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.

Yoga Nidra Meditation: Best Kept Secret to Deep Relaxation

Calmando La Mente

Chances are you’ve been in a yoga class where the teacher gives verbal cues or instruction during a usually silent savasana. You’re encouraged to breathe deeply, visualize, or focus on specific body parts, one at a time. As you leave the studio, you wonder: What happened during final savasana? Why do I feel so great? How did I get this incredibly calm and relaxed? It’s not magic–your teacher most likely just incorporated a few aspects of Yoga Nidra meditation into the final posture.

What is Yoga Nidra?

Is it a pose? Guided imagery? An affirmation? A visualization tool? Mind-body therapy? A relaxation exercise? Yoga Nidra can be all of these things, and more–in essence, it’s a highly effective meditation technique that’s been around for thousands of years. Here’s a primer from some of our Gaia experts to help explain and demystify the practice of Yoga Nidra:

Armand Sagredo says that the method is so inherently powerful it had been kept secret for nearly 4,000 years, until the 1960’s. Through Yoga Nidra you can enter the realm of the subconscious and create effective, seemingly magical changes in your life, and relax your nervous system in the most powerful way available to humans without chemical agents. read more from Armand

Yoga Nidra is a secret weapon many yogis swear by and one hour of the meditation can be as effective as three hours of regular sleep. It’s not about conscious effort, but about conscious relaxation.

Gwendoline Odeluga tells us that Yoga Nidra is a scientific method for achieving a deep state of relaxation, and is also a bridge to the higher branches of Yoga. During a session, she says, you are not in a deep sleep–you are still fully aware. You relax physically yet stay mentally alert and in a place of great creativity. Yoga Nidra makes it possible to effect profound change in your body, mind, and life. read more from Gwendoline

Yoga Nidra is a technique that increases awareness of sensation in the muscular, connective and nerve tissues, David Flores explains, by breathing into those areas and sending signals for relaxation. You can feel energy flowing up and down the chakras–it’s even possible, with ongoing practice, to dissolve sensations from the body altogether. He says that Yoga Nidra is like a “voice-guided eraser that slowly fades your body into the ether.” read more from David

Doesn’t a “voice-guided eraser” sound like an amazing tool for relaxation and stress-reduction? It is! And it’s so simple and effective, you can practice anytime you need to take the edge off disturbing thoughts, raging emotions, bodily tension or a combination of all three.

According to the Yoga Nidra Network’s resource guide, there are a variety of approaches to the practice of Yoga Nidra, each with its own value and purpose. The easiest way to begin is to have a yoga teacher walk you through the steps or follow an audio version of a guided meditation. The recordings are all a little different: short or lengthy; music in the background or quiet; deep or soothing vocals; various scripts for sleep, tension relief, focusing, intention, and more. Choose an audio guide with the voice, tone and sequencing right for you.

A 10 Step Guide to Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra Meditation

Here’s a sample of what a Yoga Nidra session might look like. Thanks so much to our gaia.com expert Jill Miller for providing the template for this beginner’s guide. And remember that this is just one example–there are many Yoga Nidra practices to choose from!

  1. Take time to get comfortable. Give yourself at least 10-15 minutes for a short version of the practice. Lie down in a quiet, calm environment. Cover yourself with a light blanket; you can also cover your eyes with a towel, if helpful. Try to remain still and present. Close your eyes and relax–get ready to follow the sound of the voice guiding your practice.
  2. Set your sankalpa. Visualize a deep resolve or positive intention for your Yoga Nidra. You can say it out loud or to yourself a few times. Feel the sankalpa spread throughout your body, suffusing your awareness. Then release the intention and let it go. The seeds of the intention will remain even after you drop your conscious focus. You can learn more about the power of sankalpa in Cheryl Lyn’s informative article, Magical Map to Manifesting with Yoga Nidra.
  3. Open your senses. Welcome any smells, tastes, sounds or sensations in your current environment. Notice feelings, thoughts and images as they arise and fade away–let your body and mind just “be.” With eyes closed, allow your internal vision to take shape. Rest easy, but stay curious and open to the practice. Focus your attention on each particular instruction as prompted by the audio guide.
  4. Become aware of your breathing. Breathe in and out through your nose with simple, welcoming breaths. Notice the flow–invite your breath in and then out. Remember to take slow, relaxing breaths, not ujjayi breaths. Release a bit of tension with each successive outbreath. Vijai Sharma, Ph.D., says to use the imagination in order to increase the exhalation. He encourages us to imagine inhaling through the crown of the head straight to the heart, and then exhaling from the heart all the way down to the toes and soles of the feet. Imagine taking a whole body inhale, and then a whole body exhale. Repeat a few times.
  5. Practice countdown breaths. Next, breathe in while mentally saying the number ’40.’ Breathe out and mentally say the number ’39.’ The next inhale is ’38,’and the next exhale is ’37.’ Keep counting backward all the way down to ‘1.’ There’s no need to rush. Don’t get frustrated if you miss a number. Be friendly to yourself if you fall asleep or forget to count–begin counting again when you get the next cue from the instructor. Feel yourself relaxing more deeply with each outbreath as you count backward from 40 to 1.
  6. Progressively relax your muscles. Relax every muscle in your body by squeezing and releasing–focus on each unique muscle or muscle group as you go. For example, your instructor might ask you to tighten your hands as much as you can–tighter, tighter–and then release. Each Yoga Nidra uses different sequences or progressions to take you through the body; just go with it. Don’t overthink or force yourself to concentrate; simply follow the guiding voice from location to location within your body. You can subtly encourage each muscle to “breathe a little with you,” in and out, as you tighten and release.
  7. Become aware of your whole body. Now let go of the tightening sequence and take a full body tour. First, become aware of your whole body all at once. How do you feel? Let yourself be light and weightless, or heavy and dense–just experience whatever arises. Your guide may ask you to move your awareness to different parts of your relaxed body–organs, muscles, joints, skin and more–maybe into places you never even knew existed! Welcome any sensations you find there. Keep still as you continue to focus attention on each body part.
  8. Bring in the light! As you move through the sequence, the instructor may prompt you to imagine your awareness as a golden light touching each part of your body. Caress your eyes, your fingers, the space between your organs, your navel–suffuse your entire body, heart and mind with soothing light. Next, radiate that light outward–first to friends and family, then to everyone you know. Finally, radiate light everywhere, to all beings, and imagine light being sent back to you just as you are sending light out to them. Continue giving and receiving; let your sense of self and others start to dissolve. Bask in the radiant, shared sensation.
  9. Take some final breaths. Now come back to your breath. Don’t think too much about it–just experience the movement, in and out. Let your breath hold you, nurture you. You might be asked to revisit your sankalpa (intention).You can do so on an inbreath, and let it go again on an outbreath. Then return to the gentle rhythm of your natural respiration.
  10. Close the practice. Wiggle your fingers and toes. Start to move your body around. Notice: Do you feel energized and awake? Relaxed and peaceful? Tender and loving? Gently roll onto your side and sit up. Open your eyes and come back to waking life. Has your awareness changed? Feel any warmth, joy or soothing feelings you’ve generated in your body, mind, spirit…and beyond.

Sound intriguing? Yoga Nidra can be used as a tool for deep relaxation, but it’s also a fulfilling spiritual practice. Try this Yoga Nidra guided meditation and enjoy a dose of yogic “deep rest”–try it today.

And don’t just read about it: Get comfortable, open your ears, and give a listen. Remember how good you felt after your instructor incorporated just a few elements of Yoga Nidra into that final savasana? You can come home to yourself every day with that same deep relaxation–all you have to do is practice Yoga Nidra meditation.

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