Most of us come to yoga to stretch, strengthen, and otherwise move our body for any number of reasons like stress reduction, reduce tightness in muscles or joints, or even to establish a greater connection with ourselves. So when we’re asked to prop ourselves up and stay there for 10 minutes, it’s no wonder our mind goes crazy telling us we aren’t accomplishing anything by just laying here.
Well, I’m here to tell you that is poppycock! Including restorative yoga into your regular fitness routine whether it be running, cycling, swimming, weight lifting, yoga, or whatever is a tremendous way to rejuvenate the body, reduce stress, and dive deeper into the practice of yoga. By incorporating at least one restorative yoga posture into your daily routine, it may help you find those benefits your searching for without draining your energy.
What Restorative Yoga Is
As an asana practice, restorative yoga is a sequence of postures where the body is propped up with pillows, blankets, any number of props and held for 30 seconds to 30 minutes to allow the body to release tension, increase parasympathetic nervous system function, and reduce stress while subtly stretching the body and moving the joints. A practice may last 5 minutes for as long as you like but typically no more than 2 hours. In a studio, a typical restorative yoga class is anywhere between 45 to 75 minutes and is sometimes combined with other styles of yoga into one class such as yin and restorative or flow and restorative.
Physiologically and psychologically, restorative yoga turns on the rest and digest system of the parasympathetic nervous system. By allowing the body to feel fully supported in a passive stretch, the sympathetic nervous system of fight or flight is welcomed to step aside which allows the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system to rejuvenate tissues in the body. It is also possible it helps to reduce cortisol levels which, when consistently elevated, have a negative impact on the adrenal glands, cause weight gain, reduce sleep function, reduce energy, and other harmful impacts.
The Difference Between Restorative Yoga and Yin Yoga
Although yin yoga and restorative yoga are both slow, long-holding, floor practices with the similar goal of accessing the depths of the mind in deep reflection, their effects on the physical body as well as the types of movements they both offer the body are quite different.
In yin yoga there are some backbends and twists, however, there is an emphasis on forward folding and each pose is held for a maximum of 5 minutes, typically, and will have 5 to 20 postures in a class. Yin yoga is not about creating muscular flexibility, rather more on creating range of motion for the joints by “stretching” the deeper tissues of the body like the fascia, ligaments, and tendons by putting “stress” on the physical structure of the body. Props are not generally used, however, some practitioners choose to use them to support their body. Yin is truly about learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation by training the mind to focus on a specific element rather than the discomfort. Pain is never encouraged and should always be avoided. This is not an article on safety or anatomy, so we aren’t getting into that here. 🙂
Restorative yoga is focused more on reducing tension in the body by allowing the physical structure to feel fully supported and safe so any holding of strain in muscles, the mind, and/or emotions will begin to release and let go, and to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) response of relaxation. All poses are used in conjunction with props to support the limbs, joints, and spine so there doesn’t have to be any muscular effort to hold the pose shape. The use of props is also used therapeutically to help the body feel grounded, to reduce sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response, and align the head with the rest of the spine. Poses are held for long periods of time, 5 to 30 minutes, to give the body adequate time to settle and relax into the shape. This lack of movement also allows the PNS to kick on and the SNS to turn off by not having to move the body very often.
Why Do Restorative Yoga
Restorative yoga has many benefits including:
- Soothes the nervous system
- Facilitates mindfulness
- Fosters greater body awareness
- Removes the competitive aspects of asana of achieving
- Encourages greater self-awareness
- Reduces effects of chronic stress
- May boost immunity through greater lymph function
- Can improve sleep
- Enhances flexibility without strain or injury
- Opens up the world of meditation
Although restorative yoga heavily relies on the use of props, you do not have to have a bunch of fancy yoga props to do restorative yoga poses. Additionally, you do not have to do an hour long restorative practice to reap the benefits. It is possible to do one pose and relax fully into it with intention to feel rejuvenated and refreshed.
How Long To Practice
Ideally a restorative yoga practice is at least 20 minutes. The reason for this is because most people need 15 minutes for their parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and take over from the sympathetic nervous system. Over time, when a person becomes a regular practitioner, the body’s response to rest turns on much more quickly which would allow the practitioner to practice for a shorter time and gain the same benefit.
There is no expected amount of time to practice, so it can be five minutes, or two hours, or however long the practitioner has time for.
How Many Poses in a Session
Depending on the length of time you desire to practice, you can do one or as many poses as you choose. The fewer poses you do, the less disturbance there will be for the body and mind, but in the beginning it may be desired to hold poses for 3-5 minutes until the mind is taught to settle more easily. There is not set standard here, so feel it out and do what feels natural. It may also be desired to hold a two-sided posture a little longer on one side than the other as well.