The Fundamentals Of Restorative Yoga
Our culture is built on how productive we can be, how much we can achieve and keep achieving. It can feel as if nothing is ever enough. We can even observe this within the Yoga community itself. As Yoga teachers we often witness the striving for a bigger practice, a more “advanced” practice, the strain to push the body towards more extreme positions, and students ignoring the pain that comes with such a practice.
Whilst our culture promotes a never ending amount of doing, Restorative Yoga is the radical, counter-cultural experience of simply being. Yes - there is the effort required to turn up for the practice, to engage in practice, but essentially it is a process of surrendering, an active letting go, of yielding.
To yield is to surrender. In Restorative Yoga we actively (i.e. consciously) surrender our tension to the force of gravity. We keep relaxing and softening throughout the practice. It is, in fact, a delightful process because for most of us letting go of tension brings great relief to our body and mind.
Because yielding is an active process, Restorative Yoga is not about collapsing into each posture, as we might slump into an old armchair. Instead, yielding allows us to be in a clear and dynamic relationship with our environment, so that we are very present to this softening of stress and tension, present to what may be revealed from letting go. Indeed, Yoga may be seen as a practice of revelation - by practicing Yoga we reveal what is obscured by our stress - a lighter, softer, more energised, clearer, heart-centered Self.
There’s a beautiful relationship between yielding and breathing. As we learn to actively release tension, our breath may naturally become freer, more at ease. It returns back to a more natural flow - a relaxed breathing pattern. It may be a very enjoyable experience when our breath is allowed to flow unimpeded through our body.
When we talk about breathing though we are not talking just about inhalation and exhalation. At a more internal level - a cellular level - our body breathes. In fact it is our cells’ need for oxygen and nutrients that ultimately drives our breathing process. With it’s emphasis on conscious deep relaxation, Restorative Yoga invites fuller respiration at a cellular level. Excess tension contributes to a tightening in the body which can restrict circulation which in turn restricts the ability for the cells to function optimally. Healthy cells which breath fully are vital and alive. Where breathing is restricted, cells struggle to function efficiently, and in areas of chronic tension and contraction, cellular breathing becomes restricted.
As teachers of Restorative Yoga, a mainstay of our classes is facilitating students into an experience of their cellular body, of cellular breathing. It is one of the most nourishing practices we know for the body, so very restful and rejuvenating.
Donna Farhi, during a recent Yoga intensive says: “An hour’s worth of conscious sustained cellular breathing may be the pinnacle of a year’s practice of Yoga.” It’s a fascinating statement to make, at once boldly debunking the myth that advanced Yoga is about mastering complex physical postures, while directing students towards a subtler, more refined practice.
USING PROPS INTELLIGENTLY AND MINDFULLY
It certainly helps our relaxation when we set our Restorative postures up really well, as the resulting ease-of-being means our attention and focus on softening the physical body won’t be distracted by discomfort.
Thus an important part of the practice is learning about setting up the props with precision and intelligence. Like all Yoga, these postures should be modified to suit each individual - for example, someone with sore, tight neck and shoulders should have a different set up to someone who does not.
A prop that is moved a few centimeters here or there can make a world of difference. We can treat each posture as an enquiry - how do we set up to offer profound support and optimal comfort? With this enquiry approach we remain present, in the moment, self-adjusting along the way. The same posture today may require a slightly different setup from last week.
And so we create a practice which is responsive to what is being presented in each moment, always moving us towards greater balance and ease.
IMPECCABLE STANDARDS OF COMFORT
We encourage students to find “impeccable standards of comfort” in every pose. Students, over time learn to refine and individualize the posture set up to support optimum comfort. When we set up in this way we do not need to ‘think’ about relaxing, we simply relax! Look for ultimate comfort and support for all body systems including nervous, muscular, skeletal and the organ systems.
Autonomic Nervous System
It is Restorative Yoga’s profound effect on the autonomic nervous system that is a crucial element to it’s power. Modern day stressful living means that for most of us our sympathetic nervous system is constantly firing without any real opportunity of quieting - we are constantly in a state of of flight or fight. Restorative Yoga is a perfect antidote. With it’s emphasis on deliberately slowing down and optimal comfort and ease, the practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for resting and digesting, restoring easy breathing, lowering blood pressure and heart rates, relaxing tension, and bringing greater balance.
In Restorative Yoga, when every joint is supported well by the props, the body receives this as a message of “I feel supported” on a deeper level this kind of self care can lead to a state loving - kindness, where we feel safe and nourished.
In support of our joints, ultimately no joint should be left hanging in space. Looking at one of the classic Restorative Yoga Postures - Supported Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Salamba Supta Baddha Konasana) - the arms are supported by the blankets. I’ve seen students practice this without arm support, their elbows dangling mid-air. While this may initially give more sensation of opening across the shoulders and chest, after a few minutes, the sensations may become quite intense. The weight of the bones pull the arm away and out from the shoulder socket. There follows a response from the nervous system and surrounding body tissues that creates stress and tension around the joint to “hold on” and this is the opposite experience we are looking for.
The aim of Restorative Yoga is to induce rest and ease. Yes, the postures may gently open us to encourage greater energy flow, and this can best be achieved most effectively by sending a message of comfort, safety and cohesion to the body. When every joint is beautifully supported, the body receives this as a message of kindness and responds … ahhh … I am safe to soften, safe to relax, safe to quieten.
In fact we may observe healthy Yoga as a respectful dialogue between our body and our mind. We receive messages from the body … sensations of discomfort or pleasure are registered … and we may ask ourselves, what message do we wish to send back? One that is responsive, intelligent, kind and helpful for the body, or one that is geared towards pushing the body (even subtly)?
In Restorative Yoga (ideally all Yoga), no pain is everyone’s gain. We can consider that practice is an opportunity to embody the principle of Ahimsa, non-harming and loving-kindness. In this engaging and responsive dialogue between body and mind, we have witnessed again and again the effectiveness of this approach, not only on our physical and energetic levels, but also on our emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. In truth, healthy Yoga holistically works on all our Koshas, or layers of our being.
While we can practice these Restorative postures separately, or towards the end of a general class, a whole, extended session of Restorative Yoga can be immensely beneficial, consciously giving all the body systems the time to relax back towards refined balance. When we practice such an extended session be aware that the sequence we practice the postures in may have different effects - sedating, rejuvenating, affecting the flow and direction of energy and so on.
Judith Lasater suggests that any well-sequenced Restorative practice should include at least one inversion, to help counter the effects of gravity. Essentially though, sequencing postures comes down to practicing safely, creatively and responsively.
We must begin to truly understand Yoga Asanas, how they work, what their effects are, how they may relate to each other, so that we practice in an order that makes sense for our particular being, in this particular moment.
Through observing many students over many years on a weekly basis a good place to begin would always be simply arriving, settling into a simple form such as constructive rest, or elevated legs up the wall. This supports a process of intentionally transitioning from the day, or weeks external, outward focused activity to a ‘being here now’. This may include a general or individualised breath awareness practice. Over time, through consistent practice we encourage experienced students to create their own sequence, appropriate to the day and moment. In this way the student develops independence, and can sustain a deeply relaxed state without having to be drawn out and on to a next posture that may not be so ideal for the moment. When students first begin however, it may be most helpful to sequence through a greater number of postures to experience the various effects, and greater arc of Restorative postures.
Basic key points to consider when sequencing:
- A specific theme
- Time of the day, and weather, temperature etc.
- Balancing perceived individual needs with a class plan
- Amount of props required for each set-up
- Experience of the students
- Gauging the ‘feel’ of the room in any given class may influence what and how you might teach
By emphasizing impeccable standards of comfort and wise sequencing we may embody sustainability in our practice. In setting up our postures, we may ask ourselves whether we can stay in the pose for an extended period of time without discomfort. Optimal ease means we can sustain the practice for longer.
The benefits gained from Restorative postures are enhanced with time spent in the postures, i.e. spending 25 minutes in a comfortable Supported Reclined Bound Angle will be more beneficial than 5 minutes in the same posture which is set up to give stronger sensations.
CREATING SMOOTH TRANSITIONS AND NEUTRAL SENSATIONS
In service to a sustainable practice, we can set up our Restorative Yoga postures in a way that creates smooth transitions in the flow of our body. As we position ourselves we may establish gentle undulations, our body like a languid rolling river which encourages energy flow through relaxation. There should be no excessive drop or incline along the lines of the body.
This is a key point - as Yoga practitioners many of us love moving our bodies, stretching and strengthening ourselves. We love the sensations of all this movement. And that is all fine, good and necessary. It is satisfying indeed to connect into the body and delight in the sensations of it all.
Yet we can go further. We should be aware that Yoga is a tradition that spans thousands of years and we have the blessed opportunity to drink deeply of its offerings. However, we may be caught by attaching only to the strong sensations of practice - even practicing in a way which only brings greater and greater physical sensation.
Living in our computer orientated virtual world has disconnected us so much from truly inhabiting our body that when we do attempt to connect it’s in a harsh and severe way.
In Restorative Yoga we may counter this cultural tendency by leaning our practice towards neutrality. We may cultivate an attitude of real contentment with less sensation and instead encourage a healthy curiosity towards more neutral sensation. With quieter sensations we may be drawn into an inner space and explore our internal landscape. Yoga may draw us into subtler experience - a beautiful inner journey towards our True Nature.
BEING TRUE NATURE
It seems somewhat lost in much of modern Yoga - the original purpose of the practice, to return us to a Self-Realisation of our innate True Nature, or original wholeness, completeness and goodness.
With it’s emphasis on profound rest we have the opportunity in Restorative practice to move into the “quieter” practices of Yoga. Yoga Asana does not have to be separate from other limbs of Yoga - Pranayama (enhancing the flow of vital life-force energy), Pratyahara (balancing the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (Self-Realisation). Although a longer discussion on these aspects of Yoga would be valuable for some other discussion, we may acknowledge that Patanjali presented us the Eight-fold path as “limbs” rather than stages or steps - they intertwine like the branches of a tree, supporting each other. They may all be present in our practice.
In the quietness of a Restorative practice we may tune into our breath, even on a cellular level. We can relax the senses so they may be more in balance with how we interact and receive the environment around us. We can learn to focus our attention and sustain that focus throughout the practice, and finally arrive simply and perfectly in the moment, with a remarkable acceptance, presence and responsiveness to this moment. It becomes a graceful relaxation back into our True Nature.
This is the culmination of a wise and mature Yoga practice. And practice is the appropriate word! We may allow the beauty of Yoga to draw us back in, again and again, day after day, year after year, with the promise that the rewards, time tested and true, are guaranteed.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you.
~ A Celtic Blessing