Restorative Yoga: The Revolution of Rest
Why rest is often best. . .
People often look skeptical when I explain that Restorative Yoga is not about stretching. Most trending yoga styles and images of yoga in our culture today bring to mind bendy and sweat-inducing activity. I think of Restorative Yoga as a bit of anarchy. In this cult of busy-ness that prevails, to stop and take care of oneself is not easy. Rather than pushing for one more Chaturanga and mirroring the pushing rhythm of our culture, resting in poses that balance our systems is nothing short of a personal revolution. Using yoga to bolster our bodies not just for a workout. Having the deep experience of letting go of physical stress and finding the blissful place where you are so relaxed you feel both beyond yourself and totally connected is transformative.
All yoga no matter what the style, is about self-awareness and transformation. In Restorative Yoga we use blankets to get there. Not just blankets but bolsters, eye pillows, belts, blocks, sandbags and practically every yoga prop possible. By using props to support the body (this is a defining factor of the style) we coax the mind and nervous system into a state of relaxation. The trick is to be really comfortable - that’s when the magic happens. The poses are held between 3-30 minutes, depending on the pose and the practitioner. If you aren’t comfortable it’s impossible to rest deeply, let alone stay still for any length of time. Poses are classically taken from the Iyengar tradition, based on Mr. Iyengar’s years of teaching therapeutic yoga.
Being in a supported pose aids deep relaxation (the opposite of stress) and the poses themselves target different areas and organs of the body. By inhibiting blood flow to one area for a length of time followed by releasing, circulation is increased and the exchange of fresh oxygen/nutrients with toxins affects the body on a cellular level. This tourniquet effect of squeezing and then soaking optimizes the functioning of our internal organs. Whose liver doesn’t need a little massage?
Whether from an Eastern or Western medical perspective we have all felt the effect of too much work, not enough sleep, poor eating or emotionally intense events. The majority of people today operate on high stress, and it’s the long-term effects of negative stress that are most worrisome. For example, elevated levels of cortisol (hormone released in fight-or-flight mode, or can’t find my keys and am late mode) are proven to interfere with learning and memory, lower immunity and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, etc. etc. Living in a city like London just getting around on public transport can trigger a stress response. Sometimes intense exercise (which produces cortisol as well) is not the best way to balance the body. Most of us need both active and restoring practices, more of one or the other depends on us. A Restorative practice can be just what a hard-core Ashtangi or Dynamic Flowing Yogi need to bring some deeper rest not possible in a quick Savasana.
In a class the teacher will demonstrate the pose and hopefully explain the benefits and contra-indications. They should be available to help you adjust your props so that you are truly comfortable. They may play soft music, or read meditation texts. Ideally there is time for silence, so that you can settle into your own meditative state. In order to relax we must have the following: warmth (blankets), darkness (eye pillow), quiet and stillness. A good sequence involves moving the spine in all directions (backbend, forward fold, twists to both sides) and inversions. An inversion could just be lifting the legs onto a bolster, a chair or taking them up the wall.
Learning how to be truly comfortable takes practice, and that is where the class and teacher come in. Being in class gives you the chance to ask for help, to get the blanket under your neck just right so it feels like a cocoon so your neck and jaw and shoulders can actually let go of tension. The experience of being covered with a blanket is deeply comforting. Allowing ourselves this time to be cared for is soothing and emotionally important. We all need to be wrapped up sometimes. If you tend to stay away from your emotions these poses offer a quiet space to reconnect. If you find it hard to “turn off” this practice offers you a way towards unplugging.
Be prepared when you first dip into this practise you may come face to face with how tired or run-down you actually are. Another common reaction is the resistance, or fidgeting that comes with being still when used to always being on the go. Often new students find they need to sleep more, or feel sleepy after a practise. This is because they were tired before but living at a rhythm too fast to notice how tired they were. I consider this a turning point in the practise, when what you learn on the mat starts to affect your lifestyle. No, we can’t always stop our busy lives and have a nap - but we can start with 10-20 minutes of restoring each day. Maybe just before bed, maybe during a lunch break. We can look at our diaries and perhaps cancel unnecessary appointments, or plan our days to have built in moments of calm. If we carve out the time we need to take care of ourselves, if we are well rested . . .imagine what kind of life we can lead? Imagine what kind of world it would be if we all did Restorative Yoga.