Restorative yoga is a practice of being, rather than doing. Opening, rather than stretching. Resting, rather than sleeping.
Restorative yoga poses help us learn to relax and rest deeply and completely.
Judith Hanson Lasater
I did Relax and Renew® training with Judith in September and it deepened my appreciation for the benefits of restorative yoga. I liked teaching restorative yoga before doing the training with Judith, now I love it.
Thankfully, I get to teach restorative yoga every Monday night for the next four weeks! I’m teaching hatha/restorative at 8:15pm on Mondays at Bound Lotus Meditation & Yoga Centre up to (and including) December 3.
In honour of Valentine’s Day, I’m teaching a heart-opening sequence in my 8:15pm Yin Yoga class at Bound Lotus ♥. The flow I’ve put together starts off with supported fish pose. The traditional version of fish (known as Matsyasana in Sanskrit) is an amazing chest opener and the modified version of the posture is more decadent and restorative, but still impactful.
Fish is all about reaching your chest up, while relaxing your lower body. Detailed instructions for getting into supported fish (and getting out!) follow.
If legs up the wall is the one pose I think everyone should do after a lower body workout (running, cycling, hiking, walking in heels), then fish is certainly the one pose I’d suggest for releasing any emotional issues (my friend and fellow teacher Nadine likely agrees 🙂 ). Holding fish pose (and supported fish) can dispel all kinds of long-held chest-tension, which sometimes leads to a huge emotional release (read: it’s totally okay to cry while/after doing fish).
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Supported fish pose
Why it’s good
- Increases lung capacity, which makes it great for asthmatics and athletes, and flushes mucus from the lungs
- Corrects the tendency to round shoulders, which collapses the energy centre at the heart (anahata chakra), and breaks up tension in the mid- and upper-back
- Strengthens and gently tones the muscles along your spine
- Stretches abdominal muscles and creates internal space for internal organs
- Lots of emotional and energetic benefits
- Activates the throat energy centre (vishudda chakra), which is related to the way you express yourself
- Releases grief and helps dispel old emotions by opening the heart energy centre (anahata chakra)
How to do it
- Sit on your mat with knees bent, feet on the floor; snug the short end of a bolster against your lower back/buttocks – you can also use a firm pillow or rolled blanket if you don’t have a bolster
- Using a bolster eases pressure and demand on your back muscles; the closer you place the bolster to your buttocks, the greater the stretch
- Use your arms and hands to slowly lower your back, neck, and head onto the bolster
- If your head doesn’t rest rest on the bolster, pillow, or rolled blanket, bring in another prop to support it
- If the stretch is too intense in your lower back, place a foam chip block, pillow, or folded blanket under your buttocks
- Straighten your legs along the mat; bring your heels together and let your big toes relax to the sides, forming the shape of a fishtail with your feet
- Rest your arms on the floor, at least 45° away from your body, and turn your palms up
- Tuck your chin into your chest slightly; relax your jaw, throat, and shoulders; disengage the muscles in your abdomen, hips, and legs
- Settle into the pose; inhaling deeply into your chest and relaxing your shoulders, hips, and legs with each exhale
- Remain still for up to 10 minutes, breathing smoothly and feeling your chest expand and contract with each breath
To come out of supported fish:
- Bend your knees and rest your feet flat on the floor
- Roll to side off the bolster into fetal pose; take a deep breath in fetal pose before removing the bolster and any other props used
- Release any tension in your back by holding your knees into your chest and rolling on your back
- It’s nice to link fish to a forward fold (like butterfly or caterpillar) or a reclining twist to counter the backward bend
If you only ever do one yoga pose, make it legs up the wall. It’s one of the easiest postures and is the foundation for many restorative yoga practices. It’s fabulous after a hike, run, long-walk, cycle, or anything that works your legs.
All it takes is nestling your bum next to a wall and swinging your legs up; once your legs are up the wall, relax and let your back body sink into the floor. That’s it!
It was immeasurably helpful for me after an accidental 8-hour hike in China this fall – luckily the hostel bed was tucked right against the wall so my back was well-cushioned!
I’ve included step-by-step instructions below.
Legs up the wall pose
Why it’s good
- Encourages healing throughout the body by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system
- Slows the stress-induced sympathetic nervous system – our fight or flight reflex
- Activates the body’s relaxation response; lowering the resting heart rate, slowing breathing, and decreasing the production of stress hormones
- Brings fresh blood and lymph fluid into the abdomen and internal organs
- Relieves tension in the lower back and sacrum
- Reduces swelling, tension, and stress in feet and legs
- Raises the feet above the heart; reversing effects of gravity, improving heart function, and allowing the heart to rest
How to do it
- Sit on the floor with the side of your hip against a wall or a closed door
- Swing your legs up the wall, pressing your bum into the corner where the floor and the wall meet
- Lower your back to the floor and lean your heels against the wall
- If keeping your legs straight is too much for your hamstrings, slide your bum away from the wall and bend your knees slightly
- Your spine should be perpendicular to the wall with your back on the floor
- Rest your arms alongside your body, lengthen them out in a “T” shape, or extend them over your head for more of a chest and back stretch
- Let go of the tension in your legs and pelvis
- Make it even easier by strapping your ankles together (try a bathrobe belt or an elastic exercise band if you don’t have a yoga strap) so you don’t have to work to keep your legs close together
- Add a folded blanket under your hips or head if you need more padding to be comfortable
- Breathe into your belly and relax everything
- Hang out in this posture for 5-20 minutes – try to relax for at least five minutes
To come out of legs up the wall:
- Bend your knees and slide the soles of your feet along the wall towards your bum
- Remove anything you’re using to hold your legs together and press your lower back into the floor for a couple breaths
- Squeeze your knees into your chest and roll from side to side on your back to release any tension in your lower back
- Roll to one side and slowly come up to a seated position
- Breathe deeply for at least three breaths to allow the blood to settle back into your body and prevent getting a head rush when you stand up
This article on How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body from the New York Times is making the rounds and certainly serves as a reminder to listen to your body and keep your ego off the mat.
Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.
– Yoga teacher Glenn Black
I’ve certainly pushed myself too hard doing asanas (yoga postures) and suffered the consequences for days after. Thankfully I haven’t had any catastrophic injuries like those described in the article, but it’s easy to see how they could happen.
Every time I practice I remind myself to stay in the moment, listen to my body, and accept that whatever it’s capable of doing that day. If some part of my body hurts, I need to respect that and move out of the pose or find another approach. Sometimes that means using lots of props, other times it’s just backing off a bit or being okay wobbling on one leg. Often I need to remind myself that yoga is not a competition (not even with myself!) and surrendering my ego is part of the practice. That last part generally means laughing at myself 🙂
If you’re looking for a really laid-back, no ego involved practice this weekend, I’ll be subbing Randi’s Restorative Yoga class on Saturday afternoon (3:15-4:30pm on January 7 at Bound Lotus). Randi’s Restorative classes are always fabulous and I hope to live up to her excellent example. In addition to being an incredible teacher, Randi also founded Samana Wellness to help people find balance and nourishment through yoga and nutrition.
Randi will be teaching Restorative Yoga again on Sunday (6-7:15pm on January 8 at Bound Lotus) and I’ll be there… striving to get my ego off the mat!
Intense physical activity, such as running or training for endurance sports like triathlons, can be very hard on your body. Yoga can help you recover. Read other posts about recovering.
Taking a meditative approach to yoga and flowing through postures, rather than quickly jumping from pose to pose, helps shift your nervous system from fight or flight reactions (sympathetic state) to a restorative, healing modality (parasympathetic state). You’re capable of making better decisions when your nervous system is more relaxed and you’ll generally feel happier!
The controlled movements of a yoga practice encourage circulation in your endocrine and lymphatic systems. Gently stretching your muscles re-distributes lactic acid and reduces oxidative stress generated by free radicals.
Perhaps most importantly, the relaxation portion of a yoga class helps your body recover from activity. Taking time out of your busy schedule to focus on your body helps you connect with your physical being and pay attention to what it’s telling you.
Yoga can also help undo the damage of a late night and flush out toxins. Backward and forward bends squeeze and release your internal organs, which brings fresh blood into your liver and kidneys and encourages toxins to clear more quickly. Specific yoga poses can also help relieve headaches and soothe sore muscles. Additionally, a long version of guided relaxation called yoga nidra slows your brainwaves, which can help heal your body more quickly and may feel more restful than napping for four times as long.