Many years ago I arrived at my yoga teacher’s house for a private lesson. On seeing me, she set me up in a restorative yoga pose. I felt the eye bag go on. I woke up – a whole hour later. That was the lesson.
Today the story sounds comical, but at the time I was exhausted. There is no way I could have done a mindful, physical yoga practice that day. The tank was empty.
Since then I have done the same for many of my students and I love to teach restorative yoga, in classes, privately and to trainee teachers. I recognise the fatigue and exhaustion frequently, and the simple, natural need to rest and restore. This is often a symptom of very ‘full’ lives: work, family, commuting, studying, caring for others, multiple responsibilities, with little or no time to slow down, rest, re-charge, re-inspire or take care of ourselves.
The situation can become chronic, with a weakened immune system, disturbed sleep, anxiety and stress. It can be particularly felt when we care for others as part of our daily life or our profession. As teachers, trainers, carers or therapists for example, how can we give our students and clients what they need if our own resources are depleted?
This is where restorative yoga comes in. While it includes the same form of poses you would find in an active yoga practice such as forward and back bends, twists and inversions, it is completely effortless. The body is fully supported by props. Its origins lie in the therapeutic work of the late BKS Iyengar and each pose has its own particular therapeutic benefits.
I see restorative yoga as a potent gift that everyone can benefit from in their life. No yoga experience is required. No particular flexibility or strength. No mental effort. Once established, it works its magic in only a few minutes each day.
It is deeply relaxing, rejuvenating and nurturing, and brings us back to homeostasis, our optimal internal balance. Through support and removing activity and stimulation from the body and mind the nervous system is calmed, leading us away from the active ‘fight or flight’ state to the ‘rest and digest’ setting of its parasympathetic branch. Our natural functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion and elimination return to their optimum levels.
On another level, restorative yoga is a practice of non-doing, surrender and consciously moving into stillness. Of ‘being’ and being at ease with who we are – comfortable in our own skin. It has a meditative quality.
In the tradition of yoga I believe it provides a contemporary stepping stone between the active practices of asana (poses), pranayama (breathing techniques) and yama/niyama (our daily actions and values) and the deep inner practices of pratyahara (turning inwards and quietening of our senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and bliss. For me it is a natural, spontaneous form of pratyahara in which our senses quieten and no longer dominate us. There is an associated balancing of our emotions too.
While restorative yoga can support us in particularly intense or stressful times in life such as moving house, taking exams, starting or losing a job or becoming a parent, its true beauty lies in its regular use as a means of maintaining our long-term wellbeing and easeful strength. It offers us a steady reserve of calm energy, clarity of mind and a sense of gratitude for all the good in life. It enables us to be at our best, live fully and to give what we can to others.
I would like to share with you two of the simplest restorative yoga poses there are. These are perfect at the end of the day and can serve, for example, as a clear and healthy marker between our working day and our personal or family time thereafter. You can also enjoy them before bed, and they will, over time, help you to get to sleep if you have difficulty with that. You can do both or just one.
1. Legs-up-the-wall pose
Start by sitting sideways to the wall. Lean backwards and simultaneously turn so that your legs can rest against the wall. Give yourself a little distance from the wall if the backs of your legs feel tight. The knees are soft, not ‘locked’ straight. Place a pillow or blanket under your head and in the nape of your neck if you wish. Stay here for 5-7 minutes. Reverse your entry to exit from the pose, very slowly.
2. Basic relaxation pose
If you don’t have a bolster, just use a rolled up blanket or duvet etc. under your knees, setting the level of support to what is most comfortable for your lower back. You can rest your hands on your belly if you prefer. Stay here for 7 minutes, or up to 20 if you have the time! To exit, bend your knees into your chest, roll to one side and very slowly come to sitting.
If it is hard for your mind to switch off, perhaps try playing some gentle music, or focusing your mind on observing your natural breathing, either at the tip of your nose or in your lower belly. You may fall asleep, and that’s fine if so – you need to!
And just for fun, here is an illustration of what another pose looks like. This is wonderful for releasing any tension around the hips, and for giving space to the abdomen and chest. A teacher would help you set this up.
Please note: an alternative to all these poses would be given for pregnancy.
I hope you enjoy trying some restorative yoga, and making it a regular, easy part of your life. For me as a teacher and mother, it is a wonderful form of self-care that supports me in being present and calmly energised when caring for and working with others.
‘This calm steadiness of the senses is called Yoga. Then one should be watchful, because Yoga comes and goes’. Katha Upanishad
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