What is Restorative Yoga?
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?”
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.
9 Yoga Poses for Relieving Shoulder Tension
Yoga, when practiced regularly, relaxes muscle tension and in the process, also strengthens the relaxed muscles. Here are a list of poses that will help relieve tension around the shoulder area:
1. BALASANA (CHILD’S POSE)
Child’s pose is a very good way to start a practice. It’s also an excellent rest pose during a vigorous flow.
Come to your hands and knees, press your hips back into your heels. Open your knees out toward the corner of your mat and rest your belly and chest between your thighs; arms out in front of you and palms up. Allow your shoulders to melt downward. This is a gentle way to start warming up the shoulders.
2. BHARADVAJASANA I (SEATED TWIST)
Sitting crossed legged, stretching your spine tall, place your left hand on your right knee and your right arm on the floor at your right hip. Draw a breath in and turn your shoulders and upper torso to the right.
The idea here is to stay gently grounded in the sits bones while extending the spine upward. If you’re twisting right, then ensure your left hip stays grounded. Lift as you inhale and turn as you exhale. Keep your gaze over your right shoulder. Try to keep your shoulders at the same height, and keep your neck soft. Your chin should be in neutral, but if you want an added stretch, you can tuck the chin. Hold for a few breaths, and then come back to center. Repeat on the left side.
3. SUPTA BADDHA KONASANA (RECLINING BOUND ANGLE POSE)
This pose offers a stretch across the chest and releases the shoulders.
Lying on your back, put a bolster or a block longways between your shoulder blades. Bring the soles of your feet together and allow your knees to fall open. If that is too intense, just leave the legs long and resting on the mat. Rest your arms by your sides. You will notice that if you turn your palms to face up, that will increase the rotation in the shoulders. You can either support your head or, if it feels good, allow your head to drop back (this will stimulate the thyroid).
4. PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA (WIDE-LEGGED FORWARD FOLD)
Standing with your legs wide, turn your toes inward slightly and heels out. Bring your hands to meet behind your back and interlace your fingers. If that is not accessible to you, hold a towel or a strap between your hands. With an inhale, lift your chest and roll your shoulders back, extending the hands backward. On the exhale bend forward, keeping a slight bend in your knees. Allow gravity to draw your hands over your head. This creates a lovely rotation in the shoulders. Hold this pose for at least eight breaths (inhales and exhales).
5. SETU BANDHASANA (BRIDGE POSE)
Lie down on your back and bend your knees, feet hip width apart and on the mat. As you breathe out, press your feet into the mat and raise your buttocks, lifting the sternum towards the chin. Elongate the back of the neck onto the floor and breathe deeply. Reach for your feet with your hands, while rolling on to your shoulders. Keep your head still with your nose pointing up and gently press the back of your head into the mat, all the while lifting the hips.
You have the option of supporting yourself with your hands under your hips, or on a block. As you breathe, and your body starts to open, try to walk your shoulders closer to each other and reach your hands towards your feet. This will help open the chest. Move your chest toward your chin. This pose is also great for calming the mind.
6. PASCHIMOTTANASANA (SUPPORTED FORWARD BEND)
This pose is meant to release and relax your neck. Sit on the floor in front of a chair. Place a pillow on the chair, and rest your head on the pillow with your arms just under your forehead. Gently stretch the neck muscles by dropping the chin to the chest. Breathe in and out while resting your head on the pillow.
7. GOMUKHASANA (COW FACE POSE)
When we sit in front of a computer we round our shoulders and push our chins forward. This pose is great for helping to correct our posture.
Sit up straight in a comfortable cross-legged seat. Lift your left arm straight up, palm turned inward and thumb pointing to the back of the room. Bend that arm and reach it down between the shoulder blades. Now extend your right arm to the side, thumb down and palm facing back. Bend the arm and bring the elbow in to the side and reach up between the shoulder blades. Take hold of the other hand. If this is a little hard, use a strap between the hands. Lift your heart and press into your sits bones. Keep your chin in neutral and the neck soft.
8. SAVASANA (CORPSE POSE)
This pose is often used in meditation with the intention of complete relaxation.
Lie on your back, arms by your sides. Spread your feet apart and allow them to drop open. Let your arms rest by your sides, palms up. Allow your fingers to curl up naturally. Lift your shoulders, broaden them and then let them melt into the mat as you exhale. Breathe with deep, smooth breaths.
Support your body where you need to. Sometimes a bolster under the knees, or between the shoulder blades feels good.
9. YOGA OFF THE MAT
In a seated position, come to the top of your sits bones and gently draw your belly in. Lift your heart and allow your shoulders to slide down your back. Keep your chin in neutral and allow for a good distance between the ears and shoulders. This is also a good posture to hold when you are standing or walking. Keep the tailbone gently tucked under.
Remember to keep moving your body. It is joyful, gives us energy and keeps us healthy.