When the word “yoga” is mentioned, many of us instantly picture seemingly impossible pretzel-like contortions and turn our minds off to any chance of stepping on a mat. Fortunately, you don’t have to be Gumby nor have Madonna’s biceps of steel to practice yoga; the science of yoga integrates physical as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions and at its core truly offers something for everyone regardless of where you are on your healing journey.
That statement is especially true of restorative yoga, a gentle practice designed to foster relaxation using props to support the body in comfortable positions with attention directed towards breath. Props may include blankets, yoga blocks, bolsters, pillows, a belt or strap, a sandbag, and an eye bag to provide light weight over closed eyes. Restorative yoga poses require less “doing” and more “being”: once props are in place and you are settled in the pose, there is no movement and no effort for the duration of each pose, which may last 10 to 15 minutes. The practice becomes about allowing yourself to surrender into total relaxation, becoming aware of the habitual tension created and stored in your body (and mind) on a daily basis.
Judith Lasater, Ph.D., a yoga teacher and authority on restorative yoga, refers to the practice as “active relaxation.” In a restorative class there is a pattern of stimulation alternating with soothing of internal organs and structures. For example, a pose that opens the front of the body by supporting the back body with a bolster and other props might be followed by a pose that closes the front body with a seated forward fold.
On a physical level, restorative poses are designed to elicit a state of deep rest, characterized by slowing down physiological processes including heart rate, breathing rate, brain patterns, and lowering blood pressure. The positions can be simple but the effects are dramatic – even elevating the legs on a pillow while lying on the floor reverses the effects of gravity, facilitating the return of blood and lymph to the heart and reducing fluid retention and blood pressure.
Relaxation as a healing practice is an asset anywhere along the continuum from diagnosis through post-treatment: research has shown practicing restorative yoga leads to improvements in mood and depression, anxiety, energy, sleep, and overall quality of life of those with breast cancer. Other research demonstrates that yoga practiced by cancer patients and survivors leads to improvements in cancer-related distress and cancer-related symptoms.
Restorative yoga poses are especially beneficial during times of feeling depleted and fatigued – support offered by props relieves the musculoskeletal system and as the breath moves slowly and smoothly, the nervous system shifts to a quieter mode. Since props are mobile and adjustable, and poses themselves can be modified, restorative yoga is well-suited to accommodate those at risk for lymphedema. If you are recovering from surgery, restorative poses can provide gentle, passive stretching to help release muscles and reduce tissue adhesions.
- Relax & Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times by Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T.
- Restorative Yoga Practice with Deborah Donohue (DVD)
The best endorsement for restorative yoga I’ve heard came from a student after a restorative workshop I taught who said, “That was so…yummy.” Have you had any experience with restorative yoga? Was the practice helpful and in which ways?
Restorative yoga pose photo published with permission from www.yogatherapynj.com.