Before we talk about Restorative Yoga, let’s give it some context! We are so accustomed to living at a frantic pace. We wear our ‘busy-ness’ like a badge of honour, dashing from one thing to another until we burn out. When faced with periods of ’empty’ time we feel a compulsive urge to fill it. How many times have you waited for an appointment or in a queue and started scrolling through your social media feed? We are so bombarded with messages and stimulus that we don’t know how to just ‘be’.
Taking time to relax and recharge is not something to feel guilty about or think is a waste of time. It is essential to our wellbeing. The term ‘stressed out’ has become so prevalent, as have stress related illnesses. So why are we not listening to our bodies and hitting the pause button before we make ourselves sick?
That’s not to say we should eliminate stress entirely as small doses can be good for us. It can makes us more resilient. It’s when this stress becomes constant and chronic that it causes a myriad of problems. From finding ourselves quick to anger and snap at our loved ones, problems sleeping, unwelcome weight gain (or loss), digestive issues and muscle tightness that can result in ongoing aches and pains (causing more irritation and thus the cycle goes on).
We’ve all heard of ‘fight or flight’ – the survival mechanism that helped save our ancestors when faced with a predator. For modern-day humans, the fear of job loss, recession and ongoing health crisis’ can elicit in us the same fight or flight response. We can feel as though our foundations have been shaken, leaving us on a rollercoaster of anxiety.
What does our body do when we are stressed?
Our mental reaction to these high stress times can create a physiological response as the adrenals release hormones that act upon our nervous system. Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness and muscle tension increase. The body also shuts down systems we don’t need in that present moment (such as digestion and repair). For our ancestors the threat was usually fleeting and those systems that shut down to enable them to fight or take flight resumed swiftly.
Unfortunately for us the perceived threats in our modern lives tend to be sustained. Therefore, the adrenals continue to pump out those stress hormones, albeit at lower levels but having a cumulative effect.
What can you do?
This is where a practice such as restorative yoga can become a useful tool. It enables our parasympathetic response (also known as our rest and digest mode). When stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system switches on our digestive system, slows the heartbeat and calms us down.
By regularly practising restorative yoga we can give our bodies the much needed time to rest and recover from the stresses within our lives. You should notice improved physical and mental wellbeing.
The vagus nerve is one of the primary nerves involved in the parasympathetic system. To read more about the vagus nerve and other ways to calm anxiety in an article by our fabulous teacher, Caroline King by clicking here.
What happens in a Restorative Yoga class?
Yoga classes tend to consist of active poses followed by a brief restorative pose at the end. In a restorative session the entire focus is on this style of pose. You may think that means we simply lie in savasana for an hour but that’s not the case!
Think of these poses as active relaxation. We are working in a different way, utilising props to bring the body back into a state of balance. The poses are designed to work on the body in different ways, targeting different areas where we may be holding on to tension (such as the shoulders or hips). We also incorporate mindfulness and breathing techniques to work holistically, to bring peace to body, mind and soul. There are far less poses in this style than your usual practice (usually around 5-6 per class) and they are pretty much all floor based. It takes time to get into position, to arrange our props to fully support the body and to then allow the body to relax. Each pose is therefore held for around 5 minutes (sometimes longer) as you seek a stillness, first within our body and then our mind.
Your mind’s tendency to want to rush to the next pose or get involved in some inner dialogue can be the hardest part. It’s very common and natural for your mind to wander so we anchor our attention within the sensations of the body and by paying attention to your breath. In this practice we work to cultivate attention, to work on being present. By allowing ourselves to surrender in this practice eventually thoughts may dissipate with the breath, like waves on the beach.
What equipment do you need for Restorative Yoga?
As mentioned, we fully utilise props in order to create a supportive environment that is conducive to relaxation, so you’ll usually need a blanket (or large towel) and, if you have them, a bolster and some bricks. If you don’t have a bolster you can use pillows or cushions or roll 2-3 large towels together to create a bolster shape. If you don’t have bricks then you could use a hefty hard-back book or two or substitute those for a couple of cushions instead.
You could also use an eye pillow or mask for relaxation. If you don’t have one, a folded flannel or scarf (you could even gently warm it on the radiator).
When should you practice Restorative Yoga?
It doesn’t matter, although an evening practice can be heavenly for sending you off to sleep. If you can regularly give yourself one hour a week, you can create a habit of personal restoration and repair.
You don’t need fancy clothing (just something comfortable) and you don’t need a lot of space. Make sure you’re somewhere comfortable and quiet, switch off the phone and maybe dim the lights. You may get cold so use an extra blanket and don some thick socks.
To add to the experience you might light a scented candle or use essential oils during your practice. Safety first though please so no putting naked flames near anything flammable!
As you’ll be laying down, don’t eat within 2 hours before practising. Restorative yoga is suitable for most people (and can be excellent for many with wide ranging health conditions). If you have a major health issue, check with your doctor and alert your teacher in advance.
Listen to your body, you know it best. If anything causes you pain then make your way out of it. There are usually modifications that you can take so liaise with your teacher and if something doesn’t work for you, skip that pose and just pause in something that is comfortable.
Give it a go!
We are currently streaming a live class every Friday evening at 6.30pm. Click below to book your place in a class now.
See you on the mat!
Thank you very much to our lovely teacher Sam Stone for her insight and knowledge in writing this article. Sam teaches our Restorative Yoga classes as well as Beginners and Beyond Yoga.