What is Restorative Yoga?
Sometimes referred to as ‘active relaxation’, in this style of yoga (stemming from the therapeutic work of BKS Iyengar) we are consciously manipulating the nervous system to create ease. Props are used to facilitate relaxation by supporting the body. While the body is supported there is no need to ‘hold’ a posture, therefore opening the door more easily for us to completely let go.
It is known that restorative yoga can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ activities). So, a restorative practice can be especially beneficial when we are in a state of feeling ‘tired all the time’.
The reported benefits of regular restorative practice are wide ranging. Among many conditions including high blood pressure, asthma and migraines, it can also aid recuperation from injury, and be of help in overcoming anxiety and depression brought about by traumatic life events such as a divorce, job loss or bereavement.
Also, restorative yoga balances our Prana and Apana (the masculine and feminine energies located above and below the diaphragm respectively), so that we are neither depleted nor over-stimulated.
However, we may still find ourselves facing resistance. This is because while restorative poses look easy, as they place little physical demand on you, it does not mean that your mind will settle, or that your body won’t resist – especially if this practice is new to you or you are naturally a very ‘on-the-go’ person. But part of this practice cultivating the patience and willingness to simply be.
Why Restorative Yoga?
Whether you’re an endurance athlete looking to aid recovery, stressed and over-worked, struggling with insomnia or simply in need of some me-time, everyone can benefit from restorative yoga.
A very important aspect of restorative yoga is that our bodies are given the opportunity to truly rest. With our never-ending to-do lists we can sometimes think of resting as being lazy. But for our health and wellbeing, rest is a necessity rather than a luxury. When we are overworked or fatigued we may think the answer is to simply to slouch in front of the TV and zone out or to get more sleep. However, it is rest that facilitates sleep, not the other way round. This is why we can find ourselves getting a full night’s sleep, yet still wake up the next morning feeling exhausted. And while you are so tired it’s very hard to be at your best.
As an experienced restorative yoga teacher and devoted student, for me, one of the joys of a restorative practice is that it gives us the permission to do less for our own benefit. Sometimes, what our bodies crave is to be still. It comes back to balance and being able to tune into what your body needs.
Why stress management is so important
In our modern existence we are often in living in a state of chronic stress. In other words, we are often in a ‘sympathetic nervous system state’. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of our autonomic nervous system that activates what is called our ‘fight flight’ response. For our cave-dwelling ancestors this would have been brought about by an immediate threat – say, running away from a woolly mammoth. Our heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension increase as we prepare to flee, while the systems that are non-essential in that moment (such as digestion, growth and repair) are shut down.
Nowadays, we are more likely to be contending with issues such as health concerns, job losses or money worries, but for our nervous system these things are still perceived as threats. On top of this, add living busy lives with near constant overstimulation from our surroundings (never mind our smartphones) and is it any wonder many of us feel frazzled? As explained in the book Relax and Renew by senior Iyengar teacher, physical therapist (and the teacher I trained with), Judith Hanson Lasater, for our ancestors stressful situations resolved themselves quickly. For instance, if we escaped that woolly mammoth, our adrenal glands would stop producing stress hormones and the systems in our bodies that temporarily shut down would go back into operation. Unfortunately, we are unable to resolve our stress so quickly. The result is that our adrenals continue pumping stress hormones around our bodies, hence we remain in a near constant sympathetic nervous system state.