I love restorative yoga for its ability to calm my nervous system and make me feel nurtured. Restorative yoga consists of passively held poses, usually using props such as blankets and bolsters. In my yoga classes, I like to begin with a restorative pose to help students get settled and inwardly focused, and I also end class with one or more restorative poses to provide integration, closure, and time for deep rest and relaxation.
Relief from chronic stress and overwhelm is one of the most extraordinary benefits that can be gained from the practice of yoga. The overstimulation, information overload, and excessive busyness that are rampant in today’s culture take a toll on our minds, bodies, and spirits. For many of us, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction, is overactive. Activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system (which activates tranquil functions in the body), like restorative yoga, can be extremely valuable.
Below I describe a few simple restorative poses that can be done without props (other than a wall and chair). Each pose can be held for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the time you have; it’s nice to use a timer so that you can completely relax into the pose.
For many of us, it can be challenging to be still, so you may want to gradually increase your duration in a pose over time. As you hold a pose, welcome any thoughts and sensations that arise, and if possible, allow them to pass without clinging or resistance. Drawing the senses inward, closing the eyes (possibly placing an eye bag or dark sock over the eyes), and observing your natural breath can help support a restful experience.
It also seems hard for many people to allow themselves the time to slow down and indulge in this type of self-care activity, which is one reason I feel passionate about including it in the classes I teach. Although the more active yoga poses also have wonderful effects, if we treat yoga as yet another activity where we need to push hard, accomplish something, and achieve results, we will lose out on many of the deeper rewards of yoga.
Please note that the poses described below are not recommended during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy. Also, these restorative poses should feel effortless and comfortable; if you experience any discomfort, come out of the pose and ask a teacher to help you with poses, modifications, and/or props better suited to your current needs.
I sometimes tell my students that if they have time to do only one pose at home, viparita karani (legs up the wall or deep lake pose) is an excellent choice. An inversion, this pose reverses the effects of gravity and has an overall restorative effect. It also helps relieve fatigue in the legs and feet.
To come into the pose, begin sitting on the floor next to a clear wall space, with the side of one hip touching the wall and the knees bent toward your chest. Swing your legs up the wall and straighten them as you simultaneously lower your torso so that it is perpendicular to the wall, using your hands and arms to help your torso to the floor. If your hamstrings feel overstretched, you can scooch your buttocks away from the wall a bit. If you feel like your knees are hyperextending (straightening excessively to where they seem to bend backwards), bend them slightly.
If your chin is above the level of your forehead, place a small pillow or a folded blanket or towel under your head. The arms can rest to the sides comfortably away from your body, palms up, or you can place each arm in an “L” shape with the upper arms perpendicular to the body.
Savasana with Calves on a Chair
Performing savasana (corpse pose) with the calves on a chair is soothing for the lower back and legs. As a mild inversion, it has similar benefits to viparita karani, but it is easier for those with hamstring tightness.
To come into the pose, sit down sideways on the floor in front of the seat of a chair, and swing your legs up so that your calves are supported by the chair seat, lowering down onto your back as you did in viparita karani. Situate your body so that the chair seat supports the calves all the way to the backs of your knees (an open backed chair works best for this, or you can orient the side of the chair seat towards you). Depending on the type of chair and your height, you may want to place a folded blanket on the chair seat before coming into this pose.
This pose is done by lying face down on your belly. Allow the feet to turn inward toward one another, and bending the arms, place one hand on top of the other and rest the forehead on the hands. You also can turn the head to one side and rest your cheek on your hands; if you do that, ideally you will switch to the opposite cheek for an equal length of time. Compared with the traditional form of savasana lying on your back, this pose can provide a greater feeling of safety and inward focus. It also has an emotionally soothing effect.
Give one or all of these poses a try, and experience the relaxing, stress-relieving effects. Restorative yoga is a wonderful complement to strenuous forms of exercise and/or a busy, fast-paced lifestyle.