The two main purposes of restorative yoga are to induce deep relaxation of body and mind and to prepare the body for pranayama.
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The deep relaxation reduces sympathetic nervous system activity, so the parasympathetic becomes more predominant. It promotes rest, renewal and repair. Restorative yoga is therefore a powerful antidote to the high levels of stress, excess stimulation and hyperactivity of modern life. It is particularly useful as a therapeutic tool, because virtually everyone can do some form of restorative practice and deep relaxation is very conducive to healing.
This relaxation and the extra time spent in restorative poses enables the deeper muscle layers to release long term chronic tension. This is why, having spent a session just lying around over bolsters, one can get up and feel completely rearranged!
Restorative practice softens the body, enabling prana to circulate more freely. The poses also release the thoracic muscles, enabling more efficient breathing and pranayama and thus increase vitality.
The main principles of a restorative practice are support and release (NOT stretching – the sensation of stretch actually means the protective muscle reflex is causing them to contract). We relax best when we feel secure. At the physical level the muscles can only really let go when the body feels fully supported. This is the purpose of using props. The effect of a prop is sometimes quite subtle, but usually distinct, and each subtle effect takes us to a slightly deeper level of ease. This calms the mind, brings mental relaxation and helps reduce anxiety.
Savasana (corpse pose), the most basic restorative pose, is traditionally practised at the beginning and end of every yoga class to prepare for practice and then to balance the nervous system and replenish the energy expended in the asanas. In savasana many people are more comfortable with a few props, such as a pillow to support the neck and be a soft surface under the head, a bolster under the knees to relax the low back and soften the belly and an eye bag or cover to help quiet the mind. Some people are not comfortable lying flat on their backs and need literally to be propped up in a semi-reclining savasana. In some cases another restorative pose may be used instead of savasana.
The various restorative poses bring muscular release in different areas of the body, promote blood flow into certain areas and / or drain areas. They include all ranges of movement of the spine; back bends, forward bends, twists and side bends. It is also possible to do restorative poses in all the main body positions; standing, sitting, supine, prone and inverted.
The restorative poses are held for at least 3-5 minutes, sometimes up to 30 mins. The surface muscles generally relax relatively quickly, but it takes longer for the deep muscles to release. Thus a practice will consist of only a few poses. Many people are surprised to find that having ‘done’ so little, how very different they feel after a restorative practice.
For some people being still is a big challenge. Initially, mental hyperactivity may seem more intense, as often happens when we first start to meditate. A simple form of conscious breathing practice helps give the mind a focus. In some cases a gentle moving practice can help dissipate excess energy, before coming into the static restorative poses.
The most common props are: –
foam blocks, bricks, straps, blankets, bolsters, eye bags, chairs and walls. Other props often used in a restorative practice are: –
weight bags, elastic bandages, small rolled towels, a table, wall ropes, even the handles of an inward opening door (with strong hinges!).
RESTORATIVE YOGA SEQUENCE These poses release tension from different areas of the body, soften the body to enable the prana to circulate, induce relaxation and calm the mind.
Even just a few minutes of restorative practice is a much more effective and lasting way to boost your energy than coffee, as this truly replenishes your system.
These can be done as a whole sequence, or 2-3 poses as a shorter sequence or even just one pose.
1. Spine release
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet hip width so that the knees are comfortably balanced. Support under head and neck so that the back of neck and throat are equal and forehead and chin are about the same height.
Hands on belly in yoni mudra. Breathe into the belly feeling the hands rise, long exhalations (without forcing) softening, relaxing and letting go of all you need to let go of.
2a. Knee to chest elimination pose
Right knee to chest (other can be bent if more comfortable). Find a comfortable angle so there is no pinching in the groin.
Exhale bring knee in, inhale release ~3x then hold knee in breathing into the slight pressure to ‘massage’ the colon. 3-5 breaths.
Repeat with L leg.
2b. Both knees to chest, slightly apart.
As above 3-5 breaths
3. Bridge pose
Feet and knees hip width, evenly and firmly planted. Exhale flatten the low back and roll up from the tail bone, inhale roll down 2-3x
Then lift the pelvis to slide 3-4 flat yoga blocks / bolster / cushions underneath to rest on, at a comfortable height.
Inhale filling chest from diaphragm to collar bones. Exhale from navel down to feet, gently squeezing belly in.
4. Reclining hip release backbend
Lie over a bolster / rolled blankets / pile of firm cushions so the low back feel supported and comfortable (use a block / folded blanket under buttocks if the bolster is too high). Support the head and neck +/- eye bag or cover.
Feet together knees apart with support under the thighs. Any stretch should be very mild and diminishing.
Breathe downwards into the pelvis and feel the natural stretch and release of the pelvic floor.
Slightly lengthen the exhalations
5. Supine twist
A bolster or other matching supports on each side, if needed.
Exhale knees to side, inhale to centre ~3x and decide how close / high the support needs to be.
Rest the knees on the support and tuck the other into the back as support.
Equal inhalations and exhalations.
Head can be turned away from the knees or in the centre facing up.
2-3 minutes each side.
6. Inversion with legs elevated
Lie on your side and bring your sit bones to the wall. Roll onto your back taking the legs up the wall or onto a sofa / chair / bed
If you chin tilts up, have a head /neck support +/- eye bag or cover.
Observe the natural flow of breath
7. Supported corpse pose relaxation
A head and neck support, just touching the top of the shoulders, to help relax the neck, +/- an eye bag or eye cover.
A bolster under the knees to lengthen the low back and soften the belly.
A blanket or light cover over your whole body is also conducive to relaxation.
Count the exhalations backwards from 10 or 20 down to 1, letting go a little more with each breath.