The style of yoga most familiar to people in the West is Hatha yoga. A flowing sequence of poses performed mostly while standing on a mat. The numerous benefits of a regular Hatha yoga practice are well documented. However, Hatha is only one of several styles of yoga. A style of yoga you may not be as familiar with is Restorative yoga. Restorative yoga is performed while seated on a mat and has numerous physical and mental benefits. In Restorative yoga you hold supported seated and reclined poses for 5-15 minutes per pose. Holding the poses for a longer time allows for a natural relaxation response in the nervous system. This process of relaxation can boost immune function and enhance the process of digestion and allows the whole body to relax into a state of deep healing, growth and repair. Beyond these physiological benefits, the holding of restorative poses also creates the opportunity to see where you hold habitual tension in your body.
So where did Restorative yoga come from? B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped bring yoga to the West in the 1950s, invented a style in which holding poses longer and using props are an integral part of the yoga practice. Iyengar included restorative sequences in his classes. One of his former students, Judith Hanson Lasater, brought restorative practice into the mainstream when she wrote a book on Restorative Yoga in 1995 and created a special teacher certification. Since then, Restorative yoga has continued to attract students.
In a restorative yoga practice, the focus is not on stretching or strengthening but on releasing. We release tension in the muscles and gently stimulate the organs through long-held poses designed to support and comfort. To achieve comfort a variety of props such as blankets, blocks, bolsters, sandbags, and eye pillows may be used.
Restorative yoga allows us to practice relaxation and helps us regulate our stress response and re-balance the nervous system.
Restorative yoga is incredibly supportive for our nervous system and overall stress levels. The practice helps us strengthen our connection with the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a branch of our Autonomic Nervous System, the system that controls involuntary functions in the body like our heart rate. When we are in states of stress, or what is often termed “fight or flight,” we are in an elevated Sympathetic state. In contrast, during periods of rest and recovery, we are in an elevated Parasympathetic state.
It is important that we can access both of these states. A certain level of stress can be healthy and can accompany incredibly generative tasks like applying for a new job, asking someone on a date, or talking in front of a large audience. However, when stress becomes chronic we start to experience imbalance in our body that can adversely affect our overall health with a range of problems like poor digestion, hormonal imbalances, fertility dysfunction, or disrupted sleep. Restorative yoga can help us reconnect with our Parasympathetic Nervous System and strengthen our ability to move between states of stress and rest with more ease. By helping us learn to relax, Restorative yoga can also reduce the production of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), improve the function of our immune system, reduce muscle tension, help with insomnia, and so many other vital benefits.
Scientists don't fully understand why the practice makes people feel not just rested but restored. However, a growing body of evidence suggests it has measurable health benefits. Cole contributed to one study that showed a six-point-greater drop in blood sugar in a group of prediabetics who practiced restorative yoga (at least 30 minutes three times a week for a year) compared with those who did stretching exercises. There's more: The restorative folks lost two pounds more than the stretchers, along with nearly a half-inch more from their waistlines. "We were surprised by the weight loss," says lead study author Alka Kanaya, MD. It made researchers think that another mechanism that they weren't able to measure—possibly more mindfulness, relaxation, or better sleep—might be at play, Kanaya says. Studies also suggest that restorative yoga can decrease hot flashes during menopause, as well as reduce fatigue and boost quality of life in women with breast cancer. "Long-term practice can also become a buffer to chronic stress," says Aditi Nerurkar, MD, an integrative medicine physician who teaches at Harvard Medical School.
Give restorative yoga a try. Restorative yoga can be a great way to relieve stress and enjoy long, meditative stretches. By trying a group class, you can get a feel for whether it may be a good fit for you. Try taking a restorative class on a rest day from a more vigorous practice. Learn to cultivate patience with yourself 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.