What Is Restorative Yoga? Your Guide to This Healing Practice

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restorative yoga
Author Name: Beth Rush
Date: Friday December 2, 2022

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What if you could find a practice that eased chronic pain, alleviated symptoms of mental health disorders and instilled a deep sense of calm and inner peace? You might jump at the chance to try it. Restorative yoga may offer the relief you seek. 

This gentle yoga form is suitable for everyone of any age or physical ability level, including people with disabilities. Most classes encourage using multiple props and individualized instruction to make the poses accessible. 

You won’t burn a ton of calories, but you’ll gain so much more, including improved posture, flexibility, sleep and mindset. Are you ready to start your journey? What is restorative yoga? Here is your guide to this healing practice. 

What Are the Origins of Restorative Yoga? 

When people ask, “What is restorative yoga,” they often want to know the roots. Yoga originated in ancient India over 5,000 years ago, and any practice with that kind of staying power must provide hefty benefits. 

The restorative yoga classes people expect today came to America via Judith Lasater, a student of the world-renowned yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of the Iyengar yoga method. She wanted to design a program to help patients recover from illness and injury using this ancient art. She recognized the toll that stress, strain and exhaustion have on the body and realized that many techniques she practiced could help when presented in a gentle, healing way. 

Her methods had many therapists ask, “What is restorative yoga, and how can I use it in my treatment protocol.” Some people with resistant anxiety, depression and even personality disorders sometimes show remarkable transformations after regular participation in such activities. Today, many counselors recommend it as a complementary therapy, and countless addiction recovery centers offer onsite classes. 

What Can You Expect From a Restorative Yoga Class? 

Stepping into a restorative yoga class should feel like entering a retreat. While some take place in otherwise noisy, brightly lit gyms, most guides do whatever they can to create a soothing atmosphere, dimming lights, using essential oils as aromatherapy and playing soft, quiet music to encourage relaxation. If you decide to try your practice at home first, you can use similar methods to get in the mood for your practice. 

Your guide will encourage you to use props. Many facilities provide these for you, but in today’s COVID-19 era, you may feel more comfortable bringing a set you bought yourself. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A yoga mat: Soft and thick is best for deep relaxation and holding poses. Natural materials like bamboo keep it sustainable. 
  • Blocks: Bamboo blocks can be hard. You may prefer softer models but ensure the foam is free of volatile organic compounds. 
  • Straps: These can be as simple as an unused belt, although the ones used in practice are typically longer to give you more leverage. 
  • Blankets and pillows: You do many lying poses in restorative yoga and blankets and pillows can help you elevate knees and elbows to prevent pain. They’re also great for hugging to your belly when you need a squeeze of comfort. 

Please carry a reusable water bottle with you to class. Although scientific evidence does not support its ability to rinse away toxins, you have to stay hydrated. Much of the “cleansing” involved in this practice occurs during respiration as you breathe deeply through the poses. 

Depending on the class, your guide may lead you through a series of standing, seated and lying poses. You’ll typically hold each posture longer without any vigorous vinyasas to transition. Some classes use shorter holds of three to five breaths, while others may remain in deeper stretches for as long as 20 minutes. The good news? You won’t have to worry about challenging choreography, and you’ll have plenty of time to get cozy in each asana. 

Most of all, restorative yoga is all about you and your healing. That means it doesn’t matter if your pose doesn’t look like your guide’s or another student’s. What’s important is that you feel a deep, healing stretch that provides gentle tension you can breathe through, not pain. 

What’s the Difference Between Restorative and Yin Yoga? 

Outside observers wanting to know what restorative yoga is could observe a class side by side with a Yin session and not notice the difference. Many postures or asanas are the same — the differences are primarily internal. 

One difference between Yin and restorative yoga is your physical focus. While Yin yoga concentrates on getting deep into your connective tissues, restorative yoga focuses more on calming your central nervous system. People with anxiety or who experience ongoing stress often activate their sympathetic, fight-or-flight side more often, leading to imbalance and health issues. Restorative yoga helps you tap into the parasympathetic side. 

The most profound differences may lie in philosophy. Yin yoga primarily concentrates on finding inner stillness and balancing the body’s energy meridians to bring transformation. Conversely, restorative yoga helps you to find deep inner peace, a sensation akin to sleeping but not quite. The focus is on getting into deep relaxation to let the body’s natural healing processes a chance to work. 

People Who Can Most Benefit From Restorative Yoga 

Who can most benefit from restorative yoga? The correct answer is anyone. Although some people still consider the practice best for those with chronic or acute pain, more trainers have recognized the healing power of the nervous system for improving athletic performance. They’ve begun incorporating restorative yoga classes on rest days to get their stars primed to take the field. 

Restorative yoga may be the perfect antidote to today’s hustle culture. Instead of focusing your workout on a specific goal, like losing weight or achieving peak marathon pace — increasing stress and anxiety — restorative yoga invites you to slow down and go inward. It’s the perfect retreat for those who need peace and stillness to soothe their soul after a long day of dealing with screaming toddlers and micromanaging supervisors. 

8 Tips for Starting Your Restorative Yoga Practice 

You now know what restorative yoga is and are ready to try your first class. Here are some tips for success with your practice. 

1. Start Slow 

Even in restorative yoga, some of the asanas are challenging. If you constantly compare yourself to others, you may look about the shala or studio and feel hopelessly inflexible. Please don’t. This practice is individualized — observe more closely and notice that no two students do the move exactly alike. Keep the focus on yourself. You’re the star of this show, and your healing journey is the plot. 

2. Give Yourself Permission 

Restorative yoga is about activating your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. You can’t tap into that if your body screams with discomfort. 

Please give yourself permission to exit a challenging pose whenever you like. Wiggle around and find an interpretation that works for you or take an alternative posture like child’s pose. 

3. Learn to Breathe 

Deep breathing is key to activating your parasympathetic nervous system. Your guide may take you through a pattern, but feel free to use a different method that works for you. Examples include:

  • 5×5 breathing: Inhale for a 5-count and exhale the same length.
  • 2-to-1 breathing: Make your exhales roughly twice as long as your inhales, perhaps breathing in for three or four and exhaling for six or seven. 
  • Boxed breathing: Inhale for a 4-count, pause for four, exhale for a 4-count and pause again before inhaling. 

4. Get Cozy With Props 

Restorative yoga encourages prop use. Get inventive! If you’re practicing at home, there’s nothing wrong with swiping a couch cushion to help you get into a supported fish pose, for example. 

Pro-tip: Buy yourself the most comfortable yoga outfit you can find before your first class. Putting it on will put you in the right mindset, especially when you feel the soft fabric against your skin. It’s an instant mindset boost. 

5. Master the Body Scan 

You can’t heal what you don’t feel. However, you might have years of experience tuning out your bodily sensations, especially if you are a trauma survivor. 

Your guide may lead you through a body scan meditation at the beginning of class. However, feel free to perform one yourself at any time. Can you identify areas that need extra TLC? Focus on breathing into them as you stretch. 

6. Find a Guide You Love 

If you don’t love your guide, you’ll have a harder time tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system. Your body and brain will focus more on your annoyance than on deep relaxation. However, there are dozens of teachers, studios and YouTube channels, so please keep searching until you find an instructor you adore. 

7. Set a Mood

What can you do if you practice in a gym that also holds HIIT and kickboxing classes? Your instructor may not be able to dim the lights or use incense. However, you can spritz your yoga mat with relaxing lavender essential oil spray and bring an extra towel to cover your eyes and block excess light. 

If practicing at home, create a sacred space. Light a few candles and surround yourself with your favorite comfort objects — there is nothing wrong with cuddling a giant stuffed hippopotamus if it helps you relax. 

8. Make Time for Your Practice 

The unfortunate reality is that nobody will care for your body and mind if you don’t take the initiative. If you want to make restorative yoga a regular, healing part of your life, you need to schedule time for your practice. 

Enter your restorative yoga classes into your weekly planner and treat them like a doctor’s appointment. Sometimes, you can’t avoid an occasional reschedule, but you routinely honor your sacred healing time. 

What Is Restorative Yoga? 

What is restorative yoga? This healing practice may be today’s perfect antidote to the excess hustle and grind that has many Americans feeling exhausted or downright sick nearly every day. 

Now that you know what restorative yoga is, use the tips above to begin your journey. You have nothing to lose and better mental and physical health to gain. 

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