Today we’re talking about restorative yoga. What it is, why it’s so important (& challenging), what its done for my practice, how it has affected my teaching, and of course a restorative practice to try out.
Many of my regular yogis know my love for restorative yoga. It is a truly unique and important practice. Contrary to this post’s featured image, restorative yoga is not about splits. It’s not about strength. Unlike yin yoga, power, or vinyasa styles, in restorative, there is little to no muscle engagement. Instead, yogis are fully supported by props and/or the Earth itself. In an ideal world, all students will have blankets, bolsters, blocks, sandbags, eye pillows, and whatever props you can think of but a restorative yoga practice requires nothing. (See my post all about props to hear my thoughts on this and check out my prop collection.) In restorative, yogis move slowly and rarely. In a 60 minute restorative yoga class, the teacher may get you into 6 poses or less. Yogis will hold these poses for a way longer time than those in a vinyasa style class, most of my classes will hold poses for 8-12 minutes. Don’t let this scare you away, chair is not a restorative yoga pose! Most shapes are reclined, some seated. Many people misinterpret restorative yoga as “gentle” yoga or even a beginners yoga. While beginners can most definitely benefit from restorative, I personally find it one of the most challenging types of yoga.
Alright so it’s not a class of deep stretching, strong breath work, strengthening, or anything you might be used to in other yoga classes…why do we do it? This is my favorite question to answer. Restorative yoga is about REST. How often do you rest? And what does rest look like to you? In our culture, we are often running around all day like headless chickens and then expected to settle down and get 6-8 hours of sleep, and most of us find that impossible. As I’m sure you’ve all experienced, it’s very difficult to sleep without proper rest. Our bodies are so tired yet so restless we cannot seem to settle at night. It’s a viscious cycle of lack of proper rest and then lack of sleep. Conscious rest can change everything. Being awake, relaxed, with no pressure to fall asleep or get things done. I’m sure you have experienced the feeling of not being able to sleep at night, knowing you need sleep but thinking of all the things you could be getting done instead.
Beyond rest, restorative yoga is about receiving instead of giving. I mentioned restorative yoga utlizies props and the Earth to receive support, to feel grounded, held, safe. How often do you turn off giving mode and turn on taking mode? To be able to give, we must be able to ask for and then take what we need. We must allow life to happen to us instead of constantly fighting it, building expectations, and feeding our false sense of control. You know the warnings for rip currents at the coast? To swim in parallel instead of fighting the current? Same goes for restorative yoga. Sitting still is an extremely difficult task for many, myself included. Right when I settle in seems to be when I feel the need to fix my shirt or hair or when I suddenly have an itch that must be attended to, etc. In restorative, we are invited to feel those urges and breath with them instead of acting upon them. Allowing ourself to be uncomfortable in stillness but not take the steps to escape it. This is why, unlike yin (in which yogis get into poses that keep them on their edge of discomfort to achieve a meditative state), we want to be as comfortable as possible in restorative yoga poses. I tell my students right when we get into a new pose, fix what’s “wrong”, take the time to “fix”, then let go. Let wherever we find ourself be just the right place. There is no right or wrong alignment in restorative.
This mindset, of taking instead of giving, of resting is counterculture. There is nothing we are working towards, no goal. For many in our goal-oriented society, this idea is inconceivable. There is only the present feeling and the only task is to be present with that feeling.
“Restorative yoga brings ease.”
So how has yoga shifted my own practice? Of course it has slowed it down. I replaced a strong vinyasa style practice with a restorative one. But beyond that, it has been incredibly healing to my body and mind. I have shared before how I used to always think of yoga – a workout, a time to push and pull on my body to achieve a goal. Now, yoga is a healing practice and conversation with my body. Sure there are still goals occasionally and there is definitely a push and pull. But with that there is an understanding of where I am instead of just a focus on where I want to be. And, the main selling point I use to try to get some of my students from power yoga into restorative is ever since I have started practicing restorative, more “advanced” postures come easier to me. I injure myself less. Restorative yoga brings ease.
An example, I wanted splits desperately. Why? I don’t know – no good reason, only bad reasons. But I practiced and practiced and never felt comfortable in a split. For almost a year. Then I just said, screw it. Splits aren’t for me I give up I can’t practice them enough to ever hold a split. I didn’t do my usual splits routine for months. During this time I was doing restorative yoga 3-4x per week. Then one day out of nowhere, I found myself in a split, a full 8 breaths with all the ease in the world. The same happened for me and many inverted postures, which used to be clouded by fear for me.
After discovering restorative yoga, I clearly changed as a student but I also unknowingly changed as a teacher. I didn’t even realize – one of my regular yogis pointed it out. I shifted from pushing my yoga students to holding them. At this point, I wasn’t even teaching gentle classes, definitely not restorative. I thought I could never reach slower paced, quiet classes. But suddenly, even in a power yoga class in which they moved quickly, got into “advanced” poses, worked towards a peak, etc, I was holding space for healing instead of space for exercising. My voice, my cues, my assists and adjustments all softened. This has been the most meaningful evolution of myself as a yoga teacher yet. This allowed me to fall deeper in love with teaching (I didn’t think that was possible).
Last year, I even began teaching my own restorative class, in which most of my students were completely new to restorative yoga. I found teaching this class so difficult at first. How much do I say? How much silence do I give? How much alignment cuing do I do? Should I assist? Should I try to adjust? At the studio I practice, there is a restorative teacher (Barbara Vosk, for all you Raleigh yogis – she’s magic. And teaches at Bliss Body Yoga.) who seemed to get everything right. I (mostly) joked I wanted to be her when I grow up. I never thought I could lead a restorative class after spending so much time in hers. But I felt the practice was so important, I needed to share and the place I was teaching did not offer a restorative class so I took it on. One day, one of my regular yogis came to me after restorative class and said “I imagine this class isn’t the most fun for you to teach, but I’m really glad you do.” After that, it came with ease. And it was fun.
Restorative Yoga for You
Restorative yoga can bring you more and better quality sleep, less stress, less injuries, and ease in most and mind.
So here is a go-to, quick restorative practice for you from your home. Move from pose to pose slowly with as little muscles engagement as possible. Keep the eyelids heavy. Between each pose, allow yourself to find any movement that feels good.
- Reclined butterfly. Grab a cushion from the couch and place it at your tailbone, lie back onto the cushion – make sure you’re fully supported. You might need 2 cushions depending on the length of your torso. For a less intense backbend, prop the cushion up on another or even a couple of books to create a slope and recline on that. Bring the soles of your feet together and allow your knees to fall to either side. Support your knees and thighs with 2 more smaller cushions or pillows. Stay here for 10-12 min, focusing on your breath.
- Supported twist. If your cushion is sloped, remove other props so it is flat. Place your right hip right in front of the cushion and bend then stack your knees. Maybe place another cushion between the lower legs. Frame the cushion with your hands and lower your belly onto the cushion. For more intensity, rest on your left cheek. Stay for 8-10 minutes. Then repeat this, with the left hip.
- Mountain brook. Lie flat and place the cushion beneath the natural bend in your knees. Depending on the size of your cushion, you may need 2. Also, depending on the length of your legs and cushion, this may take your feet off the ground. If this occurs, place feet on 2 large books so that the heels are grounded. If you have rocks, stones, or crystals, place them in each palm and allow your arms to fall naturally by your sides. If you want, support your head with a very small pillow, ensuring your shoulder blades stay grounded and your neck stays as long as possible. Stay here for 10-12 min.
- If you’d like, you can end in Mountain Brook or take a traditional savasana, flat on your back without cushions.
I hope restorative yoga brings you peace and rest. Don’t be discouraged if your first (few) experience is difficult or frustrating, just trust the journey and allow yourself to take. There is nothing to give. There is nothing to do right or wrong.