I can remember taking a restorative yoga class many years before I began teaching and being extremely confused. “How is this doing anything?” I thought, naively.
Today, I believe that restorative yoga is one of the most profoundly impactful styles of yoga.
It truly allows you to exist in the space between or in the act of doing “nothing,” while actually doing so much for your body and mind. It can create a tremendous impact on easing stress and anxiety. With this style of yoga, sequences are typically only a handful of poses for an hour practice. In holding these supported poses for long periods of time, tension and stress can melt away while you purposely and intentionally become still and relaxed.
I’ll outline in this post how restorative yoga can soothe anxiety by exploring the pillars of the practice and the subsequent benefits for the body and mind.
Restorative yoga was made popular byJudith Hanson Lasater based on her teachings on B.K.S. Iyengar. The practice uses props to support the body in long holds. Like most styles of yoga, it is an internal practice as it cultivates deeper self awareness through reflection of self. (Learn more in Restorative Yoga: What to Expect On and Off the Mat.)
Anxiety can often be the result of compounded stress and worry very much rooted in non-presence. This practice helps the student come to the present moment and just be.
The three pillars of restorative yoga are: observation, support, and compassion.
Observation is the act of watching without judgment.
You can begin to notice where your attention goes and how it affects your thoughts, body, and overall sense of well-being. By practising your observation skills within a restorative yoga practice, you are also cultivating the ability to step back and observe in this way off the mat as well.
This goes for all styles of yoga, but in restorative yoga there is a special focus on this pillar of observation because you hold poses for so long. During these periods there is ample space for practising observation, and becoming a better observer, you can help soothe anxiety. Being a better observer naturally allows you notice warning signs, like bodily sensations or certain trains of thought.
You can observe what it feels like to mentally and physically relax and use this knowledge to recreate the experience off that mat as well. The practice also can help you to tune into your intuition, feel into your heart, and get out of your head.
In restorative yoga many props are used to completely support the body comfortably.
When the physical body is completely supported, the entire self can relax and let go. When the body can relax and let go, so can the mind. When you feel physically supported, you also can feel emotionally supported. It is not uncommon for students to have emotional releases, like crying or even laughing, during restorative yoga poses.
This is something that often occurs during final savasana in any yoga class, which is the basic relaxation pose in restorative yoga. If you have just fifteen minutes a day to practice restorative yoga, make it a supported savasana. This simple practice can create the supported space necessary for you to relax and release. (Learn more in End Your Practice (and Your Week) in Savasana.)
Many people who experience anxiety have an internal critique that can be very harsh on themselves as well as others. Perfectionism is a common trait that produces a lot of anxiety as well.
In restorative yoga, you learn to intentionally think and act with kindness, which starts with yourself. Restorative yoga classes help to demonstrate how truly different we all are, and how we need to be supported in different ways. You will not see two students supported exactly the same way because our bodies are all different.
Cultivating compassion for self both physically and emotionally as you observe yourself in this practice helps to release the anxious mind of its unhelpful critiques.
10 Benefits of Restorative Yoga That Help to Soothe Anxiety:
- Decreases heart rate
- Lessens fatigue
- Relaxes the mind
- Creates conscious and intentional relaxation
- Cultivates a sense of safety
- Releases physical tension (muscles relax)
- Allows for deeper internal reflections
- Calms the nervous system
- Restores bodily systems to optimal functioning (ie. immunity, digestion, circulation)
- Disrupts the negative feedback loop (ie. pain, worry)
Why Calming the Nervous System is so Important if you Experience Anxiety
Restorative yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the sympathetic nervous system to rest. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming the body and conserving energy, whereby the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing the body for action - this is “fight or flight” mode. Your sympathetic nervous system cannot tell the difference between a physical threat, like an approaching angry bear, or a mental threat, like a traffic jam when you’re already late.
When your fight or flight response is activated, the body prepares for either of those two options - fight or flight - by stopping digestion and speeding up the heart rate. The body produces more adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Many people are stuck with their sympathetic nervous system activated more often than it needs to be, particularly people who experience anxiety. They may become stuck in a negative feedback loop of pain, worry, or anything else that activates the sympathetic nervous system. They feel worry or pain, they observe it and worry about it, which creates more tension, and they stay stuck in a fight or flight cycle.
The way many of us rush around throughout the day, overstimulated by work and family demands, compounded by all the in between stressors, such as emails and driving from one commitment to the next, creates the perfect storm for anxiety.
The parasympathetic nervous system is not activated when we are rushed. This system allows the heart rate to decrease, digestion to occur faster and more efficiently, and the muscles in the body relax. It can be considered the “rest and digest” system. There is also a lot of emerging research that supports the link between gut health and mood disturbances, like anxiety and depression. Supporting optimal digestion is another important function of activating the parasympathetic nervous system that will help to soothe anxiety.
Why it Might Help You
Anyone who experiences anxiety, depression, or has experienced trauma could especially benefit from restorative yoga. I believe that the average person experiences more than a healthy level of stress in their lives and so this practice can actually benefit anyone.
Restorative yoga can help you to get in touch with yourself - mentally, emotionally, and physically. When the parasympathetic nervous system finally gets to be activated, you become relaxed enough to let the body work its healing magic. In this space it can rid itself of disease, you can hear your own internal voice more clearly, and you can experience true relaxation.
This is why I now incorporate restorative yoga into my counselling practice, as I truly believe relaxation is the antidote for our overstressed society. Restorative yoga soothes anxiety through the art of relaxation.