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Restorative Yoga

The art (& science) of slowing down

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Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga creates a state of deep, active relaxation that can benefit practitioners of any age and ability.

Few things are more satisfying than leaving a yoga class drenched in sweat from performing headstands and chaturangas (four-limbed staff pose). But while pushing yourself often feels good, sometimes there’s a lot more to be gained from slowing down, taking a breath, and sinking into a nice big pillow.

Restorative yoga is a very gentle form of yoga that uses pillows, blankets, bolsters, straps, chairs, and other props to help you hold postures longer than in traditional yoga. A class will typically include forward folds, backbends, inversions, and twists—enabling the spine to move in all directions.

Because the body is completely supported, the only work required is arranging your props to give you proper alignment in each posture. Once you’ve achieved that, simply relax, breathe, and let the tension ease out of your body.

What does it do?

While this may sound like a nap session, it’s not. It’s a state of deep, active relaxation that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, according to Marla Meenakshi Joy, a restorative yoga teacher trainer in Toronto.

This decreases blood pressure and allows the body to attend to its internal housekeeping needs such as digestion, elimination, and overall repair. Restorative yoga certainly feels good, but it may not be for the reason you think. According to Joy, “Restorative yoga is about opening, not stretching.”

For example, in a restorative seated forward bend, you sit in a cross-legged position with a chair in front of you. If your lower back rounds, sit on the corner of a folded-up blanket to tip the pelvis forward.

Bend forward, cross your arms, and place them on the seat of the chair. Turn your head to one side, and rest it on your arms. If you do not bend easily, pile as many blankets as you need on the chair to maintain the natural curves of the spine. Be sure to spend an equal amount of time resting your head on each side.

This posture opens up the back of the body without overstretching the hamstrings, which can often happen in an unsupported forward fold.

Counter the pose with a supported backbend by lying on your mat with your knees bent and a block underneath your sacrum, the broad triangular bone at the base of your spine. This will open the abdominal muscles, allowing fresh blood to move into the organs, furthering the oxygen exchange.

Who can benefit?

Whether you’re young or old, a novice or seasoned yogi, injured, ill, or simply tired, restorative yoga can benefit just about everyone. In a 2008 study, researchers found that restorative yoga improved the quality of life and emotional well-being of women with breast cancer.

Be mindful of your limitations, and communicate with your instructor about where you’re at on any given day. He or she will talk to you about contraindications to postures and find the gentlest, most comfortable posture for you to enjoy.

When should you practise?

Any time you want. It’s an ideal way to end a vigorous Ashtanga practice. Or if you’ve learned some good postures in class and want to practise at home, I recommend using either Relax & Renew by Judith Lasater (Rodmell, 1995) or Yoganap by Kristen Rentz (De Capo, 2005) as a reference. What better way to spend the last 20 minutes of your day?

There are no rules to the practice, short of listening to your own body. If nothing else, it’s a reminder to devote time to the breath. According to Lasater, “When we pay attention to the breath, it brings us fully into the present. It is impossible to focus on the breath without paying attention to the here and now.”

Being present and focusing on the breath isn’t easy. That’s why we need restorative yoga—to help us relax, slow down, and focus.

4 tips for a positive restorative yoga experience

Consider these points when choosing a restorative yoga class:

  1. Determine the teacher’s approach before you start. Some classes incorporate chanting and meditation, while others focus strictly on postures. Consider which type best suits your interests.
  2. Find out if the instructor gives individual attention or makes modifications for people with different needs. This is crucial, especially if you’re a beginner.
  3. Got no props? No worries! A good instructor will make use of whatever props are on hand. Often the wall and some chairs will do. Whatever props you’re using, let comfort be your guide. If a posture doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
  4. Bring a cozy sweatshirt to help you stay warm and snug, especially during Savasana, the mindful rest period at the end of class.
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