Restorative yoga was where I started. Due to illness, I quite literally started yoga from the ground up – doing postures where I could lie down, supported as much as possible.
As my health improved I quickly started to incorporate more active poses – standing poses and poses that require strength and balance. It was all good stuff but I never waved goodbye to the restorative practice.
I always had an inkling that there was more to restorative yoga than just good old R&R and my inkling was confirmed in a restorative Iyengar class I used to attend every Sunday.
We would practise with props galore. It would drive me a little crazy how much time we would spend preparing our ‘posture station’ but the efforts were nothing compared to the benefits.
After class, I would float down the street. My body felt lighter, my posture was ridiculously good. My shoulders were back and down with zero effort, my chest was open, my heart was leading the way. The effect on my confidence and my day was noticeable.
I’d known about the effects of posture on our state of mind for a while but this was such a powerful personal experience of it. I was surprised that this evidence was coming courtesy of lying around on cushions, but the truth is that by using cushions, blankets, bolsters, a duvet…whatever props are available, we can position our body in such a way that it can open whilst being supported and there’s a lot more power in that than it first appears.
Over the years I have continued to practise and have noticed more and more benefits opening up to me, and opening me up, in a whole range of ways. If you take up the practice you might be surprised by it too. Here are 5 (slighly less obvious) reasons to practise restorative yoga…
1. Get a clear experience of openness
Through restorative yoga we can get a clear experience of the openess we are going for in our regular practice and in our daily lives. For example, we might find the lift and openess of our chest difficult to access in yoga poses such as the warriors, where we are required to be strong in our legs and shoulders and open in our hips whilst lifting the chest. It’s a lot to attend to. As is trying to keep good posture during a hurried, stressful life.
Having a clear experience of that openess through restorative yoga makes it more available to us rather than subtle and elusive, and it becomes something we then have more chance of experiencing whilst also keeping our body strong in a standing pose, or our mind strong in everyday life.
2. Target your openess
With the aid of props, we can target where we open. Our lower (lumbar) spine is capable of bending both backwards and forwards by quite a significant amount. Women particularly are prone to having a strong curve here, which can actually result in the chest sinking… not very good for the spine or internal organs, not to mention that horrible sinking feeling as the heart slumps physically and emotionally.
When doing a strong backbend in yoga, we often bend too much from the lumbar and not enough from the upper back, robbing ourselves of the benefits and potentially harming our backs in the process. Doing a supported backbend we can work in a targeted way to bend the upper spine, keeping the lower spine supported and teaching ourselves how to access our full flexibility, our full resources, instead of giving too much from one place.
3. Open more deeply
Without having to make the physical effort to hold a posture, we can open more deeply and effectively. For example, we can open our shoulders by raising our back on a support and leaving our shoulders free for gravity to work its magic. This can be more effective than actively opening our shoulders and chest because the act of engaging muscles can cause us to inadvertently tense what we’re trying to release. This is avoided in restorative yoga as the only thing there is to do is release.
4. Feel psychologically able to let go
With the physical support we also feel psychologically more able to open our bodies – and the mind plays a big role in releasing our tension and tightness. For example, we often hold tension in our stomachs, resulting in digestive issues and restricted breathing. In a supported forward fold, there is gentle pressure on the stomach courtesy of whatever prop we happen to be using. This firmness gives us the confidence to be soft and release whatever we’re holding, which tends to be a fair bit of nervous tension.
5. Meditate easily
Restorative yoga is a powerful aid to meditation. In restorative yoga you can stay in the postures for longer and without the effort to maintain anything you can relax into an open awareness of what is happening in your body and mind.
Meditation is normally associated with a sitting posture and there are good reasons for this, but it can create a feeling of excessive effort or even force (especially if that position is physically challenging for us).
With the open body that comes through practising restorative yoga, we can experience a more open mind. It is easier to let go of day-to-day preoccupations to experience deeper relaxation and deeper insights.
In summary, restorative yoga is a powerful practice and I recommend it to anyone. Whether you are coming to yoga because of ill health, or you are an experienced practitioner who wants to deepen your backbends, or you are looking to learn how to meditate, why not grab a pillow or two and see what benefits you can find?