Restorative Yoga: Rest at its Best

by Kate Smallwood

I can couch potato with the best of ‘em, but that’s not the real deal. Nor is scrolling Facebook while in bed on a Sunday afternoon. I’m talking about Rest – capital R!

A funny thing happens when you remind yourself that this word is actually verb. Try it. “To rest” has a different ring to it, huh? True rest happens when it’s purposeful… for example, when restorative yoga is on your agenda! Simply put, it restores you.

Restorative yoga puts your mind and body into a state of repair.

It’s said to be a good compliment to an active practice. I’ve also found it to be one of the best introductions to yoga for people who have never considered it, or for those who went to one sweaty flow class and never went back. You know the type. C’mon, you might even be one of them! I’m talking about folks who say they’re not flexible enough, or they’re too old, or they’re not in the best shape of their life, or they’re not into that “woo woo” stuff, and so on. Well, think again! Restorative yoga is a great place to start… or start over! Why? Because it’s all about ease. Yep, you heard me right! It’s about slowing down – way down – and giving way to effortlessness. The work is in letting go of the desire to approach a pose with vigor. Admittedly, this can be tricky for us humans, but the art of rest doesn’t have to be torturous or elusive (forget counting sheep!).

Most restorative poses derive from a seated or lying down position, and each pose is held for 3-15 minutes.

Don’t gasp! We’re not talking about headstand or half moon pose. Restorative poses are therapeutic and rejuvenating. They soften joints, lengthen muscles, realign the skeletal structure, massage internal organs, slow heart rate, engage the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes healing), lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and more. Who knew just a few minutes could leave you feeling as refreshed as you do after a nap or massage?

Try these three easy-peasy poses to get started, and use these tips along the way:

Tip #1 – Fancy props aren’t necessary: Do these poses with stuff you have around the house! I chose to use bath towels and bed pillows today in place of yoga blankets, blocks and bolsters.

Tip #2 – The magic is in the set up: Any ache or strain you feel in the first few seconds will only intensify as you hold the pose, so take a few moments to shift around and get comfortable.

Tip #3 – Use your breath: Once settled in the pose, take three slow, cleansing breaths through your nose, and exhale audibly through the mouth (like you’re fogging a mirror). Then breath normally, remembering that you can come back to these deep inhales and exhales to quiet the mind or soften the body.

Pose #1 – Supported Child’s Pose

photo 1You’ll want to stay in this one forever, trust me!
What you get out of it: Child’s pose is grounding and calming. It’s great to do at the end of a hectic day or to aid sleep before bedtime. This posture opens your chest (this area is also called your “heart space”) allowing you to breath with greater ease and perhaps access emotions you’ve been stuffing down. It also elongates the spine and releases your lower back. It’s great for people who sit at a desk or stand all day.

To set up: Stack 3-4 pillows to make a platform and place them near you. Sit with your feet tucked under your bottom sitting on your heels and open your knees a little wider than the short side of the pillows to make a V with your bent legs. Pull the pillow stack in toward you so they touch your body. Take a deep inhale in through your nose and sit up straight to grow taller. Then, with a straight spine, lower your torso to rest onto the pillows. Close your eyes and turn your head to one side to rest a cheek on the pillow (half-way through, switch to the other cheek). Rest your arms alongside you, with your hands pointing in the direction of your head. Let your shoulders melt down your back away from your ears and then let them round towards the floor.

Time in pose: 3-10 minutes

To come out of pose: Place both hands on the floor to prop yourself up slowly. Think about stacking each vertebrae of the spine one-by-one, starting at the tailbone and ending with your head. If you’re light-headed when you come up, place the palm of your hand on your forehead right between the eyebrows (this is your “third eye”) and apply pressure. Then, open your eyes and bring your feet out from under you to gently wiggle your toes and legs to bring movement back to your body before standing.

Pose #2 – Legs in a Chair

SupportedLegsOnChairThis one seems simple, but you’ll come back to it again, and again!
What you get out of it: You’ll feel an opening of the back of the pelvis and a release of the lower back after a couple minutes in this pose. This benefit comes from the placement of your legs in a 90 degree angle, paired with the work of gravity, allowing your thigh bones to sink down into your hip sockets, releasing muscles that cause lower back pain. Great after a long day of sitting or standing, and because the feet are above the heart in this pose, it also aids circulation and digestion!

To set up: Place a blanket or towel on the seat of a chair and place the chair (seat facing you) near you so you can pull it towards your bottom as you lift your legs. With bent knees, rest your claves on the seat of the chair. Scoot your bottom towards or away from the chair until you achieve a 90-degree angle with your legs. Lay down with a straight spine, let your arms rest at your sides and close your eyes.

Time in pose: 7-10 minutes

To come out of pose: Push the chair away with your feet and plant your feet to rest on the floor. Roll over to your right side to rest in a fetal position with your eyes closed for a few moments. Plant your left hand on the floor and press your body up into a seated position. Open your eyes when you are ready.

Pose #3 – Supported Fish Pose

SupportedFishposeThe trickiest of the three poses, this one requires a little finessing at first, but the reward is worth it!
What you get out of it: A great chest/heart opener, this pose brings curvature to the spinal column between the shoulder blades, creating space across the chest and melting the shoulders onto the floor. Most of us spend our days hunched over a desk, a steering wheel, or handing out hugs, all of which round our shoulders forward and cave our chest in. This reverses all that and brings much-needed breathing room into the lungs by expanding the rib cage, and makes your spine supple and happy again. This pose is energizing, so it can be a great way to start your day.

To set up: You’ll need two towels. Lay one towel out flat and fold in thirds, lengthwise. Then tightly roll the folded towel up like you’re bundling a sleeping bag. Do this for the second towel, as well.

Place one towel bundle at the top of your mat for your head, and the second bundle 6-10 inches below it for you’re upper back (distance between the two will vary by person).

Lay down on your back, placing the towel bundle’s bottom edge in line with the bottom of your shoulder blades (for women, this your bra line).

Then, lower your head onto the top bundle. Allow the bundles to hold the weight of your upper body. With your bottom planted on the floor, your legs are together, extended outward, resting on the floor.

Your rib cage is lifted and supported by the bundle, as is your neck and head.

If you feel strain in your neck, unroll the towel under your head a bit to make a smaller bundle. The bundle under your upper back may feel awkward at first, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you’re not comfortable, take a minute to play around, moving the bundle a smidge up or down until you’re able to relax and close your eyes. Rest your arms out to your sides, with your palms up, and let your shoulders melt down towards the ground to bring expansion across your chest and into your rib cage.

Time in pose: 3 minutes; then work up to 7 minutes later on

To get out of pose: Bend your elbows to plant your forearms on the floor on either side of your body. Bend your knees to plant your feet hip-distance apart on the floor. Tuck your chin into your chest and then slowly prop yourself up to a seated position. Take a moment here in a seated position before opening your eyes to stand up.

About the Author:

Kate.SmallwoodKate Smallwood, a Yoga Illumined teacher trainee, began her yoga practice ten years ago after years of ballet training and quickly fell in love with its rejuvenating effects. She believes that yoga is for everyone and finds joy in sharing it with people who are new to it, or who feel they’re not a good fit. A practitioner of many styles, she is particularly focused on Restorative Yoga as a means of stress reduction, pain management, preventative self-care and healing. Kate’s teaching style is kind, patient and tailored to help people find their way back to the feel-goods! Kate is available for private and group sessions in Austin, Texas. Contact her at katesmallwood@gmail.com.

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