Think back to your first experience with Restorative Yoga, if you’ve tried it. How did you feel during the class? How did you feel afterwards? How did you feel that night?
The first thing you probably noticed was the large number of props. You may have found it challenging setting up the props for each pose, and in awe of the teacher who so ably guided you and the other students through each fold of the blanket and the right placement of each block, blanket, and bolster. Somewhere during the class, you might have felt a welcome release of tension from your body, and then from your mind. And you might have slept very well that night.
Like most things worth doing, there is a learning curve involved in becoming adept in doing and teaching restorative yoga. With restorative yoga, the curve for the teacher lies mainly in learning how and when to utilize the many props and being able to instruct students in a clear and simple fashion, and sequencing the poses in an order that makes sense for the body and mind to decompress. As with most things, it helps to start out simple and work your way up to greater complexity.
This lesson will provide some useful background on this relatively new style of yoga practice to prepare you for the active portion on the Zoom portion of this program. It will also suggest a few books as resources and point out some of the relevant differences between them.
What is Restorative Yoga?
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, credited with popularizing the practice of restorative yoga defines it as, “the use of props to create positions of ease and comfort that facilitate relaxation and health.” She considers it a practice in and of itself. Julia Clarke, a teacher two rungs down the lineage from Dr. Lasater, and herself an author of a book on restorative yoga, characterizes it as “a practice of conscious relaxation, using props in every posture to support your muscles in gentle, comfortable positions.” Another helpful description of restorative yoga comes from Gail Boorstein Grossman, in her book published by the Yoga Journal. “It is a receptive practice not an active practice.”
In the 1970’s, Dr. Lasater built on the foundation of BKS Iyengar and his use of props such as blankets, blocks, and straps to avoid straining in poses, and developed it into a passive lunar form of practice, in contrast to the active solar practice that dominates other styles of yoga. The stillness and receptivity embodied in a restorative yoga practice balances out the excessive action in modern life. As Gail Grossman points out, “we are not human ‘doings,’ we are human beings.” Since its entry into the world of yoga, restorative yoga has become the third most practiced style of yoga, according to a 2018 study by the website DOYOUYOGA.
Whereas Dr. Lasater considers restorative yoga a practice in and of itself, other teachers and writers point out that some poses can be incorporated into a regular hatha yoga class. Have you ever placed a block under your sacrum while practicing bridge? Then you have done restorative yoga. Have you ever ended a class with your legs up against the wall? If so, that was a bit of restorative yoga.
Who can benefit from restorative yoga?
Everyone can benefit from restorative yoga. Who wouldn’t be better off with less stress and a lot more relaxation in their lives? Here’s a starter list that you can add to.
- People who are stressed out
- People of any age, including seniors, as well as teens and children
- People who yearn for better sleep
- People with movement restrictions
- People recovering from surgery
- Pregnant women
- Athletes, and others who practice active sports, including active styles of yoga
What are some of the benefits of restorative yoga?
Besides just generally feeling great after a restorative yoga class, there are some specific benefits we can point to.
- Stress reduction. Restorative yoga promotes deep relaxation, and deep relaxation or relaxation in general, has been shown to reduce the hormones associated with stress, cortisol and adrenaline.
- Improved sleep from releasing the tension bound up in the muscles and allowing the mind to settle down.
- Possible reduction of other health and quality of life problems related to some degree to stress and stress hormones. These include: headache relief; prevention or improvement of diabetes and high blood pressure, mediated through the lowered cortisol levels; relief from cold and flu symptoms, both from the needed relaxation, as well as utilizing specific poses to help relieve sinus pressure; healing after surgery, also from the profound rest as well as specific poses that can help with specific surgeries; and perhaps surprisingly, weight loss, also mediated by the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol.
For students interested in exploring effects of restorative yoga through a yoga philosophy lens, both Julia Clark and Gail Grossman cover this in their respective books.
What does a restorative yoga class look like?
Props, lots of props. But all three authors point out that many of the items are likely to be part of a student’s home supply or can be fashioned out of items generally available in the home. Many yoga studios supply the most common props.
Slow, with lots of time for setup. Think of it as the opposite of a flow class where it’s just the practitioner on their mat flowing, sometimes quickly, through a series of vinyasas. In restorative yoga, the practitioner starts with their props assembled and at arm’s reach. Instructions for set up are precise, and may take some time, especially in a class with several people. Only a handful of poses are included as each pose may be held for between 3 and 30 minutes. When practicing on your own, using a timer for each pose is recommended to help the mind relax so it doesn’t wander to wonder how much more time you need or should stay in each pose. It helps you let go.
Props to have on hand are:
- A yoga mat and a blanket to lie on (or 2 blankets)
- A blanket to cover yourself if you might get cold by being still
- A bolster, or additional blankets or large bath towels to build bolsters
- 2 yoga blocks, or large hardcover books
- 1 or 2 bulky pillows
- Medium towel to use as a pillow with neck support
- An eye pillow or small towel or washcloth to cover the eyes
- A yoga strap
- A chair without wheels, if chair poses are to be practiced
- Socks, though not a prop, are helpful to keep the feet warm once the body has slowed down.
Some authors and teachers may have more to add to this list. And many teachers may teach effective restorative classes with fewer props than what is listed. As you review the reference books of your choice, if you choose to read one or more, examine the poses depicted and notice the props that are used. You will see that certain props show up again and again. Given that a restorative yoga class focuses on only a handful of poses, it’s entirely possible to start out simple and build in complexity as you scale the learning curve and acquire more yoga resources.
Restore and Rebalance – Yoga for Deep Relaxation by Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT
This is the newest of Dr. Lasater’s books on the topic. She is a developer and pioneer in this style of yoga, and goes into great and precise detail regarding props and setup. It has recommended sequences in the back for various purposes.
This book is recommended for people who want to learn from the source.
Restorative Yoga for Beginners by Julia Clark
This book has an inviting layout and the instructions are easy to follow. It has recommended sequences as well and instructions for individual poses.
This book is recommended for its simplicity and ease of use, especially for those new to this style, be it teaching or practicing.
Restorative Yoga for Life (Presented by Yoga Journal) by Gail Boorstein Grossman
This book is more comprehensive than the two listed above. It also includes individual poses and sequences, and in addition information on the chakras benefited and doshic balance for each pose.
This book is recommended for its expansive treatment of the topic as well as its photographs.
Deep Listening by Jillian Pransky with Jessica Wolf
This book is recommended for an exploration of inviting the breath into the body and paying attention to what happens when you practice accepting yourself just as you are in the present moment.