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What Is Restorative Yoga? (And Why You Might Need It!)


Woman lying down in supported child's pose on a bolster

Restorative yoga is one of the practices that pulled me back from the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion, crippling grief, anxiety and feeling lost in my life. That helped me most heal and reconnect to and restore myself.


Since then, it's been a regular part of my self-care, self-maintenance practice and a key part of my stress-management toolkit. It's also one of my favorite practices to share with students.


An incredibly effective reset for body, mind and nervous system in particular, it might just be the practice that you need most, too—a powerful counterbalancing for our society's overemphasis on constantly doing, doing, doing.


What is it?


True restorative yoga is a resting yoga practice. I often call it meditation from the body up. We hold a small set of poses on the floor, supported by comfy props that allow the body to relax, for a long time. (In my classes, most poses are 5-15 minutes) When the body is relaxed, this sends a signal to the brain that it's OK to relax, too.


This style of hatha yoga was initially popularized in the U.S. in the 1970s by Judith Hanson Lasater, a student of renowned teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, whose practice involved heavy use of props.


The poses aren't stretching, striving poses. The practice is allll about asking yourself to do less: to see where you can release tension and efforting and ground more into the earth. To become fully present in this moment in your body. To breathe with whatever arises in body and mind.


The practice can help us:

  • Reduce stress and elicit a deep relaxation response

  • Get out of our over-busy heads and break negative thought loops

  • Learn to better connect with ourselves (body, thoughts, intuition, etc.)

  • Connect to our body's innate healing and relaxation tools

  • Identify where tension lies in the body and begin releasing it

  • Lessen the impact of physical and emotional pain

  • Reduce inflammation

As my own teacher, the phenomenal Jillian Pransky, shares in her blog, "Restorative yoga creates the conditions for the relaxation response to kick in. The grounding; complete, full breathing; and quietness of restorative yoga help us elicit the relaxation response, a neurological response that tells us we are safe, pulls us out of 'flight or fight' mode and initiates the body's self-healing process. This bolsters the systems of long-term health and healing..."


What are some of the poses and props?


The most foundational pose is a propped version of savasana. You might have a soft bolster under your knees to release low back pressure and a blanket under your spine and rolled under your neck and head, creating a soft cradle in which the body can feel held.


Other poses include:

  • Propped legs up the wall (or legs up a chair or bolster)

  • Gentle prone or supine twists

  • Side lying pose (similar to fetal position)

  • Supported child's pose, bridge, and supta baddha konasana (cobbler's pose)

  • Gentle heart openers

  • Prone half frog

  • Savasana variations (prone is called surfboard pose, and a version with the knees up and soles of feet on the floor, my favorite, is called constructive rest)

Common props include bolsters of various shapes and sizes, yoga blankets folded and rolled in different ways, blocks and eye pillows.


A home restorative practice can be even more lovely as you can use bed pillows instead of bolsters (my personal favorite!).


What might I feel during a practice?


I liken restorative yoga to a meditation from the body up. In traditional meditation, we use mental focus to settle ourselves from the top down. But in restorative yoga, we begin by creating comfortable conditions for the body to relax and release, and this, in turn allows the mind to start relaxing and releasing.


Many people feel relaxed in a restorative practice and might veer in and out of that delicious state between wakefulness and sleeping.


It's also very common to have thoughts during restorative yoga, or sensations. This is where the active part of our practice kicks us—the meditative part. We try to notice what arises and breathe with it. Maybe we investigate: "What are you trying to tell me? Is there anything I can do for you right now? Do I need you right now?"


If we find we don't need those thoughts, we can release them and ground back in the body, back in the present. If we do need them, maybe staying with them for a few moments helps lessen their grip on us. Whatever happens, we stay present and breathing.


It's also common when we get really still to have uncomfortable emotions or thoughts arise. I've been in restorative yoga poses that caused major emotions to surge through me. Tears. Emotional releases. I just breathe with what's there. Listen deeply. Thank it. And see if and when it's ready to let go. Often once I make space for it, it starts to dissipate as I breathe with it.


Where can I practice restorative yoga?


STUDIOS: I hadn't even heard of restorative yoga until Covid-times, and found it to be a lifeline during those uncertain, unprecedented times. Now, it's popping up on more yoga studio schedules, so Google or ask around for spots near you that might offer it. Note that not every class called "Restorative" or labeled with the word "Restore" is a true resting, restorative yoga class, so ask questions before you try a session! Many people use this adjective to convey the vibe rather than denoting this specific yoga style.


(If you're in the DC area, I teach Restorative Yoga & Reiki on Thursdays, 7:30-8:45 p.m. and one Sunday evening a month at Karma Yoga Falls Church and on Fridays, 6:45-8 p.m. at Bhakti Yoga DC.) ONLINE: There are also some nice practices online, including from Lasater and her daughter, Lizzie, and on Insight Timer (I recommend Julie Ela Grace). You can also search for Livestreamed restorative classes via the Mindbody app, and there are sessions on YouTube (here's a great one by Lizzie Lasater), although the quality can vary highly depending on the teacher.


PERSONAL PRACTICE: Lastly, guiding yourself through even one pose at home can be incredibly resetting. If you need a break during your workday and have access to a private space at home or in the office, see if you can sneak in just one restorative yoga pose for 3-10 minutes. Legs up a chair. Supported child's pose. Constructive rest. Settle into the earth, the floor. Scan your body and see if you can breathe out any tension. Attune deeply to your breath. Really BE in your body for just these few minutes. Set a timer so your brain can relax more into your break.


Learn more

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