By Lauren Taus
We live in a culture that rewards gains with pay raises and praise. Whether at work or at the gym, we are on a seemingly endless quest to improve ourselves and be better. We even do this in yoga classes, asking how can I perfect my headstand, master crow, or deepen my flexibility. This orientation is not, by nature, negative or wrong. We should always be growing, but this single pointed focus needs to be balanced with a willingness to be in acceptance and peace with what is.
Recently, I’ve deepened my meditation and restorative yoga practice. I’ve quickly come to appreciate these parts of my health routine as the most challenging – and the most important. The benefits are immediate. I sleep better, eliminate better, and I feel better every day that I carve out time for myself in repose.
But I’m just one person, and I don’t expect you to trust my experience. I do, however, expect you to trust the world around you. Most modern diseases are connected to stress: heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. When the stress response is on, all other vital systems shut down – digestion, elimination, growth, repair, reproduction and immunity – because the body perceives no need for them. Over an extended period of time in stress, we suffer massively negative impacts on our physical, psychological and social well-being. Some can be lethal.
The good news is that we can learn to undo unnecessary, habitual tension. We can learn to relax into what is and feel the support around us. Restorative yoga is the key to this embodied preventative health, and it may be a style of yoga you don’t recognize at all.
Unlike Hatha yoga, restorative yoga does not require any muscular effort. We do the poses lying passively over props, such as bolsters and blankets, and you are meant to let go into them completely so that you allow yourself to be and feel supported. Over time and continued practice, you surrender layers of deeply held tension. This is an exercise in conscious relaxation that can lead to a state of integrated and holistic well-being.
Here are four poses you can practice at home.
1. Supported Childs Pose
Place blocks underneath two ends of a bolster or large cushion, and come into childs pose with your torso supported by the bolster. It should feel as though the support is coming up to meet you rather than your torso dropping into the support. Slide your arms underneath the gap between the bolster and the floor, bringing each hand toward the opposite elbow. If the forearms or elbows don’t touch the ground, fill in the space with towels or blankets so that you are supported from the elbows to the fingers. Supporting the elbows and arms helps to release tension in the upper back and neck while integrating the arms back into the body. In order to release tension in the lower back and create a deeper sensation of groundedness, place a heavy blanket on your sacrum. If the base of the shins or the tops of the feet are off the floor, prop them with a rolled towel.
Turn the head to one side, alternating sides halfway through the pose. On each inhalation, feel the back body expand and on each exhalation, feel the support under the chest and belly. Stay in the pose for 5-10 minutes.
2. Supta Baddha Konasana
This pose opens the entire front body: the pelvis, belly, heart and throat. These are areas we instinctively protect, which is why this pose can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Place a block lengthwise under one end of a bolster to prop it up on an incline. Sit with your back to the short, low end of the bolster. Place a second bolster under your knees and bring the soles of your feet together. Wrap a blanket around your feet to create a feeling of containment. Place another folded blanket over the pelvis to create a feeling of insulation. Lie back on the bolster. Place support under your arms so that they are not dangling and there is no feeling of stretch in the chest. Stay for 5-15 minutes.
3. Side-Lying Savasana
Twists are generally good for the nervous system, but some constrict the breath and create more anxiety. This gentle supported twist allows more room for the breath to come into the rib cage and belly. Lay on your left side with your feet at a wall and your
back against a bolster that is at least as high as your spine. Bend your right knee to 90 degrees and support your right knee and shin with a bolster or folded blankets so that the right leg is as high as the right hip. Rest the sole of the left foot on the wall. Place folded blankets under your top arm and hand to lift them to the height of your shoulder. Tuck a folded blanket under your head and neck to lift your head in line with your spine. Rest here for 2-5 minutes.
To move into the twist, roll your torso to the right over the bolster, keeping your right arm fully supported by it from shoulder blade to fingers. Your right hand should be no lower than the height of your right shoulder. If you have tightness in your shoulder or chest, place more support under your arm until it’s higher than your shoulder. You should not feel a stretch, but rather as though your chest is open and your breath is fluid. Stay for 2-5 minutes and repeat on the other side.
This pose can be very expansive, especially when the arms and legs are spread wide from the body. Keeping the legs and arms a little closer to the body encourages a more contained feeling.
Roll up a blanket and place is alongside a wall. Lie down with the soles of your feet against a blanket. Place an additional rolled blanket or bolster under your knees to encourage the thigh bones to drop deeper into your pelvis. Place a folded blanket over your belly to release tension and weigh the hips down even more. Rest your arms by your side, palms facing down. Support your cervical curve with a small, rolled towel and place a folded blanket under the head to create a cradling effect. Your chin should be perpendicular to the floor, and your throat should feel open and tension free. With each exhalation, allow the earth to fully hold each part of your body: heels, thighs, pelvis, upper back and head. Once you feel completely connected to the ground, rest your mind on the waves of your breath. Realize too that the nature of the mind is to wander and, each time you catch it doing so is an awakening.
Research shows that, after 20 minutes in a state of relaxation, we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and quell the sympathetic nervous system. But don’t worry if you find yourself getting anxious and making laundry lists while you practice. Turn on some music that soothes you. Google about it to find a guided practice. Just keep trying. It takes time to learn to relax, but you’re teachable. You can do it, and it’s worth it. Trust me, I know.