Meghan Johnston discusses how restorative yoga introduces the art of relaxation and supports our nervous system and overall stress levels.
As an anxious type who has experienced my own challenges with mental health, slowing down and getting quiet has often felt overwhelming. For most of my life, I was addicted to being busy. At times, I have even used my yoga practice as a way to keep busy and keep moving to avoid a deeper encounter with myself that accompanies the still and quiet.
In practicing and teaching yin yoga, I was introduced to the value of slowing down and creating space to notice thoughts and sensations in a mindful way. While my yin yoga practice allowed me to become comfortable with the discomfort that can accompany stillness, it was my restorative yoga practice that allowed me to feel fully supported in that stillness. Restorative yoga allowed me to really go deep in relaxation in a way that I had never experienced before. In that depth of rest I have found so much healing on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level.
What is Restorative Yoga?
In a restorative yoga practice, the focus is not on stretching or strengthening but on releasing. We release tension in the muscles and gently stimulate the organs through long-held poses designed to support and comfort. To achieve comfort a variety of props such as blankets, blocks, bolsters, sandbags, and eye pillows may be used.
Restorative yoga allows us to relearn the art of relaxation while developing the skills and abilities to self-soothe. It enhances our healing capacity through helping us regulate the stress response and re-balance the nervous system.
Restorative Yoga & Your Nervous System
Restorative yoga is incredibly supportive for our nervous system and overall stress levels. The practice helps us strengthen our connection with the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a branch of our Autonomic Nervous System, the system that controls involuntary functions in the body like our heart rate. When we are in states of stress, or what is often termed “fight or flight,” we are in an elevated Sympathetic state. In contrast, during periods of rest and recovery, we are in an elevated Parasympathetic state.
It is important that we can access both of these states. A certain level of stress can be healthy and can accompany incredibly generative tasks like applying for a new job, asking someone on a date, or talking in front of a large audience. However, when stress becomes chronic we start to experience imbalance in our body that can adversely affect our overall health with a range of problems like poor digestion, hormonal imbalances, fertility dysfunction, or disrupted sleep.
Restorative yoga can help us reconnect with our Parasympathetic Nervous System and strengthen our ability to move between states of stress and rest with more ease. By helping us learn to relax, restorative yoga can also reduce the production of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), improve the function of our immune system, reduce muscle tension, help with insomnia, and so many other vital benefits.
Tips for a Restorative Yoga Practice
Our ability to relax deeply depends on us feeling safe and supported. Here are a few tips for setting up your practice:
1) Find somewhere quiet. Loud or sudden noises may startle you, which can bring you out of relaxation and into a Sympathetic state.
2) Have layers or blankets to stay warm. As you relax deeper your body will start to cool down. It is very common to need more layers or blankets the longer you practice.
3) Use an eye pillow or a scarf to cover your eyes. Darkness can have a soothing effect.
4) Try experimenting with weight. Sometimes having added weight can help us feel safer. If you have a sandbag, you could try placing that over the heart, belly, or pelvis. You can also place a heavier folded blanket in any of these areas.
5) Set a timer. On average it takes 10-15 minutes to induce the relaxation response.
Poses to Try at Home
Legs Over A Chair
This is one of my favourite poses to recommend for students and clients to try at home because it doesn’t require any specialized yoga props – making it accessible for anyone. All you will need is a chair and a few blankets.
Benefits: This pose is great for releasing your low back and relieving tension in your legs after standing or sitting for long periods of time. It also takes pressure of the sacroiliac joint and hips.
To set-up: Bring your legs over a chair, with the option to bring blankets underneath the length of your spine if the chair feels a bit too high. You also might bring a blanket under the knees and calves. Your weight should be in the middle of the sacrum.
You might position a blanket under the head, with the chin slightly lower than the forehead to quiet the mind. If there is any tension in the neck, try creating a roll in the blanket that just fills the space between the curve of your neck and the ground.
Focus: Invite a sense of ease and stillness as you relax your body. Don’t worry if the mind wanders, but if you notice it wandering invite it back to the intention of cultivating ease and stillness.
Elevated Chest Pose
This pose is a student favourite! Often deep levels of relaxation are experienced here as a result of the elevated angle of the chest.
Benefits: The elevated angle of this pose helps to transition the body into a deeper Parasympathetic state. The pose also helps to open the chest and lungs.
To set-up: Elevate a bolster by placing a block underneath on the middle height. Lay down over top of the bolster and place a blanket underneath the head. Position additional support under the knees and ankles using bolsters or blankets. If the arms do not rest on the ground place blocks or blankets underneath to feel more supported.
Focus: Invite a sense of heaviness into your muscles and bones as you allow the body to relax into the props beneath you. Let yourself feel supported here. When the mind wanders, come back to the intention of feeling supported in stillness.
Stillness & Resilience
Since adopting a regular restorative yoga practice I have noticed that both my body and my mind are more resilient. I am more deeply connected with the workings of my nervous system as I transition between states of stress and recovery with more ease and grace. I have noticed significant improvements in my immune system, my sleep, and my mood. Restorative yoga has become an irreplaceable part of my own self-care routine.
My practice also fuels my teaching. On busy days, you’ll find me in between classes settling into a restorative pose to ensure that I have the energy to bring my best self forward for my students. I believe stillness is one of the most transformational but undervalued tools for our healing. Try adding a restorative pose into your day and explore the benefits of deep rest!