Much like Iyengar yoga, restorative yoga makes full use of props. However, take a restorative class and you’ll quickly understand the difference.
Restorative yoga is focused around the “ahhh” experience—the space found by breathing, relaxing, and letting go of the mind’s internal dialogue. This gentle approach to yoga allows participants to experience the same benefits of a traditional practice while exerting little or no effort at all; it leaves students feeling nourished, refreshed, and well-rested.
Prolonged stress, internal conflict, demanding situations, anxiety, and anger engage the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, which triggers the hypothalamus and initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing that prepares our bodies to react to perceived danger. Restorative yoga engages our bodies’ innate ability to renew and restore, balancing and counteracting the effects of prolonged stress.
Restorative yoga facilitates the four conditions for relaxation: relaxing the muscles with support, quieting the responses caused by stress, quieting the mind, and finding a relaxed, smooth breath. Unlike sleep, where your mind and body are preoccupied with dreaming and tensing muscles, this style of yoga provides an opportunity to achieve all four of these conditions.
The purpose of restorative yoga is two-fold. Restorative active poses awaken dull areas in the body to improve circulation and promote healing, while restorative passive poses induce deep relaxation and recuperation.
Some of the key adjustments to look for include: maintaining round, soft lines in the body and avoiding sharp angles, readjusting props strategically to support the body, filling the space between the body and the earth, and using enough props to create an even path for energy. Most of the adjustments involve accommodating and supporting the body with props. The basic props are blocks, chairs, straps, bolsters, and eye wraps.
Breathing during practice should always be easy and gentle—never forced or strained. Restorative classes encourage students to become aware of the sensations and feelings of breathing. They provide a chance to experience breath, without muscular effort, that brings about opening, healing, and a calm state of mind. Sometimes students will access deep feelings locked in the mind/body and may experience catharsis.
Restorative yoga is ideal for anyone who is recovering from an injury, chronically ill, under stress, or looking to balance a more intensive yoga practice. In fact, we all could use a little restoration in our lives, which explains why Savasana (Corpse pose) is one of our society’s most loved yoga poses.
In restorative yoga, poses are set up with no muscular contraction. Your body might be in a deep backbend, but the generous use of blankets, blocks, and bolsters makes the stretch passive. The spine is stretched in all directions, as it is in any other yoga class—forward, backward, and side-to-side. Prop-supported inversions are also included as part of a well-balanced sequence. Poses can be held for as long as 20 minutes, so the body and mind get a chance to find stillness.
The late B.K.S. Iyengar is credited with founding restorative yoga. In his early teaching years, Iyengar started using props to make yoga poses more accessible and less strenuous to his students. His popularity blossomed in the United States during the 1960s. Both Iyengar and restorative yoga have since grown to be a prominent style practiced today.
Iyengar’s early student Judith Hanson Lasater, author of Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, is credited with popularizing both Iyengar and restorative yoga. She has taught yoga since 1971 and is considered a master on the subject of the restorative style.
Restorative yoga teacher trainings are taught across the country. They are often offered as short 20 to 40-hour courses to be taken after completing a 200-hour yoga teacher training.
Judith Lasater offers her own certification program called Relax and Renew. Her 20-hour courses are taught over the span of five days and offered all around the world—from New York City to Dallas and from Canada to China. For more information about her training, click here.
Begin on your back with knees bent and hands on the midsection.
1. Centering breath
Take two gentle breaths, followed by one deliberately slow and thin inhalation, as well as one deliberately long and full exhalation.
2. Bridge flow with block
Come to Bridge pose, with the support of a block underneath the tailbone/lower lumbar spine. Lift and lower the hips, elevating when the lower hips are supported.
3. Ab workout with block or ball
Place the block or ball between the thighs, 2-3 inches above the knees. Engage in abdominal work of your choice, which can include crunches or leg lifts, gently applying pressure to the block or ball.
4. Supported Bridge pose with block
Place a block or bolster beneath the feet and lower back into Bridge, relaxing the head down onto a blanket and opening the arms to either side.
5. Knees-to-Chest pose
Lying down on the back, bring the knees into the chest and hold on to the back of the thighs.
6. Restorative Child’s pose with bolster
Beginning on all fours, push the buttocks back and lower the upper body down on to the knees. Chest rests on a bolster, completely relaxing, resting, and breathing.
7. Cat-Cow stretch with block or ball
Begin on all fours, holding a block or ball between the thighs, 2-3 inches above the knees. For Cat pose, round the back to the sky as the head lowers; and for Cow pose, arch the back and lift the chin.
8. Downward-Facing Dog with block
Come into Downward-Facing Dog pose, resting the forehead on a block or holding a block between the thighs.
9. Plank to Crocodile (upper body warm ups)
For Plank pose, begin in Downward-Facing Dog and shift forward until the shoulders are directly above the wrists. Press the heels back and reach through the crown of the head. With the back straight and abdominals firm, move to Crocodile pose, pushing forward with your toes and hugging your ribcage below the elbows. Lower your chest, keeping your abdominals strong and your hips stationary. Transition from Plank to Crocodile with Child’s pose in between.
10. Side Angle pose with block
From a Warrior stance, bend your front knee and place your forearm on a block on your thigh. Reach the top arm to the sky; then alternate sides.
Step back to face the long edge of your mat. Spread your feet, turning the heels in and the toes out. Come down to a squat, bending the elbows and placing them next to the waist, with the knees straight out over the toes. On an inhale, move the arms overhead. On an exhale, hinge forward from the hips, reaching the tailbone back while maintaining a neutral spine, as you sweep the arms to the floor. Flow with the breath through repetitions.
By supporting the body with blocks, the students were able to relax into each pose and let go of tightness and tension that had built up in the body and mind.
There are many extremely healing benefits of restorative yoga. By surrendering the need for action and focusing on the breath and the present moment the human body is able to heal from the internal and external stress of daily life. As stress can affect the immune system, finding a practice to help manage stress can help fight disease as well as prevent it. Not only does the immune system benefit, the nervous system also calms down.
If you’re wondering how to bring this practice to your life outside of taking a group yoga class, the following is a calming 15-minute sequence to introduce students to restorative yoga.
Sanskrit: Supta Baddha Konasana
Sanskrit: Supta Matsyendrasana
Corpse pose is the final pose in any yoga class and in a lot of ways, the most important. It is a moment of allowing the benefits of your asana practice to flow through your body, enabling the ability to rest without the need for action.
Most forms of yoga offer a 3-5 minute Savasana, however, in Restorative Yoga, Savasana can be held from 5-15 minutes.
Whether you experience a full hour long class or this 15 minute sequence, the benefits of Restorative Yoga as part of your self -care routine is a wonderful gift to give yourself. The calming and therapeutic benefits of this form of yoga add up to better resilience, better health, more peace of mind, and a greater awareness of the inner workings of your body and mind.