What is Restorative Yoga?

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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.



Restorative Yoga Poses that Anyone Can Do

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The practice of restorative yoga can be a key component is creating ease and relieving stress in your everyday life, especially if you are recovering from an illness of injury.

As Andrea Marcum, owner of U Studio Yoga studio in Los Angeles says, “We use this [restorative] practice to connect with ourselves, as well as to connect with something greater.” She also suggests that as we relax into the restorative poses, we feel the dust begin to settle in our minds. When the dust settles, the mind becomes unclouded. Like a clear pool of water, which Marcum notes, “clear pools of water reflect the beauty of the surroundings.”

Her A,B,C’s of Breathing are brilliant in their simplicity, a key component of a restorative practice.

Awareness – having knowledge or consciousness Benevolence – kindness – the desire to do well to others Calm – tranquility – free from agitation

I consider this to be the path from the individual to the universal.

Or, more simply, that a restorative state helps us move beyond self-centeredness; from a state of ‘me’ consciousness to a ‘we’ consciousness.

In our typically busy lives, our nervous systems get over-stimulated. It’s as if our bodies are constantly on a cross-country road trip, in overdrive. Like a much-needed rest stop for our nervous systems, try these restorative yoga poses as recommended by Shannon Paige in her Anjali Restorative Chakra Roots to Rise.

To try the following six restorative poses you’ll need a blanket and a bolster.

Remember, you can create a bolster by simply rolling two blankets together. Create a neck roll by folding one of the outstretched blankets in half. The fold will form a large rectangle shape. Take one of the long edges of the rectangle and begin rolling it, about halfway.

Supported Reclining Pose

Place the blanket at the head end of your yoga mat. The rolled portion will support your neck, and your head can softly rest onto the remaining portion of the unrolled blanket. Adjust the bolster the width of your mat about 2/3 away from the blanket; it’ll go behind your knees to elevate your lower legs. Make sure your knees are wide.

Lay onto your back, ensuring that the bolster and blanket are in comfortable positions. Use your exhales to help you soften into the props and ground beneath you.

To transition out of this pose, bend your knees, bringing your feet onto the bolster. Roll your body onto the right side into a brief fetal position. You can rest your head on your right arm, and keep knees bent. When ready, turn towards the floor with a heavy head to keep softness in your neck, and rise to an upright position.

Elevated Caterpillar Pose

From a seated position, with wide legs over the bolster as in previous pose, drape your torso forward. If it feels as though your pelvis is rocking back, you can sit on top of the blanket roll that supported your neck in supported reclining pose. Rest your head on stacked hands or, if accessible, on the bolster between your knees.

To transition out of this pose, bring your hands beneath your shoulders, pads of the fingers press into the floor to lift your rounded torso up. Allow your head to come up last.

Side Fish

Place the fully rolled up blanket towards the head end of your mat. Move the bolster behind you, the width of mat. From seated, turn towards the right, your right thigh will be parallel to the width of the bolster. Pinwheel your legs so your right foot is in line with your left knee. You can pad your inner left knee if needed. Line up the right side of your torso, so when you lay on to the bolster, the right side of your ribs meet the bolster. Extend your right arm overhead on top of the blanket roll, and wrap the excess blanket roll on top of your arm, so your right arm becomes the middle of a blanket sandwich. Rest your head on this ‘sandwich’ so the blanket equally supports your right shoulder and head. Ensure that there’s ample space for the base of your right ribs and right hip to rest onto the mat. Only the middle portion of the right ribs is elevated onto the bolster.

To transition out of this pose, draw your left arm in front of your body, press down through your left fingertips into the floor to lift your rounded spine up. Keep chin towards your chest as you rise. Turn slightly towards your left, so your seat is on the mat. Bend your knees, feet hips width on the mat, and rest your forehead towards your knees for a few breaths. Then set up for Side Fish to the left.

Belly on Bolster Twist

Place the bolster vertical, from head end of mat to middle of the mat. Sit on your left hip (legs in side fish position), with hands either side of the bolster. From your navel, turn your torso towards the bolster and lay down onto it. Your head can rest to either side or you may like to stack your hands and rest your forehead onto them.

To transition, come out the same way you came into it. Before taking the twist to the other side, you may like to recline back onto the bolster, knees bent, feet wide, or simply stay upright for a few breaths. Then take Belly on Bolster Twist to the other (right) side. We typically take twists following the direction of our digestion: from right to left.

Supported Reclining Butterfly

From an upright-seated position, place the bolster vertical behind you; you may like to elevate the head end with a block, or use a blanket to rest your head onto. Bring the soles of your feet together, and wrap the blanket roll over the tops of your feet, and wrap the ends behind your heels and ankles. You may like to support the outer knees with blocks. Lower your back onto the bolster behind you.

To transition, bring hands to outer knees and draw knees in (blanket will fall away from your feet). Press your thighs away, creating the sensation of spaciousness in your low back. To rise, use your hands on either side of bolster, to lift up.

Supported Child’s Pose

From a seated position, bring the bolster out in front of you, lengthwise. You can place the blanket roll behind the knees for more support (you may want a block under your seat if knees are sensitive), or beneath the tops of the feet. Bring your knees the width of the mat, big toes touching, rest hips on heels and fold forward so your torso rests the length of the bolster.

To transition, roll yourself back upright. Option to take neck stretches: slowly draw right ear towards right shoulder, right arm outstretched. Use your right hand on your right check to lift your head back to center. Then slowly move to the other side.

The Ultimate Stay-cation

We often think that relaxation and de-stressing requires a day at a spa or a month-long Caribbean holiday. Don’t get me wrong, you can sign me up for either of those anytime, but we all need solutions that are cheaper to afford, easier to plan and don’t require a passport. Restorative yoga poses and breathing techniques can be added to your yoga practice anytime, anywhere. Cultivating a consistent restorative yoga practice can have a deep and measurable affect on decreasing stress and anxiety. Just think of it as the ultimate Stay-cation.

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