Imagine the most dreamy, restful state you’ve ever been in. You’re basking in the twilight zone between sleeping and wakefulness where relaxation consumes the body and mind. That blissful feeling of wholeness washes over you, and you can feel your full body exhale. Maybe you’ve experienced this while laying on the beach, or while soaking in a luxurious bubble bath.
We’ve got good news for you -- you don’t have to travel far or indulge in fancy bath products to find that bliss again. You can access it from your own home, using items you probably already have.
And with that, we introduce the magic of restorative yoga.
What is Restorative Yoga?
Restorative is a slow and gentle practice, with little movement. In this practice, we hold postures for longer periods of time (typically between 5 and 20 minutes) and use props to support the body. Props bring the ground up to meet us and provide comfort and coziness (more on props to come). Here, we’re unconcerned with stretching or strengthening -- we’re simply letting ourselves be.
Restorative is meant to be a grounding practice. Most postures are done low to the ground in a seated or laying down shape -- no standing postures here. In this way, restorative balances our root chakra, connecting us to a sense of stability and safety.
You may be wondering what this looks like. Let’s take a look at supta baddha konasana, or reclined bound angle pose. In this posture, the soles of the feet are together and the knees wide. Maybe your knees drop down to the ground easily here, but I encourage you to generously prop them up with blankets, anyway. We’re not here to do the most, or to take postures as deeply as we might during an active flow class. Once you’ve placed support underneath your knees, lay back onto a bolster or pillows. Your hands can rest beside you, and maybe you place a blanket over the hips. We’re here to rest and restore, and we can aid the body in this process by turning it all down a notch. Find about 10 minutes here: lean into this rest, and invite the wave of relief and relaxation to come.
By engaging in a series of restful postures, you’re signaling to the body that it’s time to rest, rejuvenate, and yes -- restore.
Why Do It? Why not just… take a nap?
We’ve asked this question, too, especially when some postures, like a side-laying savasana, might be exactly the shape you sleep in, anyway. While sleep is of the utmost importance, restorative yoga enhances our ability to feel well-rested, energized, and clear-headed. Who knew you could achieve all that just by laying on your yoga mat? Sometimes the key is to do less, not more. In this setting, we don’t want to work too hard. Rather, the goal is to settle in, and let the poses do the work of rest for us.
After a restorative session, we’ve stripped away all the layers of excess stress and nonsense that tends to pile up, helping us to get back to our true selves. With this deep rest, we can access the beautiful place that resides in each of us -- the core, perfect version that is most true to you. Let it all go, and come home to yourself.
Restorative is a period of intentional rest. While it does feel magical, the benefits of restorative are rooted in neuroscience. With this practice, we engage the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest response. We slow down the heart rate and allow the body to let go of stress. Not only does this feel good while we’re on the mat, it sets us up for success off the mat, too.
Our parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous systems both play crucial roles in our survival. In modern life, though, we often engage our fight or flight reaction too often, leading to an increase of stress hormones that simply don’t need to be there. This chronic stress impacts your body over time, affecting your ability to sleep and the ability of your immune system to keep you healthy and well. As smart as our bodies are, they don’t actually know the difference between stress at work (which, while unpleasant, is unlikely to be a life or death situation) or being chased by a tiger (when we really need our fight or flight to kick into gear). The good news is, restorative yoga can help us turn down the sympathetic nervous system, and dial up the parasympathetic nervous system, strengthening the body’s ability to support us.
With continued practice, we allow the rest or digest response to turn on more often, which allows us to thrive, not just survive. Like strengthening a muscle, we can work up to a resilient system. We’ll be better for it -- calmer in the mind and in the body.
Whether you have a regular yoga practice already or not, we encourage you to give restorative yoga a try! No matter your experience with yoga, it’s a wonderful addition to your repertoire. If you’re used to a more active yoga practice, or if you always like to be busy, we especially encourage you to give restorative yoga a try. See what it’s like to connect to a practice outside of your regular comfort zone. A healthy mix of activity and rest is vital to all of us. Slowing down is an important part of a self-care routine, and engaging in this deep rest is potent medicine, for both the body and soul.
Restorative Yoga at Home
So you’re ready to start your restorative practice, but how do you begin (especially while we’re cooped up at home)?
At a studio, you would use props like bolsters, blocks, and blankets. If you have these things at home, great! If not, there are plenty of places to find inspiration in your home -- look to your couch, bed, and even your linen closet. Pillows, blankets, couch cushions, and towels are all invited to the mat for this. While blocks aren’t 100% necessary, they can be truly helpful (if you’re looking to buy a set of natural yoga blocks, check out Alma Story’s cork blocks). Anything that is soft, supportive, and will add an element of comfort will make a great substitute for a bolster. If you have an eye pillow, bring that to your mat, as well (a washcloth makes a great substitute). It can be calming to block out the light, signaling to the body that it’s time to rest. Bright light can be activating, so we recommend practicing in a softer light or a dim setting.
If you’re just getting started, we recommend finding a yoga teacher who offers restorative yoga. Many studios are offering online classes right now, and there’s plenty of online content available. Try out a few teachers and see what resonates with you! Most classes are 60-75 minutes, allowing you enough time to transition into your practice and really enjoy it.
When you’re on the mat, allow yourself to just be. Let your weight sink into the mat and props, releasing any holding or tension in the body. If you have trouble staying present, try bringing your attention to your breath or another physical sensation. Give yourself permission to let go of the rest of the day and to spend the time taking care of yourself. When we surrender to the postures and invite yoga to nourish us, we allow ourselves to experience the full range of benefits offered by this practice.
If you have a few restorative postures in your toolkit, feel free to practice on your own, too. Play around to see what poses feel most deeply restful to you. As you keep practicing, too, you’ll figure out which props feel best which each pose. With continued time on the mat, you’ll fine-tune your practice. The Alma Story mat can really help you here. The alignment system can aid you in remembering exactly the ideal placement of your props on the mat, so it’s easier for you to set up next time.
Restore Your Soul, Restore Your Sleep
“One of my students referred to restorative yoga as a guided nap, and honestly, I love that description” (Author’s experience). It’s a beautiful period of rest, and hopefully during this time, you’ll be able to slip into a meditative state. Intentional wakeful rest and a full night’s sleep are a lovely complement to each other. In a world that encourages us to be busy and productive, let restorative yoga be the perfect antidote to busy-ness.
Restorative yoga is a great way to prepare for bedtime, like a lullaby for the body. Even 20-30 minutes on the mat before bed can help you transition into a peaceful night of rest. (If this interests you, stay tuned! We’ll be covering yoga and sleep in more depth in a later blog post).
We hope you’ll give restorative yoga a try. Let us know how it goes! We’d love to see your restorative set up, so feel free to tag us in your photos. Now, go get some rest!
Prepared by Laura Birdsall
Laura views yoga as a practice of coming home to herself. She offers studio and private classes, and aspires to support others in deepening their yoga practice. Head to Laura's website to learn more, or find her on Instagram at @lauraabird