What is Restorative Yoga? Learn How to Breathe Easy

About the same time Staples office supply store debuted their “Easy Button” in 2005, I unexpectedly discovered an easy button on my yoga mat.

If you haven’t seen the Staples commercial or you missed their massive Superbowl ad campaign, let me describe it to you: In the TV commercial, a new father is trying to change his twin infant’s diapers, a child in school is stuck unable to answer a teacher’s question and a cowboy is losing control of a bucking bronco. In the midst of all these scenarios, a bright red, round “Easy” Button appears. All the user has to do is hit the button and all their problems are instantly solved. The commercial closes with the announcer saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an Easy Button for your life? Well now there’s one for your business.”

You might not be wrestling a bucking bronco, but who among us hasn’t found ourselves in situations where we wish a fairy godmother or a big fat happy Easy Button would magically appear and fix all our problems?

In the start of 2005, I’d been practicing yoga for over 5 years.

In fact I’m not quite sure you could call it ‘practice’- I did yoga back then about as regularly as I watered my sad looking cactus plant.

But I was fond of trying out different yoga studios, a habit I thought of as “taking yoga field trips.”

One cold January day I sauntered into a yoga studio in Colorado Springs, prepared for a heated power yoga class. But ten minutes into the class, we were still reclined on rolled up blankets, and I was annoyed as hell that we weren’t sweating our asses off. I was expecting to be moving rapidly through postures, getting some yoga done. My obvious irritation didn’t escape the steady gaze of the instructor. As she guided us into another restorative pose her eyes met mine and she said, “For those of you who are new, you may be wondering, what is restorative yoga?”

Introducing Sammavritti

My urge to twiddle my thumbs and tap my toes began to subside as we were guided to silently count our inhales to a count of 4 or 6, and match that same silent number on the exhale. This practice is called Samavritti, the Sanskrit word that translates to mean equal fluctuations. This simple act of using my mind to connect and direct my breath created a calm sensation unlike any I’d ever experienced. Samavritti quickly became my big red “Easy Button” both on and off the mat.

Credit for developing restorative yoga poses goes to B.K.S. Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga, considered one of the yogic bibles and required reading for virtually every Yoga Teacher Training.

Iyengar creatively explored ways to utilize blankets, yoga blocks, chairs, and bolsters to aid people’s recovery from injuries and ailments.

His early days of nearly eight decades of teaching experience showed him how students overexerting in a yoga pose can cause pain or injury. His path to utilizing support and modifying the shape and length of time held in yoga poses as tools to reduce stress and restore health became the foundation of what we now call restorative yoga. He noted the tremendous benefits of restorative yoga on the thousands of students he worked with. B.K.S. Iyengar debunked the common misperception that restorative yoga is for lazy folk, saying, “Relaxation doesn’t mean yoga is a soft option. It’s a disciplined subject – a casual attempt only gains casual results.”

Benefits of Restorative Yoga

For those with more faith in science than in magic, we can look to our neurological and hormonal systems for the effects of living over stimulated and stressful lifestyles. When stress registers in the mind, it responds by giving a shout out to the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys. The adrenals react by secreting adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones. These are the hormonal weaponry and aircraft that prepare the autonomic nervous system as the body prepares for fight or flight response to stressful stimuli.

Like an overactive army, adrenal glands continue to pump stress hormones for hours after you swerved to miss the teenage texter who suddenly drifted into your lane. And they’ll continue for a long time, months after you’ve been served with divorce papers, weeks after you recover from a bad fall. The point is, as Judith Lasater Ph.D. simply states, “stress can make you sick.” Dr. Lasater’s research is often referenced in detailing the benefits of restorative yoga. Here are five ways restorative yoga can become your Easy Button:

Use Restorative Yoga to Support You in the Midst of Your Stressful Life

When we feel supported, we are more inclined to relax and release long held tension. You know that ‘Ahhh’ sound you sigh when your ass hits the sofa on Friday evening after an arduous week? Yeah, that one. Restorative yoga can give you that feeling even if it’s Tuesday.

Restorative Yoga can benefit and strengthen your spine

Well-balanced restorative sequences tend to the health of our spines through gentle movements of forward bending, back bending and twists. There is a Latin saying, “Mens sane in corpore sana” meaning: A healthy mind in a healthy body. The same is true of a healthy spine lending to a healthy mind. Anyone who’s experienced pain or spinal injury knows all too well that pain can take up residence in the mind.

Restorative Yoga can Change Your Relationship to Gravity

The majority of our waking hours are spent standing and sitting; postures which cause the accumulation of blood and lymph in our lower bodies. By elevating the legs in up the wall pose for example, inflammation is alleviated. In addition the function of the heart is enhanced in inverted restorative postures. Perhaps the yogic equivalent of flipping a U-Turn, research has shown that inverted poses adjust hormone levels, blood pressure and brain activity.

Restorative Yoga Stimulates and Soothes Your Internal Organs

Just think of it as a vacation to Fiji for your innards. The combination of forward bending mildly constricts the abdomen, and when followed by reopening the abdominals with a backbend, serves in the detoxifying movement of blood and exchange of oxygen. Gentle twists stimulate the digestive tract, tending to the absorption of nutrients on the right side, the ascending colon; aiding in the process of elimination on the left side, the descending colon, and laterally with the transverse colon.

Restorative Yoga Can Balance Your Energy

The Gravity Guru, Sir Isaac Newton, is credited with the discovery that, “what comes up, must come down”. The practices of restorative yga rest on this knowledge, balancing out the upward flow of energy, called ‘Prana’, with the downward flow of energy, called ‘Apana’. Pranic energy moves from above the diaphragm to regulate heart rate and respiration. The Apanic energy moves from below the diaphragm to direct the organs in the abdominal region. James Brown also held this yogic truth as depicted in his lyrics, “you gotta get up to get down”.

Restorative Yoga as Medicine

When I first saw the Easy Button commercial I didn’t think it related to my life at all. After all, I’m not diapering twins or performing surgery or taming wild horses. But the truth is that stress, anxiety and worry are common experiences for most of us on a daily basis. The American Institute of Stress (now there's a bummer of a business name!) says that 3 out of 4 of all doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments and that stress is the basic cause of up to 60% of all human ailments and disease. Stress actually shrinks the grey matter in your brain and costs our society over $300 billion every year in health costs and loss of productivity.

Every individual experiences it differently, but for yoga practitioners the beneficial practices of restorative yoga can be serious medicine in the fight against stress and worry.

So next time your boss decides to cancel your vacation or your toddler flushes the Legos or your teenager swipes your credit card and heads to the mall, hit the Easy Button and give your body and mind a break. You will be roping those wild horses again in no time.

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