You love a good yoga session, the stretch and sweat and the after yoga feeling. Now you’re eyeing the Restorative yoga class and wondering if you really could take all that restoration and quiet. The answer yes you can, and here is why: trust the yoga.
All yoga is designed to calm your sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” system. This is the part of our nervous system that we need when we’re trying to avoid a tiger, but also causes us “stress” in modern life. Stress happens when our fight or flight system gets triggered, say by a near miss in traffic. But since there’s no immediate release of all that energy that didn’t get used like it would have if you’d had to run from that tiger, it gets stuck in a feedback loop that keeps the adrenaline and cortisol flowing well past your need for them.
The parasympathetic nervous system, or the “feed and breed” nervous system, which generates the well known “relaxation response” is the counter to the “fight or flight” system. They’re meant to keep one another in balance, but there are so many more triggers for the stress system than the relaxation system in modern life that most of us are out of balance.
Paradoxically, even the best vigorous yoga class can feed this imbalance if we relate to our practice in a goal directed or striving way. This is why I recommend everyone give themselves at least one restorative practice every week. Better yet, take 20 minutes before bed in the evening and practice 2-4 of these fully supported postures meant to foster complete release of effort.
Many people report avoiding restorative yoga because they’re afraid they’ll be bored, or that they’re incapable of that much relaxation. But once they’ve arrived in the class and the yoga takes over, just like in their more active yoga classes, the yoga works its magic. Your mind isn’t boring and your ability to become the open observer and melt into the pose is actually enhanced with the support of props and extended time in poses. Trust the yoga.
A Restorative yoga class features fewer poses, because they’re each held from three to five minutes or longer. Because you’re meant to be in them longer and to relax instead of engage your muscles, you’re set up with props to completely support the weight of your limbs. Most of the poses, for this reason, are on the floor and you’re often encouraged to use an eye pillow or cloth to place gentle, almost imperceptible pressure on the eyes, which triggers the relaxation response.
When you come to a Restorative yoga class, it’s more important than ever to wear non-constricting clothing and to dress in layers. Because you’re releasing muscular engagement, you won’t generate the same heat you do in an active yoga class. Feel free to bring socks if you tend towards chilly feet; you’ll not be grounding through your big toe mounds very much in this class and your yoga toes won’t need to sparkle. Your heart and mind will sparkle with the overflow of energy when stop even a few of your habitual holding patterns from everyday life.
You may do four to six poses for the whole class, and spend half as long setting up for them as you stay in them. The set up is just as much an exercise in mindfulness and tuning into your body’s patterns and patterned responses as the poses are, so maintain an observational and caring mindset throughout. Some poses you may encounter are Reclined Cobbler pose, Supported Straddle Forward Bend, Legs up the wall and Supported Savasana. Want to try a a half hour restorative practice tonight? Check out the Restorative Sequence I wrote for lovemyyoga.com and finish it off with the Relaxation Sequence, too. When you attend class in person, you'll receive instruction and assistance in Chandra Namaskar, or Moon Salutations, as well as setting up a supported bridge, an "Instant Maui" and receive guided meditations in many of the poses, finished off with a blissfully silent, dark Savasanahhhh!
Here's a recipe for your restorative practice:
Allow. Release all muscular effort. Apply focus and attention to scan your body for hidden pockets of tension or effort and notice them change simply as a result of being held in attention and supported by your position.
Support. In order to release effort more completely, the body must be supported at a productive edge. The edge for restorative practice is very different than the edge in an active asana class. The edge is the place where the shape begins to create muscular tension. Supporting the torso and limbs there, at that very place of opening, creates a supportive feeling throughout the entire being – body and psyche.
Breathe. Breath is especially important in the early moments while the mind is still running like a velo. Once the opening is found through which the chatter can escape its cycling, mind creates less tension. However, sometimes it takes an entire practice to find this. Until then, the breath is your ally. Return to watching the breath. We’re not creating or elongating or anything; only watching. Now, as it watches, mind will commence to commentary: “Isn’t that interesting? I was sure I was breathing from my diaphragm! Jeez, I wonder when I’ll ever rid myself of that pattern?….” Just return to watching the breath. Stay with the moment, not the facsimile of the moment created by the commentary.
Be. This last is more the meal, while the earlier 3 principles are the recipe. You start with support, mix in a heap of allow, and a generous dollop of breathe, and if the temperature and time are right, you’ll pull some being out of the oven.