Stretch Out and De-Stress with Restorative Yoga
Passive, slow movements performed in low light bring deep relaxation
Creaky joints? Sore muscles? Got that crunchy, “short” feeling that comes with arthritis and plagues people who sit a lot, either at work, in front of the TV or on the floor with grandkids?
Restorative yoga can make you taller!
OK, maybe not in actual inches, but after a class, the body feels lengthened, loosened, at ease. Plus, if you relax into the supported poses, banish your busy thoughts and embrace doing absolutely nothing, your mind emerges calm and refreshed.
I speak from experience.
Other forms of yoga are tough for me, but almost everyone can do restorative yoga.
The passive poses are done in low light, on the floor. Bolsters, blocks and blankets — all adjusted to fully support your body — make you comfortable and keep you warm. You hold each pose for 10 to 20 minutes, allowing time for the body and mind to relax.
“I yawn after the first 15 minutes, and restorative yoga class also relieves my lower back pain,” a 56-year-old devotee told his teacher. “It’s the perfect way to wipe away all the stress of the workweek.”
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Some consider the classes a place to regroup while recovering from an accident, an illness or cancer treatments. Others find them a big help during the transition into retirement.
Our Mantra: ‘No Rushing’
“Restorative yoga gives us permission to switch from doing to being — and these days, all of us are conditioned to over-doing,” says Kitty Daly, a partner and teacher at Big Bend Yoga in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. “People tell me the class is a sanctuary for them, a place where they can close their eyes and enter their own world.”
Daly has offered the 90-minute class once a week on a drop-in basis since 1997.
“It has never lost its appeal,” Daly says. “I prepare the room, open the door and make sure people have what they need. Our mantra every Friday night is ‘no rushing.’” That works for most students, Daly says, except a few who find the slow pace of the class frustrating.
Judith Hanson Lasater has spent her career working to popularize restorative yoga. A physical therapist and yoga teacher since 1971, Lasater has trained countless yoga teachers in 47 states and more than a dozen countries, teaching them all to guide students through restorative yoga’s gentle poses. She lives in San Francisco, Calif.
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Lasater also is president and a cofounder of the California Yoga Teachers Association, a founder of Yoga Journal and the author of eight books, including the classic book on restorative yoga, Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. (If you can’t get to a restorative yoga class, the book will help you do the poses on your own.)
‘Not a Luxury, Not Laziness’
Restorative yoga certainly is beneficial for older people and people with physical limitations, Lasater says, but at 68 she likes the supported yoga poses for a different reason.
“This is a rich, full, wonderful time of life, and I tend to get really busy with teaching, writing and my grandchildren,” she says. “After running around like a maniac, I need this touchstone, this taking time to rest deeply.”
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Rest, Lasater says, is different from sleep.
“You can sleep and not be rested, but 20 minutes of lying on the floor with your legs up on a chair allows you to disconnect, to drop into the parasympathetic nervous system, to rest and repair,” Lasater says. “This is not a luxury, not laziness. It’s imperative in our crazy world that we reduce our stress. You cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time, and when you are rested, everything in your life is better.”
Use of Props
From her yoga teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, Lasater learned how props in yoga “can help the pose come to the students,” rather than expecting students to reach for a pose, especially individuals with physical limitations. Inspiration to use those props in low light, working on the floor, came to Lasater as a happy accident.
“One night in the 1980s, the electricity went out as I was teaching a yoga workshop in Canada. We had enough light to be safe, so I asked the students to take bolsters and lie over them,” Lasater recalls. “That felt so good, we moved on to another supported pose. We did a whole restorative class, though it didn't have that name then. Over the years, it became more and more part of my life. It is so good for the body.”
Better Than Massage
Margi Young, a longtime yoga teacher who has taught on both coasts and now works in the San Francisco Bay Area, agrees. “The most relaxing thing I can do for my body and mind is restorative yoga,” Young says. “When I emerge from a pose, I feel restored in a way that surpasses a nap or even a massage.”
In her classes, Young aims to create a safe environment and help students become as comfortable as possible. “After we settle into a pose, I offer a few comments about how to soften the body and what to do with the potentially busy mind,” she says. “Then I become still so the yoga can do its magic.”
How do you get in on the magic of restorative yoga?
Tips for Finding Classes
First, test your patience for lying still by stretching out on the floor with a pillow under your head. Bend your knees, lift your legs and rest them up on the couch. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. (One teacher calls this “instant Maui.”) Stay there as long as you like.
If you enjoyed that, search online for restorative yoga classes in your area or call nearby yoga studios, YMCAs and fitness centers. When you find a class, if membership is required, ask whether you can observe a session before joining. (At the first class I attended, I placed the mat I was given next to the door, in case I wanted to surreptitiously crawl out before the session ended. I didn’t.)
If you don’t find a class at a time and place that suits you, seek out Lasater’s book or look for DVDs or YouTube videos featuring restorative yoga. Then make an appointment with yourself to spend 20 minutes or more each day relaxing and renewing. You’re worth it.