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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Lucas

A Deep Dive into Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga

This therapeutic style of yoga uses props to support the body, encouraging deep relaxation. Using passive yoga asanas, we let our nervous systems shift and enjoy the benefit of true rest. Different from more active styles, we will concentrate on surrendering our weight to supports and softening into the stretches. This helps us to relieve the effects of negative stress encountered in daily life, and can be highly beneficial in times of fatigue, illness, and emotional strain. Our focus will be to calm and nurture ourselves on all levels during the class. Music which is used will enhance the experience, encouraging a total sense of letting go.

Purpose of Restorative Yoga

The purpose of restorative yoga is to provide rest and rejuvenation to muscles and connective tissues. Relaxing on an assortment of supports may seem lacking in difficulty, but it is challenging for some to find the stillness and patience required for the long holds. It’s essential for us to give our muscles a chance to rest and rebound from exercise and from everyday life.

Benefits of Restorative Yoga

Even one restorative yoga pose will lead to a calm, restful state. By arranging the body strategically and supporting it with props, you’ll experience deep rest and healing. In each pose, you’ll get all the usual benefits, multiplied many times over because of the long holds. Restorative yoga relieves stress and takes you to a quiet place that is meditative and ideal for processing emotions.

Stress and the Physiological Response Stress begins with a physiological response to what your body-mind perceives as life-threatening. For our ancestors, this may have been defending against the aggression of a hungry animal. For modern-day humans, this may be work related stress, pressures of caring for a family member or indeed the burden we are under with the ongoing pandemic. Whatever the stressor, the mind alerts the body that danger is present. In response, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, secrete catecholamine hormones (adrenaline). These adrenaline and noradrenalin hormones act upon the autonomic nervous system, as the body prepares for fight or flight. Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness, and muscle tension are increased. The adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell and the body begins to sweat. The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the immediacy of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair, and reproduction. These adaptive responses have been positive for the survival of the human race over thousands of years. For our ancestors, a stressful situation usually resolved itself quickly. They fought, or they ran, and, if they survived, everything returned to normal. The hormones were used beneficially, the adrenal glands stopped producing stress hormones, and systems that were temporarily shut down resumed operation. To his detriment, modern man is often unable to resolve his stress so directly, and lives chronically stressed as a result. Still responding to the fight or flight response, the adrenals continue to pump stress hormones. The body does not benefit from nutrition because the digestion and elimination systems are slowed down. Even sleep is disturbed by this agitated state. In a chronically stressed state, quality of life, and perhaps life itself, is at risk. The body's capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or injury, or creating a new one, including high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction, reproductive problems, and depression. These conditions add stress of their own and the cycle continues.

The Relaxation Solution

The antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply. This rest is different from sleep. Deep states of sleep include periods of dreaming which increase muscular tension, as well as other physiological signs of tension. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet.

Common to all stress reduction techniques is putting the body in a comfortable position, with gentle attention directed toward the breath. But do these techniques really work? Scientists have researched the effects of relaxation and report measurable benefits, including reduction in muscle tension and improved circulation.

Among the first to study relaxation was Edmund Jacobson, M.D. In 1934, he wrote You Must Relax about the benefits of his progressive relaxation techniques. He reported success in using his approach to treat high blood pressure, indigestion, colitis, insomnia, and what he called "nervousness."

One of the foremost writers and researchers in the field of stress reduction today is Herbert Benson, M.D., who coined the phrase "Relaxation Response" to describe the physiological and mental responses that occur when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book, he defines the relaxation response as "a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns."

Another doctor (and yoga teacher) called Dr Timothy McCall has also done many years of research and written his own book called “Yoga as Medicine” where you can read about an overview of the history and science of yoga.

Restorative Yoga

The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, the scriptural language of ancient India, and means "to yoke" or "to unite." Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization of 2000 to 4000 B.C.E., yoga practices are designed to help the individual feel whole. Ancient yoga texts present teachings that include the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. The physical aspects of yoga--poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama)--are the most popular in the West.

Traditionally, a yoga class or personal practice session begins with active poses followed by a brief restorative pose.

Some of the restorative yoga poses development can be credited to B.K.S. Iyengar, of Pune, India. Author of the contemporary classic Light on Yoga and numerous other books, Iyengar was teaching yoga for more than sixty years and sadly passed away in 2014.

Iyengar's early teaching experience showed him how pain or injury can result from a student straining in a yoga pose. He experimented with "props," modifying poses until the student could practice without strain. Iyengar also explored how these modified poses could help people recover from illness or injury. It is because of his creativity that the restorative poses which have been developed or directly inspired by him-are such powerful tools to reduce stress and restore health.

Two other very well-known teachers who have then furthered this work are Judith Lasater and Anna Ashby. Judith has written a book called Relax and Renew which is well worth buying if you wanted to create a home practice.

Sometimes we refer to restorative yoga poses as "active relaxation." By supporting the body with props, we alternately stimulate and relax the body to move toward balance. Some poses have an overall benefit. Others target an individual part, such as the lungs or heart. All create specific physiological responses which are beneficial to health and can reduce the effects of stress-related disease.

How Restorative Yoga Works

Restorative poses help relieve the effects of chronic stress in several ways. First, the use of props a completely supportive environment for total relaxation.

Second, each restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These movements illustrate the age-old wisdom of yoga that teaches well-being is enhanced by a healthy spine. Some of the restorative poses are backbends, while others are forward bends. Additional poses gently twist the column both left and right.

Thirdly some restorative practices will include an inverted pose, which reverses the effects of gravity. This can be as simple as putting the legs on a bolster or pillow, but the effects are quite dramatic. Because we stand or sit most of the day, blood and lymph fluid accumulate in the lower extremities. By changing the relationship of the legs to gravity, fluids are returned to the upper body and heart function is enhanced.

Psychobiologic and yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms, has done preliminary research on the effects of inverted poses. He found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a slowing of the heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body that comes from reversing the effects of gravity.

Restorative yoga stimulates and soothes the organs. For example, by closing the abdomen with a forward bend and then opening it with a backbend, the abdominal organs are squeezed, forcing the blood out, and then opened, so that fresh blood returns to soak the organs. With this movement of blood comes the enhanced exchange of oxygen and waste products across the cell membrane.

Finally, yoga teaches that the body is permeated with energy. Prana, (Sanskrit word for breath) the masculine energy, resides above the diaphragm, moves upward, and controls respiration and heart rate. Apana, (also Sanskrit word for breath) the feminine energy, resides below the diaphragm, moves downward, and controls the function of the abdominal organs. Restorative yoga balances these two aspects of energy so that the student is neither overstimulated nor depleted. To read more about this I would highly recommend Donna Farhi’s’ Breathing Book.

Restorative Yoga and A Few Ways It Supports Your Health and Ability to Change We live in a stressful world, and our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) responds to stress by putting our bodies on high alert. Our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is designed to counter the internal activation that is triggered by the SNS, and allow our bodies (and minds!) to recover. But quite often in our culture we never get the opportunity to really relax enough for the PNS to kick in. When we are in the midst of change...or even thinking about change.... this can certainly be the case. So take a quick look at the diagram below to become familiar with just a few of the health benefits that igniting the PNS through Restorative Yoga can provide.

Parasympathetic stimulation via Restorative Yoga postures encourages a relaxation response that can help to

  • lower heart rate

  • lower blood pressure

  • lower cortisol levels

  • lower blood sugar levels

  • lower muscle tension

  • encourage peristalsis of the GI tract

  • increase immune function

  • increase digestive function

In short, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) help to return the body functions to baseline after they have been altered by sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. In times of stress, the SNS prepares the body to respond. The PNS reverses these changes when the stress is reduced, provided the stressors are not too frequent, and the body is given the opportunity to recover.

In addition, Restorative Yoga has the potential to impact emotional health by:

  • stabilising mood

  • cultivating feelings of well being

  • increasing ability to process emotions

  • promoting insight and perspective

  • improving problem solving abilities

  • facilitating ability to change and heal

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