight and gravity over time, not through muscling into the stretch.
Restorative yoga is an introspective practice where I remain awake and present, but deeply relaxed. Classes may be accompanied by a soothing soundtrack, or the practice may be relatively silent in order to allow my focus to shift to my internal environment. I might be guided to deepen my relaxation with breath, or to use the breath as an anchor for my mind.
Finally, expect to be supplied with yoga props, and lots of them. The props are there to support the body in the poses, so that it can let go of all muscular effort.
Benefits of Restorative Yoga
Physically, Restorative yoga is believed to boost the immune system by lowering stress levels and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This relaxation response can alleviate many of the physical manifestations of chronic stress, including headaches, insomnia and backaches. (Learn more about the PNS in Sleep Is a Treasure.)
Restorative yoga can also be a surprisingly effective practice for improving mobility, especially when recovering from injuries. The long holds give the nervous system a chance to adjust and tell chronically tight muscles that it’s safe to release.
Mentally, a restorative practice is the perfect balm for a stressed mind. It makes space for dropping into my body and shifting from a thinking state to a feeling state. It’s a meditative practice, which is ideal for anyone who struggles to meditate because of physical discomfort. I find comfortable positions for my body to be ones where I can be still and allow my mind to focus. I discover the value of being here, not in the future or the past. (Learn how to "be here" more often in 6 Techniques to Staying Present.)
Finally, I find that through Restorative yoga, I connect with my inner self and the stillness beneath my mental noise. It can be a powerful spiritual practice.
Restorative Yoga Is for Everyone
Although Restorative yoga is great for those recovering from illness or injury, its potential benefits are much wider. It’s a rare person who would not benefit from more stillness, relaxation and presence. If you suffer from anxiety, stress or just feel exhausted, Restorative yoga is likely to be exactly what you need. (Read more in Different Yoga for Different Days.)
Restorative yoga can be particularly worthwhile for people who think it is not for them. If you’re telling yourself you don’t have time, it sounds boring, or you prefer being active, Restorative yoga may just benefit you the most. It provides the perfect repose for over-tired, over-stimulated minds and bodies.(Learn how to balance what you need, depending on your day, in Me and My Many Yoga Days.)
Relax, It's Just (Restorative) Yoga
Don’t come to Restorative yoga expecting to find it easy. Of course, you may be lucky and simply relax into each posture
, loving every second of the practice. However, when you are not used to stillness, or you’re stressed, Restorative yoga can be challenging. Your mind and body may initially resist the quiet, seeking stimulation and distraction instead. Dropping your guard and relaxing can also leave you feeling vulnerable and even uncomfortable. Know that it is at these times that you are in fact gaining the most from this powerful practice. Holding space for whatever arises is a powerful practice in itself, which will provide benefits that reach far beyond the end of the class. (Read on about 'Holding Space': What Does It Mean?