If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you know the routine. You move through a series of postures, stretching and twisting and building strength and flexibility. At the end of each session, you lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose), tired but feeling good.
Restorative yoga is different. It doesn’t involve moving. You don’t even stretch. Instead, you get into each pose and stay still for five minutes or so, focusing on your breath in a mindful way. As your body gradually realigns itself during the pose, your breathing and heart rate slow. You calm down and experience the same deep well-being, only with a lot less effort. Restorative yoga may feel passive, but it’s more like active relaxation—and the perfect antidote to your busy, super-scheduled life.
Restorative Yoga Basics
There are four essentials to restorative yoga…
Stillness. Rather than push yourself to the edge, you settle into a pose and let your body open up, taking all of the tension out of the muscles so that they are free to relax. To help in the process, props are used to gently hold your body in that particular pose. You can buy yoga-specific ones or simply use items that you already have.
A dimly lit practice space. When you withdraw from sensory overload, it’s easier to rediscover your body’s natural rhythm. Create this environment by turning down the lights, drawing the shades and/or using an eye covering during practice.
A quiet space. Noisy environments can increase the body’s stress-hormone levels. Opt for silence, which relaxes the brain even better than soothing music or nature sounds.
Staying comfortably warm. Your body will naturally cool down as you stay still. You may want to keep your socks on and cover up with a blanket as you practice.
3 Restorative Poses
Practicing for 20 minutes a day will help train your body and your brain to become calm more easily. Some poses may compress the abdominal region, so make sure you have not eaten for at least two hours before you get on your mat to allow food to digest. To practice these poses, you’ll need a yoga mat, two to three blankets, a yoga strap (or belt or scarf), two yoga bolsters or regular bed pillows and an eye covering (such as an eye pillow or washcloth). Many people choose to practice in the evening to wind down before bed, but experiment and see what works best for your routine.
Legs Up the Wall: This pose helps ease tired leg muscles, reduce swelling in the legs, lower blood pressure and decrease stress.
1. Preparation: Fold one blanket into a large square, and place it on a mat that is set perpendicular against the wall. That will cushion your hips. Take another blanket, fold it into a slightly smaller square and place it in the middle of the mat to provide support for your head. Have your eye covering nearby. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
2. Sit on your left hip with your back against the wall and legs tucked away from your mat. Plant your hands on the mat in front of your body, thread the left arm under the right one to help you tuck and roll until your legs are up against the wall. Your goal is to lie on the floor with your legs up the wall and your back/pelvis area flat on the floor (shown at left).
3. As you look upward, set your ankles, knees and hips in a line. Relax your feet with toes neither pointed nor flexed. If your legs are splaying outward, take your strap or scarf, tie it around your calves and corral your legs so that they are hips’ width apart but in a straight line.
4. Put on your eye covering, or simply close your eyes. Open your arms in a V-shape by your sides, palms up. Breathe fully into your abdomen and lungs for three rounds of breath, using your exhalations to relax your face, lips and finally your whole body.
5. Rest in silence, breathing naturally. If your legs tingle or feel numb, bring the soles of your feet together in a butterfly shape and lower your legs until the feeling returns. Then place them against the wall again.
6. When you’re ready to get out of the pose, wiggle your toes. Bend each knee one at a time, and slowly walk your feet down the wall. Once you can reach your legs comfortably, slip off the strap if you’re using one.
7. Rest with your knees bent and feet against the wall. Slide your legs down from the wall, lift one arm over the head, slip off the eye covering, and slowly roll to that side. Rest on your side in a fetal position for as long as necessary.
8. Roll into a seated position on the blanket, and take a moment to reflect on how you feel.
Mountain Brook: This gentle backbend opens up your chest and shoulders, improves breathing and eases tension in the throat while boosting a low mood.
1. Preparation: Fold two blankets into skinny rectangles as wide as your yoga mat, and stack them on top of each other on one-third of the mat. Take the third blanket, place it four inches away from the blanket stack and toward the top of your mat. Roll it up halfway or all the way to support your neck. Place the bolster near the bottom of your mat. Set a timer for five minutes.
2. Sit in between the bolster and the blanket stack, and drape your legs so that your knees are over the bolster and your legs are flat on the mat.
3. Lie back, placing your shoulder blades on top of the blanket stack but making sure your lower back isn’t touching the stack at all. Rest your neck on top of the roll.
4. Extend your arms, palms up, into a T-shape in the space between the blankets. Your chin should be slightly higher than your forehead, but if that’s uncomfortable, change the roll so that your chin and forehead are level. Make any adjustments necessary to become fully comfortable. Your hips will be grounded on the floor.
5. Close your eyes and visualize your body as a mountain brook, flowing over the props. Breathe in fully through your nostrils, counting to four. Breathe out slowly through your nose, counting to eight. Keep breathing at a comfortable pace, with the exhales longer than the inhales.
6. Begin to breathe naturally and just be still in the pose.
7. Guide yourself back by breathing deeply in and out. Bending one knee at a time, anchor your feet on the bolster. Roll the bolster away from your body until your feet touch the mat. Gently slide the blanket roll to one side so that your head rests upon the mat.
8. Pull your knees inward and roll onto one side, using one arm as a pillow to cradle your head. Rest for a few seconds. Inhaling, use your hands to push yourself up slowly to a comfortable seat. Observe how you feel after this pose.
Supported Side Lying Stretch: Like all restorative yoga poses, this two-sided stretch calms the nervous system, reducing stress and inflammation. And because this pose affects the digestive organs—the liver, gall bladder, spleen and stomach—it’s particularly good for improving gut health. After all, when you’re angry or anxious, you definitely feel it in your stomach!
1. Preparation: Fold the blankets into two thick double squares, and stack them on top of each other to support your head at the top of your mat. Place the round bolster in the middle of the mat and the flat bolster at the bottom. Set a timer for three minutes.
2. Sit in between the round and flat bolsters. Lay with your left hip on the floor, your right leg on top of the flat bolster, and place your left leg in front of the bolster at the edge of your mat.
3. Hold onto the round bolster with your right hand as you inhale, wedging the bolster into your waist. Exhale, sliding your left arm forward, palm up, as you lie on your side. The blankets should be supporting your neck and head. Make sure the top of your head lines up with your shoulder, hip and right foot.
4. Your right arm can rest against your hip. Or for more opening,
send your right arm over your head so that your right bicep rests against your ear and your hand touches the floor. (If your hand can’t reach, place a blanket or block under it for support.)
5. Close your eyes. Inhale fully. As you exhale, release all effort in your body. Breathe naturally, and rest in silence.
6. When you are ready to switch sides, return your right hand to the space next to your left hand. Press against the floor, inhale and lift up slowly sideways. Turn away from the round bolster, and keep turning to come to the other side. Repeat the pose on this side, again setting the timer for three minutes.
7. Once complete, sit up slowly into a comfortable seated position. Place your hands to your heart, with your right hand stacking on top of your left hand. Close your eyes, and connect with your heartbeat. As you take deeper breaths, feel the expansiveness in your waist, ribs and chest. Thank yourself for taking this time to support yourself in self-care so that you may continue to be a support for others.
Photos © DK: Jimena Peck