what is restorative yoga anyway?
and why should I care?
I talk about restorative yoga all the time, it takes up a huge amount of space on my about me page, so here’s a breakdown of what it means to me at this point. Later in the year I will be spending some time with wonderful teachers in an immersive restorative yoga retreat and community gathering. I’m very excited to share more on that soon and to see how my practice and teaching will grow and evolve.
The thing about restorative yoga is that unlike Jivamutki, Iyengar even Yin – it’s not a yoga method. What this means is a restorative class can be anything depending on the teachers interpretation - slow moving vinyasa, something that feels a lot like yin, long held postures with lots of props, or a combination of all three. None are necessarily right or wrong.
The type of restorative yoga I have studied, teach, practice and believe in, is restorative yoga for the specific purpose of deep relaxation. It was popularised by Judith Lasater, who has a background in Iyengar yoga, and it looks and feels like deeply supporting the body with as many props as you have available and holding each pose for (ideally) at least 15 minutes.
The feedback to this is usually, oh but I like my yoga strong / challenging / sweaty / active – great, me too. You don’t practice restorative yoga for the same reason you practice whichever of the endless styles of active yoga you are currently attached to. You practice it to relearn how to do nothing. To invoke the relaxation response. To recover from a busy life. To create more clarity, energy and space. To enjoy life more.
Lets put it this way – you’ve heard of the fight or flight response right? It’s been a popular point of discussion in the wellness world for years now, and for good reason. We’re like a million per cent (actual statistic) more overloaded than we traditionally were, particularly in those of us living in cities. Our operating systems are ancient, but our world is hypermodern. It’s busy, it’s fast, it’s totally over the top. Long story short, we’re overstimulated, we don’t know how to switch off and it’s making us tired, sick, uninspired and stuck. Even most of our self care practices are ‘doing’ activities, rather than ‘be-ing’ activities, don't you agree?
Although the fight or flight response has been a buzz word for some time, when I started learning more about restorative yoga I wondered why the term relaxation response had never come up – particularly when I had (briefly) worked in the wellness industry, and was writing about so much I didn't agree with, from ditching coffee, to giving up bananas, even eating cheese (gross) as means to soothe a ragged nervous system.
I have a few ideas. The main one being learning how to take control over your experience of relaxation is not the quick fix that we have come to know and love and expect. It is also not easy to market or sell, because it is something you already own. It’s easy to read or hear about fight or flight, stress, adrenal fatigue, feel like yep, that's totally me, and then to click a link to a nicely packaged reishi mushroom powder to stir into your morning coffee, or ashwaganda for your smoothies (I personally use and love both of these, so no eye rolling or sarcasm intended) but it's hard to convince people they can actually relax deeply, and it’s simply that they have forgotten how.
As you probably know, the fight or flight response is an inbuilt physiological state that exists to temporarily put you in a superhuman or turbocharge state and is activated by specific triggers. The relaxation response is at the other end of the nervous system spectrum, which allows the body to rest and digest, to heal and simply to feel well (and let's remember that feeling well is not just an absence of feeling sick). Restorative yoga for the purpose of deep relaxation gives us a set of ‘triggers’ or conditions we can set up to evoke or uncover this essential relaxation response state that exists within us.
When setting up conditions for deep relaxation, the most important consideration is comfort. I’m sure when humans lived off the land, when we didn’t wear $15 shoes, we didn’t drive, sit in chairs and walked directly on the earth we were more comfortable in our bodies. Say our system had been overloaded by a fire, a wild animal attack, or a problematic neighbouring group, we would have been comfortable to lay down directly on the earth and allow the nervous system to reboot, to regulate, to come back to neutral. We knew all about the relaxation response and how to use it to our best advantage.
Today however, because our bodies are all wonky and tight and whacked out from our unnatural environment, food, stress and everything else, then we’re genuinely not comfortable in our own bodies lying on the floor. We’re not physically comfortable and we’re definitely not emotionally comfortable with it either. I mean most of us can’t even go out to meet a friend without our phones, or take a long trip without reading a book or listening to a podcast, so how can we possibly deal with sitting still and doing nothing?!
If we take that same perspective of rushing and getting shit done ASAP to our set up in restorative yoga, it is not going to work. If you’re bad at looking after yourself, try to set yourself up in a pose as if you were doing it for someone you love and care for. I have two poses you can try in my instagram stories yoga highlights if you’re not sure what restorative poses should look like. Use as many yoga props, pillows, blankets and scarfs as you have available.
As you start to set yourself up, have a blanket on hand to cover your body as you get into the pose. Wearing thick socks and making sure the room is warm enough is essential. If you are cold it will be almost impossible to relax, and if you have to get out of the pose to grab more layers, it’s very possible you will lose the attention to detail and alignment you created the first time, and when step one isn't taken care of, it just won't work.
Once in the pose, invite the muscles to soften into the support of the props, the floor, the earth beneath you. Release any unconscious gripping, holding, or tension. Check the belly, chest, thighs, jaw, cheeks and lounge.
Put your phone on airplane mode so there will be no distractions. Set a timer. Perhaps if you are new to this practice start with 5 minutes and work up to 20.
Permission & Let Go
It’s essential to give yourself permission to rest and to do nothing. The mental switch between work, thinking, activity and quiet rest has to be made. Once you have set that tone or intention, do your best to be unattached to whatever comes next. It doesn’t matter if it is sleep, thoughts, visuals, or nothingness. All of it is okay. Just allow yourself to be.
Just like learning to do a headstand or downward facing dog, yoga is a practice. Particularly if you are someone who is very busy and active, know that it could feel deeply uncomfortable at first. Know that the ability is within you and the practice works. When all these conditions are set up, try to enjoy the softness of the pose and be patient.
Did you find this helpful? What is your experience with restorative yoga? Love it, hate it, don’t understand it?
My next restorative yoga workshop is this Sunday 4pm at Connect the Dots Taren Point. For those of you in the eastern suburbs the Yoga for Overcoming Stress course starts on June 7th at The Collaborative Maroubra, where we will look at techniques to keep from feeling overwhelmed in a busy and full life. Any questions let me know!