What Is Restorative Yoga?

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Restorative yoga is a restful practice that is all about slowing down and opening your body through passive stretching. If you take a restorative class, you may hardly move at all, doing just a few postures over the course of an hour.

Restorative yoga is a completely different experience than most other styles of yoga. Learn about what restorative yoga is and why it's important to slow down and embrace the power of rest.

What Is Restorative Yoga?

Restorative yoga is suitable for practitioners of all levels. By definition, restorative yoga is a restful practice that holds yoga poses (asanas) for a longer duration using props like yoga blocks, blankets, and bolsters. It is a practice of deep relaxation that emphasizes the meditative aspect of yoga—the union of body and mind. Through the use of props for support, many of the postures are held almost effortlessly.

When the body enters a state of relaxation the mind can also consciously relax as tension is released from both body and mind. The only work that's required on your part during a restorative yoga practice is to pay attention to your breath and become aware of any sensations or thoughts that may arise.

The general trend in Western yoga is to make it a practice geared toward the athletic, aerobic, and acrobatic styles of the practice. During typical vinyasa classes, for instance, you move quickly from one pose to another as you build heat and increase your strength and flexibility over time. While these energetic styles of yoga focus on muscular engagement, restorative yoga relaxes the muscles by using props to support the body. In some restorative postures, you will also receive a gentle stretch. Restorative yoga poses are held anywhere from 5–20 minutes.

Restorative classes are typically mellow and low-energy, making them a great complement to more active practices (as well as our busy lives) and an excellent antidote to stress. Stillness is a powerful practice.

Benefits

Yoga is widely touted as a physical practice that can improve strength, stability, and flexibility, enhance respiratory and cardiovascular function, and even alleviate symptoms of chronic pain. The mental health benefits of yoga are also well-documented—from reduced stress, anxiety, and depression to improved sleep hygiene and overall quality of life.

The benefits of restorative yoga are similar to the many benefits of other styles of yoga, including:

  • Increased relaxation: Deep breathing calms the nervous system to promote relaxation, and research supports a restorative yoga practice as an effective way to relax. A 2014 study suggests that restorative yoga is more effective at inducing relaxation than regular passive stretching.
  • Better sleep: The more relaxed you are, the better your chances are of getting a good night's rest. A 2020 meta-analysis looked at 19 different studies on how different types of yoga—including restorative yoga—can impact sleep quality. Researchers determined that yoga is an effective intervention for managing sleep problems by increasing melatonin and reducing hyperarousal.
  • Improved well-being: Yoga practices, in general, are commonly associated with improved physical and mental well-being in the general population.
  • Better mood: Research shows that yoga can help those with stress, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders manage their symptoms.
  • Reduced pain: Studies show that different styles of yoga including restorative yoga are helpful interventions for the management of musculoskeletal pain.
  • Gentle on the body: Restorative yoga practices are gentle on the joints, and consistent practice can strengthen the connective tissues that surround the bones and joints.

Additionally, clinical research into restorative yoga has found that the practice can be a good resource for those with cancer, noting improvements to psychological well-being. Research shows that restorative yoga can decrease depression in cancer survivors; improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain symptoms in cancer patients; and help patients manage the toxicity of cancer treatments.

Similar to other styles of yoga, restorative yoga offers a number of physical and mental health benefits, with the added bonus of promoting deep rest and relaxation, which can itself improve overall well-being.

The Use of Props

In restorative yoga, props are used extensively to support your body so you can hold poses for longer periods of time. Postures are usually adapted from supine or seated yoga poses with the addition of blocks, bolsters, and blankets to eliminate strain.

For instance, a seated forward bend (paschimottanasana) can become restorative by placing a bolster or several folded blankets on top of your legs. This fully supports your forward bend by allowing your entire torso to rest on your props.

Another posture you may be familiar with is reclined goddess pose (supta baddha konasana), which can also be adapted into a restorative posture by placing a bolster at the back of your pelvis to support your spine. The soles of the feet can be gently bound together with a rolled-up blanket.

Poses

There are many restorative variations on common yoga poses and numerous possibilities for different ways to use props like blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps, and sandbags. Here, we define some of the key restorative yoga poses, which are fundamental to the practice of deep rest.

If you're just getting started with restorative yoga, set a timer for 5–10 minutes during each pose so you can simply focus on relaxation and breathing deeply. You can eventually increase your time to 15–20 minutes.

Child's Pose (Balasana) With Support

This classic shape can be performed with a couple of stacked blankets placed lengthwise between the inner thighs to elevate and support the torso. From a tabletop position, sit back toward your heels, widen your knees, and bring your big toes together. Soften your elbows to rest your forearms on the floor as you place your torso on top of the blankets. Turn your head to one side, then to the other side about halfway through the pose.

Optional: Place an additional blanket rolled up halfway underneath the tops of your feet to support your ankles.

Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor about hip-distance apart with your arms by your sides. Press into your feet and engage your hamstrings to lift your pelvis a few inches. Slide a yoga block or stack of books under your sacrum (the lower back region), ensuring your tailbone is supported. To come out, lift your hips and remove the block, and then slowly lower back down.

Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) With Support

On your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, slowly lower your knees to one side. Place two stacked yoga blankets or a bolster lengthwise in between your inner thighs and knees. Your arms can rest wide or beside you or in any manner that allows your shoulder blades to remained anchored to the floor.

Optional: An additional blanket can be partially rolled and placed beneath the back of your neck (cervical spine) for support.

Supported Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)

Bring the short edge of your mat to a wall and place a bolster or about three folded blankets several inches from the wall positioned horizontally. Place an additional folded blanket lengthwise on your mat at the top edge of the bolster. Enter the shape sideways and bring your butt close to the wall as you rest your lower back on the bolster and extend your legs upward. Lie back so that the additional blanket is supporting your spine. Your arms can rest wide or by your sides.

Optional: Place a sandbag on the soles of your feet.

Supported Corpse Pose (Savasana)

You can add support to this traditional resting pose by placing a bolster or rolled-up blanket behind the backs of the knees. Use an additional blanket to cover your body and place an eye pillow or eye mask over your eyes.

What to Expect in Class

Prepare yourself for deep relaxation when you attend a restorative class, whether online or in person. Expect the teacher to communicate the props you'll need for the class. The teacher will likely play soft ambient music and will dim the lights if you're at a yoga studio.

If it's chilly, keep your socks and a sweatshirt on since you will not be warming up your body the way you would in a more active yoga class. In some poses, the teacher may suggest that you cocoon yourself in blankets for extra warmth and coziness.

After you're set up in a pose with all your props, you will hold the pose for an extended period, sometimes for 10 or 20 minutes. In these passive poses, the focus is on ease and release. You may even fall asleep. This can be a sign that the nervous system is recalibrating to a "rest and digest" state versus "fight or flight."

You will continue to focus on your breath throughout. The teacher may talk you through a meditation or play music, depending on their style. You may only do four or five poses over the course of an entire class.

Once you learn the basic set-ups for a few postures, it's easy to do restorative yoga at home. You will need to assemble a few props, but many poses can be done with just a few blankets or pillows.

At the end of the session, your body will feel open and refreshed. You may even be a little sore the next day from the deep opening and release facilitated by the postures.

A Word From Verywell

Restorative yoga can be an excellent way to relieve stress and enjoy long, meditative stretches. Consider taking a studio class or joining an online class in the comfort of your own home before you try it on your own. Have patience and enjoy the stillness of your body and mind. It takes some getting used to, but after a while, it becomes easier and you may be amazed at the benefits.

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