The gift of restorative yoga
Restorative yoga is a deeply relaxing and nurturing practice — a great way to calm the mind and release tension. The tradition involves arranging the body into simple shapes (based on asanas) and supported completely by props such as bolsters, blankets and the earth.
With the body supported, muscle tension can begin to release, the breath can start to lengthen and the mind gradually quieten. This is the goal of restorative yoga — to instigate a shift from a state of stress and agitation to a softer, more tranquil space where we can regroup, relax and, of course, restore.
Clinical psychologist Marie Bloomfield says the current worldwide pandemic is an unprecedented situation that has caused us to face many challenging problems at once, so it is important to expect to experience stress. “We need to meet our emotions as a friend and to see how we can support ourselves without denial or resistance, so we can find ourselves on the other side of this as a stronger human,” she explains.
Marie believes practices such as restorative yoga are essential. “It is very important to take time out for restorative yoga and mindfulness. We need to turn to ourselves as a kind friend. When we are relaxed, our mind is at its best, which helps our body to rest and recover,” she explains.
What happens in a restorative yoga class?
A typical restorative yoga class includes poses that are held over a long time — from three to five minutes, even 10 minutes or more. When postures are held for a longer time, you have an opportunity to switch the focus internally — to explore physical sensations within the body and for self-enquiry, such as noticing if there are areas of the body that feel heavy, tight or dull, or observing thoughts or emotions entering the mind and then allowing these emotions to gradually shift.
This encourages the mind to become still, which is one of the fundamental objectives of a yoga practice. One of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra 1:2, suggests, “Yogash citta vrtti nirodha (yoga is the cessation of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind).”
The practice typically begins with a few very gentle limbering movements before coming into a position of stillness — to centre the mind and create an intention (or sankalpa). Then, there will be around five to six poses in a 90-minute class.
As the practice evolves, the exhalation gradually becomes longer than the inhalation — helping to stimulate the action of the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve, which sends signals to the body to slow the heart rate, blood pressure typically lowers and digestion, fertility and immune function are increased and the body begins to conserve energy. Put simply, the parasympathetic nervous system helps the body rest and digest or feed and breed! The more you practise, the easier and more instinctive this becomes. But it is always helpful to practise with an experienced restorative yoga teacher when you can.
While holding the poses, there is opportunity to focus on yoga and meditation tools such as breathing practices including tranquilising pranayamas such as ujjayi (ocean breath), bhramari (buzzing bee) or even something more simple, such as a deep diaphragmatic breath. Other options to incorporate during the poses include repeating mantras such as So Ham (I am that), or a word such as “calm”, “peace” or “tranquil”. You can also focus your awareness on the chakras and meridian lines.
History of restorative yoga
BKS Iyengar was first credited with creating restorative yoga as he experimented with using props within the poses to help his students recover from injuries. One of his students was Judith Lasater, who has written many books on restorative yoga and now runs trainings across the world with her daughter, Lizzie. Judith is viewed as one of the forerunners in restorative yoga, and her books are a fabulous tool for anyone wishing to learn more about this style.
I first came across restorative yoga while teaching pre- and post-natal yoga classes. It soon became apparent to me that it’s not just mums-to-be and new mums who can benefit from a restorative yoga practice. It’s really essential for anyone and is a fabulous balance to the busy, high-pressured lives we typically lead in the West.
What you need: blankets, a bolster and blocks
If you are interested in a personal practice, then ideally you will need a yoga mat, bolster, two blankets, two blocks and an eye pillow. But don’t worry if you don’t have these, you can improvise. Instead of a blanket you can use a towel, and heavy books instead of blocks. You can also use cushions and pillows — just ensure they are firm and supportive.
The most important and versatile prop is a blanket. Go for a heavy wool blanket, as this will give you more support than fleece blankets. The wool will also be easier to fold, more durable and tougher. Blankets can be used as supports, rolled into makeshift bolsters, used as covers and even thick straps. You can use a folded blanket to add weight to the body, which has a naturally grounding effect.
Bolsters are also important — opt for a flat or cylindrical bolster. There are also thinner bolsters, but generally the larger bolsters are more useful and will give more support. Bolsters are particularly helpful if you have an injury, as they help the floor to meet the body and give additional support and comfort.
Blocks come in foam, wood or cork and you can use them as a support. There are three heights to use with a block: flat (lowest level), side (mid level) and end (top level).
Other items you may like to have to hand include a hand towel or flannel to support the base of the neck, a strap to secure the body so you don’t need to use effort to maintain the shape and a wheat bag (not necessarily heated) to add weight to the poses — which can help to ground and calm the nervous system.
Eye pillows are also helpful to draw the mind inward and invite the muscles around the eyes to soften — creating a dark space which helps to invoke a sense of peace and calm.
Creating the right environment
Think about somewhere in your home that feels calm and where you are unlikely to be disturbed. This could be your bedroom or perhaps a space in your garden or veranda where you can seek solitude.
Keep the space as uncluttered as possible and if you are outside, then make sure you are warm and out of direct sunlight. You may wish to diffuse some essential oil such as lavender, cedarwood or vetiver. And perhaps play some soft music — although silence is usually best.
Ideally set aside at least an hour for your practice, but even if you just have 10 minutes then you will still enjoy benefits. You can practise at any time, but evenings are particularly good — either before or after a warm bath. And have your PJs to hand so you can shuffle off to bed afterwards!
Practise at home: Five poses to help you feel calm and grounded
Each pose has an accompanying breathing or meditation practice. You may wish to record these on your device and listen when you are in the pose.
Pose 1: Reclining goddess
This pose opens the heart, can soothe shoulder tension and is a gentle release for the inner thighs.
You will need: One bolster, two-three blocks and one long rolled blanket.
Optional: Two pebbles/sand bags and an eye pillow.
Set up: Place two-three blocks on top of one another horizontally. Angle a bolster over the blocks. Sit at the edge of the bolster and place the soles of the feet together with a long blanket wrapped around the outside of the thighs.
Ease yourself down over the bolster, draw the elbows towards the waist with palms up, use an eye pillow and a pebble/sand bag in each palm.
Practice: Green glow visualisation.
Take your awareness to the heart centre — perhaps imagine a soft green light glowing at your heart space. You may notice this light glowing brighter and stronger with the breath.
Invite this green light to flow through your entire body … taking yourself on a journey through the internal landscape … feeling the green, balancing light flow into your fingertips and toes … swirling, soothing, softening.
Pose 2: Anchor*
The weight of the bolster (or folded blanket) helps to ground and calm the body and quieten the mind.
You will need: One bolster or folded blanket.
Set up: From savasana, place a bolster lengthways along the body. Imagine it like an anchor — inviting you to sink into the earth.
*Avoid if more than 20+ weeks pregnant.
Practice: Mindfulness exercise.
Notice the contact points of your body on the props and ground. Invite your body to soften and slowly unravel as you let go into the support.
Observe the temperature of the air on your skin and the gentle rhythm of your breath.
Become aware of the sounds around you — moving from sound to sound without being attached to any particular sound.
Witness the velvety darkness behind your closed eyes and any glow from the light around you.
Return to the breath, flowing in and flowing out, in this moment. If your mind wanders, acknowledge this kindly and then draw it back into the present moment.
To come out: Roll to the side and then ease yourself on to your back ready for our next pose.
Pose 3: Restorative child’s pose*
Forward folds help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and can ease anxiety, encourage restful sleep, quieten the mind and aid digestion.
If you have knee/ankle issues or high/low blood pressure, please avoid this pose. If pregnant, place the bolster horizontally, so there is enough room for your belly.
You will need: One bolster, two blocks and one wheat bag (optional).
Set up: Stack the blocks horizontally towards the top of the mat, then angle the bolster lengthways. Sit behind the bolster, separate knees and rest your upper body on the bolster. Take the arms under the bolster and cup the opposite elbow. Turn head to one side and then half way through holding pose, turn head to other side. You may also wish to place a wheat or sand bag across the sacrum.
Practice: Golden thread breath.
Relax the lower jaw and allow the tongue to feel heavy in the base of the mouth. Take a breath in through the nose and then part the lips slightly (as if you have a piece of paper between the lips) and then allow the breath to unravel out of the mouth like a golden ribbon or thread uncurling into the distance. As you release the breath, you might like to feel a sense of letting go of every last trace of air — a bit like a release valve! At the end of the exhale, enjoy a natural pause before inhaling once more.
Releasing the pose: Walk your hands towards the body, come on to all fours and then bring legs together and sit comfortably.
Pose 4: Easy twist*
This pose aids digestion.
Please avoid and come into a supported savasana instead if you have any spinal issues. Avoid if 20+ weeks pregnant.
You will need: One bolster.
Set up: Bend knees and place feet about shoulder-width apart on the bolster. Lie on the back with the arms at shoulder height and turn the head from side to side to ensure little finger is aligned with top of the shoulder. Gently take the knees to the right on the exhale. Turn to look to the left hand (optional). Practise the triangle breath and then repeat to the other side.
Practice: Triangle breath.
Lightly close the mouth, with the teeth slightly apart, lower jaw soft.
With the legs to the right, imagine breathing in through the right nostril only and then allowing the breath to release through the left nostril. Notice the soft quality of the prana/air as you inhale. Follow the breath in your mind as it flows up through the left nostril and through the right. Practise 10 times.
Return to a supported savasana with the bolster under the knees for 10 breaths. This time, imagine the breath flowing evenly in and out through both nostrils — in your mind, follow the breath to the point between the eyebrows (ajna chakra).
With the lower legs supported by the bolster, allow the legs to release to the left and gently turn towards the right hand. This time, feel the breath flow up through the left nostril and out through the right. Repeat ten times.
Pause at the end of the practice and repeat the triangle breath in your supported savasana position.
Pose 5: Legs up the wall (viparita karani)
This beautiful, healing pose is the queen of all restorative yoga poses. If you only have time for one pose, then this should be it! It is so simple yet the ultimate support for the body. It is incredibly restful as blood flows from the feet and legs to the pelvis, abdomen and heart — inviting the mind and body to naturally slow down. It also helps to revitalise the legs — especially if you’ve been on your feet all day.
You will need: One flat bolster (or folded blanket) and two additional folded blankets.
Setting up: Place the flat bolster or folded blanket about 10-15 cm away from the wall. Spend some time setting up the pose to find the desirable height for your body. Ensure the bolster or blanket supports the lower back and sacrum. Place a single or double-fold blanket along the mat, to create a T-shape with the bolster. This can support the spine and back of the head.
Ensure you have props (such as eye pillows, pebbles and wheat bags) to hand before easing yourself into the pose.
Then, sit square to the wall and carefully roll your legs up the wall as you ease your back onto the floor. Your lower back on the bolster or blankets, and legs resting against the wall, about hip-width apart. If this is uncomfortable you may wish to place the lower legs on a chair (see image).
Next, take the arms out to the side as in savasana or in cactus or to the side at shoulder height, little fingers in line with the top of the shoulders.
Take the time to do some deep belly breathing — stay for as long as you can!