Step into a modern yoga class, and you’ll likely find yourself sweating through a series of dynamic poses. Yoga has become synonymous with “flow,” and the practice has gained popularity as a type of physical exercise in the U.S. But contrary to popular belief, not all forms of yoga involve active movement. Another yoga style, known as restorative yoga, involves holding static postures with the primary goal of restoring balance to the mind and body. Let’s dive into the basics and take a closer look at the health benefits of starting a restorative yoga practice.
Restorative yoga is based on the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar developed a yoga style known as Iyengar Yoga, which focuses on proper body alignment in yoga postures using props, such as straps, blocks, blankets, and bolsters. As the practice evolved, one of Iyengar’s students, Judith Hanson Lasater, brought it to the West. She popularized a new style of yoga, restorative yoga, based on the original teachings of Iyengar.
Restorative yoga, like Iyengar Yoga, relies heavily on props. The primary goal of the practice is to revitalize the mind and body and promote deep relaxation. “Where most yoga practices are about moving the body to stretch or strengthen in an active or dynamic way, restorative yoga is about supporting the body to create relaxation, openness, and expansion,” says certified yoga instructor Whitney Chapman. During the practice, participants hold each pose for between 5 to 20 minutes.
If you need to slow down, rewind, or restore, restorative yoga is the perfect practice to fit into your schedule. It’s gentle and provides a multitude of physical and mental health benefits. Let’s look at the top 5 health benefits associated with restorative yoga.
When the body perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and releases the stress hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. This reaction is known as the “fight or flight” response, resulting in stress symptoms like shortness of breath and increased heart rate.
In restorative yoga, your body weight is fully supported by props, creating space for stillness and relaxation. Holding the postures sends signals to the brain to calm down, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and tackling stress in its tracks.
Stress not only affects our mental health but our physical health as well. Muscle tension is a common reaction to stress, and it occurs as part of the “flight-or-fight” response to protect our bodies from injury. Typically, muscle tension resolves once stress passes, but you may notice your neck, shoulders, and back continually holding tension, especially if you deal with chronic stress.
Restorative poses can target particular areas of built-up tension and gently begin to release it using props, and extended posture holds. “When the body feels supported, it knows it’s ‘safe’ – therefore, it can begin to trust the support and let go of tension,” says Chapman.
Fascia is the thin, connective tissue that holds our organs and muscles in place. Several factors, such as living a sedentary lifestyle or participating in high-impact exercises, can cause the fascia to tighten up and form into knots, resulting in pain. Restorative yoga provides a gentle stretch, and the extended length of the holds gives the body time to restore the damaged fascia that contributes to muscle pain.
Many studies show that stress can interfere with sleep and even contribute to insomnia. Since restorative yoga eliminates stress, it’s not surprising that it also helps us sleep better. Practicing restorative yoga poses before bed not only promotes deep, restful sleep, but better sleep provides an extra boost of energy to keep you productive throughout the day.
Restorative yoga triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, activating the “rest and digest” response. As the name suggests, the parasympathetic nervous system aids with digestion. When the system is activated, saliva production increases, containing enzymes that break down food more efficiently. Specific restorative poses can also stimulate the lower abdominal muscles, increasing circulation to these areas, further improving digestion.
In modern yoga classes, Child’s pose is a resting pose typically practiced between more challenging poses. In restorative yoga, the original pose is modified by adding bolsters and blankets for support. The posture creates a gentle back release and relieves tension in the shoulders. While you can practice the pose any time of day, it’s a great pose to practice at the end of a long, stressful day.
Close your eyes and rest in the position for 5-10 minutes. About halfway through, turn your head to face the opposite direction. Once you’ve completed the pose, take a moment to reflect on your experience.
As a beginner to restorative yoga, it can take a bit of adjustment to experience full relaxation in a pose. Remember to embrace the process, be patient, and stay consistent. While restorative yoga is an effective practice on its own, it can be even more powerful when combined with meditation. If you’re new to meditation, be sure to check out these meditation tips for beginners.