All You Can Reap from Restorative
In the previous post, we talked about why restorative yoga is a necessity, especially for urban folks! As we continue to explore this topic, we will focus on some ways to make the best of restorative yoga, through creative sequencing, mixing activity and stillness in your practice, and by working in sync with deep breathing.
Super-charge Your Organs
Restorative yoga poses can be sequenced to support abdominal organ health – combining squeeze-and-release patterns, like a gentle self-massage on our spleen, stomach and liver. Try to alternate forward folds and gentle chest openers, to compress the abdominal organs and then super-charge them with fluids and nutrients from your system. You’re not doing anything extra, just being smarter with how you practice!
How to Trick the Body into Relaxation
Because of our daily postural habits, the hamstrings, hips and chest may be relatively stiff in general. When we try to get into shapes that put muscles into a long length too quickly or forcibly, the muscles can react by tensing up. In this case, trying to “just stay” in a restorative pose would be pointless and even counter-productive.
Instead, we need to slowly coax the body into calmness. One way to work with each pose is to warm up with gentle movement and passive stretching before finally resting in supported stillness.
Easing into a restorative pose
Let’s say you want to practice the restorative pose “legs up the wall,” a variation of which is pictured below:
If you have tight hamstrings or hip extensors –or you’ve just been sitting all day and your muscles are cold– it’s quite possible your legs won’t comfortably straighten all the way when you lie on your back and swing your legs up the wall.
What do you do? Ease your way into the shape through movement and passive stretching! Here’s an example:
- Start with slow dynamic movements within your own comfortable range of motion. If your focus in on the backs of the legs, bending and straightening the legs in various shapes should work well, as this repeatedly contracts and releases the muscles you’re targeting. Here are a few ideas
- Tadasana (mountain pose) <–> utkatasana (chair pose), i.e. stand + squat repeatedly. Keep it gentle.
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) with a gentle bend and straighten* action of the knees added.
- Uttanasana (standing forward fold pose), again with a gentle bend and straighten* action of the knees added.
- * by “straighten” we mean “straighten as much as you can comfortably” without causing strain to your low back
- Move on to passive stretching. In order to provide tactile feedback to the nervous system to release gripping and allow for lengthening of the muscles, apply gentle tension through passive “stretching” of the target muscles. In our example, this could look like a minute or two in supta hasta padangusthasana (reclining hand (or yoga strap!) to foot pose). Here’s how you practice it:
- Have a yoga strap or towel handy.
- Lie on your back with both knees bent.
- Lift one foot in towards you and place a yoga strap over the sole of your foot to support.
- Begin to reach your foot into the strap to straighten the leg away from you.
- Try to keep your butt on the ground. It’s ok if a) your leg moves away from the torso to straighten or b) your leg doesn’t straighten all the way.
- Again, a gentle approach will be most effective! For your safety, avoid yanking on the leg or in any way “forcing” it to straighten.
- Start your relaxation with an easier shape. After gentle movement and passive stretching, relax your whole body in savasana (corpse pose) to begin to send the signal of release and ease to all of your muscles! Modify any restorative pose with props to make it as undemanding as possible. For example in savasana, you can pad generously under the thighs, knee joints and/or lower back when lying supine, to coax the hamstrings into releasing further.
You Can Meditate During Restorative!
As many of us who have tried to meditate can attest to, it is difficult to just sit and try to be still. The mind continues with its level of activity and the more we try to keep the mind calm, the more we struggle. And a body that is not prepared to stay still, will give unpleasant feedback and the mind will continue to be bothered by the feedback.
In addition to coaxing the body into relaxation with the suggested technique above, we can also coax the mind into relaxation, as the two are inter-related. As the body releases gripping and any remaining physical tension, the mental tension also gradually melts away, once your mind accepts that you are safe. The relaxed, un-bothered mind is a good place to start to train the mind on concentration, as a pathway to meditation.
Your primary object of concentration while you are practicing restorative yoga can be your breath.
Work with natural deep breathing to establish a slow, steady rhythm and a good constant point for your awareness to rest on during the practice. Through deep breathing, the nervous system is also soothed. With constant practice, you may occasionally get to taste the natural, effortless bliss that comes from a meditative experience.
The gentle transitions, undemanding poses, and the guided body- and breath-awareness of restorative yoga can be a form of beginners’ meditation that is accessible to many who find other forms of meditation challenging to practice.
My clients share their anecdotes of how a regular practice of restorative yoga has brought them benefits similar to those shared by regular meditators, including managing chronic pain and overcoming emotional impasses.
The myth that restorative yoga equals “doing nothing” is busted! We are in fact working at a deep level of rejuvenation and complete state of relaxation without exertion.
I hope that this gives you even more incentive to include restorative yoga as part of your practice!
All this month at Yoga 216, we are teaching classes in a “Flow & Restore” format that combines active flow with an extra dose of restorative time through one juicy new pose per week. It’s a a great time to introduce yourself to restorative yoga!
Click here to view our August schedule and sign up for class!
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