What Is Restorative Yoga? Restorative Yoga Explored

In a world of do more, be more, own more it’s easy to get caught up in all things busy.  The practice of rest is essential and is often overlooked or the last resort.  So, what is restorative yoga and how can it help us to change the way we view active rest and incorporate it into our lives?

Restorative yoga is the use of props to create positions of ease and comfort that facilitate relaxation and health…Restorative yoga is a practice in and of itself for people of all ages, at all levels of yoga experience, and in all states of health.” 

Judith Hanson Lasater –  “Restore and Rebalance: Yoga for Deep Relaxation”

In this article we’ll explore:

The word restore means to repair or to return to something good.  Restorative yoga is not a practice of changing something for the better but returning to something that was already there.  Culturally we are good at doing, achieving, striving, and distracting. In contrast, restorative yoga or “active relaxation” is a great way to embrace doing less.  

three yoga students practicing restorative yoga - supine hero pose. using bolsters and blocks for support.

Origins

Restorative yoga is a relatively modern style of āsana that has found increasing popularity since the 1970s.

“Restorative yoga evolved from the seminal work of B.K.S. Iyengar, who developed it over the course of the 20th Century to work with people who suffered from chronic conditions and illnesses that prevented a more dynamic physical practice.”  

Anna Ashby – Vogue (interview)

Judith Hanson Lasater is considered the pioneer of restorative yoga and was heavily influenced by her teacher B.K.S Iyengar and his heavily propped and therapeutic approach to practice. Judith’s teaching and trainings continue to inspire and inform and her approach to prioritizing comfort and ease has taken yoga to a new level of accessibility.

a woman practicing supta baddha konasana in a restorative yoga class

What is Restorative Yoga?

Often referred to as deep rest, the practice is mainly floor-based and features long, supported postures that promote physical and mental rejuvenation. Props facilitate comfort and support which encourage the mind and body to settle into a state of calm and relaxation. 

It is suitable throughout all stages of life and can easily be adapted for illness, injury, and pregnancy.

“The practice places emphasis on supporting the physical layers allowing space and time for one to renew and heal physiologically. The mental and emotional layers may then unfold and relax within this secure and comforting environment. The activities of the brain/thoughts may settle into quietness and stillness, thus rejuvenating and recharging oneself psychologically, and promoting overall well-being. The practitioner experiences ‘conscious’ relaxation where one chooses to be in a state of stillness, which differs from sleep where one experiences ‘reduced or absent consciousness.’”

Adelene cheong
a pregnant woman in reclined bound angle pose uses bolsters and blankets

Props, props, and more props

Props come in the form of bolsters, blankets, straps, chairs, blocks, bricks, sandbags, eye pillows, and lots of other items that promote comfort.  It’s not unusual to have up to five blankets, several bolsters and bricks, and a chair as the basis of a practice setup. 

“Personalized support in each posture helps minimize muscle contraction and quiet blood pressure, heart rate, and brain function.” Bo Forbes

Props help to:

  • Make the ground more comfortable
  • Provide warmth 
  • Reduce light stimulation
  • Provide the body with weight to facilitate grounding
  • Support the body against the weight of gravity
  • Reduce the sensation of stretch
  • Fill in the empty spaces of the body and support joints
  • Comfortably hold poses for a long period of time

Without these things, rest is unlikely to come quickly.

a selection of yoga props for restorative yoga

Why is the silence so important?

Different approaches of course influence the practice.  One of the things you’ll likely find disparity in is how much guidance you get from the teacher.  Some approaches feature long periods of silence while others favor a guided approach.

Having direction as a newer student can help to soothe and offer guidance for relaxation but learning to steep in silence reduces stimulation and can be a beautiful thing if the practice is set up well by an experienced teacher.

What are the best conditions for practicing Restorative yoga?

Roger Cole is a yoga teacher and a sleep scientist and like Judith Hanson Lasater has had a significant impact on the practice and teaching of restorative yoga.  He says that:

To work its magic, restorative yoga relies on eight key relaxation-inducing conditions: physical comfort, muscle release, warm skin, a reclined or inverted posture, darkness, pressure on the bones around the eyes, permission to relax, and holding the pose for a sufficient amount of time. Each condition stimulates one or more quieting systems, while simultaneously inhibiting one or more activating systems. When you set up your poses, you’ll want to combine as many of these conditions as possible. By doing so, you’ll maximize your chances of breaking the cycle of activation and triggering the cycle of relaxation.”

Roger Cole – Conditions for Calm
a woman in savasana with an eye pillow

Setting up the right environment may seem tedious and unnecessary initially but attention to comfort and the use of props interact with our physiology helping to shift us into parasympathetic dominance within the nervous system.  In other words, how we place and support the body helps to regulate things like our heart rate and blood pressure.

For restorative yoga to facilitate deep rest, we need to communicate to the mind and body that we are ready for rest and safe from danger.

how do we get the mind and body ready for deep rest?

Tending to the Body

  • Get comfortable and warm.  Think “princess and the pea” and have high expectations for comfort.
  • Reduce stimulation.  This means making sure you’re not in bright light, that you settle in a quiet environment, and that you’re still.
  • Reduce stretch.  Even small stretches can be stimulating.
  • Stay close to the ground.  Reclined or even mild inverted postures can help to stimulate the baroreceptor reflex which lowers blood pressure.
  • Cover the eyes.  By adding gentle pressure to the eyes, you not only block out light but stimulate the oculocardiac reflex which helps to reduce heart rate.

Tending to the Mind

  • Make sure that you feel safe.  Setting yourself up in an environment where you won’t be interrupted or fearful is important for settling the mind.
  • You’re not being lazy.  Give yourself permission to rest.  Set an intention that resonates with you and facilitates present moment awareness.
  • Have an anchor.  While wandering towards a pleasant daydream isn’t ideal it’s not detrimental but getting caught up in the mental cycles of should and must isn’t helpful.  Anchors such as the sensation of the exhale help to keep us present.
  • Use a tool.  If practicing rest is challenging, then visualization can help.  Using imagery is a helpful device for guiding your body and mind to relax.

Time

This is a big one.  It takes time for the body to soften and feel supported by the ground.  Set a timer if necessary but don’t expect things to shift quickly, especially if you are newer to practice.

Meet yourself with compassion and bear witness to what arises when you’re in the pose like savāsana for up to 20 minutes.

a woman practices reclined bound angle pose with the use of many props for support

Benefits

The benefits of restorative yoga are widely interpreted as facilitating relaxation but is there more to it than that?  Here are some of the common rewards resulting from a consistent practice:

  • It teaches the distinction of comfort as opposed to its “fine”.
  • It teaches personal responsibility and self-compassion.
  • It develops our capacity to spend time with ourselves and our mental stories without distractions.
  • It develops our interoceptive capacity and the perception of internal sensations.
  • It stimulates the relaxation response and the ability to switch on the “off switch” encouraging “your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.” Psychology today

Bo Forbes says that the therapeutic approach of restorative yoga “helps to quiet the mind, balance the nervous system, deepen the relaxation response, reduce anxiety and stress, soothe the emotional body, heal depression, stimulate restful sleep, and enhance immunity.

Beyond managing stress and promoting rest and relaxation, restorative yoga can help nourish our lives with personal resilience and help us cultivate good responses to challenges.

a woman in supported childs pose with the use of a bolster

Preventative Medicine

While it might be tempting to turn to restorative yoga when you are feeling exhausted, depleted, or burnt out it’s worth reframing how you view this practice and consider making it a habit. 

Consistency will help you to learn how to self-soothe, take responsibility for your well-being, and become acquainted with your nervous system states.  Learning to rest and noticing the journey will help you to transition to a restful state quicker and with more proficiency. 

Is it the same as Yin?

Restorative yoga might induce a gentle feeling of opening and spaciousness, but the goal is not flexibility and it does not emphasize stretching. 

Like restorative yoga, yin offers opportunities for rest, mindfulness, and self-inquiry but the approach varies significantly. 

Yin aims to stretch and stress tissues which are stimulating for the nervous system while restorative yoga works to minimize stretch, stress, stimulation, and exertion on the body as a means to move into the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulate the relaxation response.

Even gentle stretches can be stimulating which is why the use of props and support in restorative yoga is important for reducing anything that takes us away from comfort and ease.

“Unlike other exercise programs, restorative poses place minimal metabolic demand on you.  They add to your energy rather than subtract from it.  During these periods of deep relaxation, you will be healed and nurtured from within.”

Judith Hanson Lasater- “Relax and Renew.  Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.”

How is restorative yoga different from meditation, yoga nidra, sleep, and relaxation?

From the outside, it can seem that these things are very similar but it’s all in the subtlety. 

Relaxation and rest

Relaxation is something enjoyable that helps reduce the manifestations of stress. For some, this could be reading, knitting, or walking in nature and is generally (but not always) something that is done mindfully or requires our attention.

Meditation

Meditation is commonly practiced in an upright position with a specific focus or concentration and rarely pays attention to body comfort.

Yoga Nidra

While Nidra is often practiced in a comfortable position such as savāsana it requires some of the cognitive processes of meditation and concentration not found in restorative yoga and often works systematically through the Koshas.

Deep Rest/Restorative Yoga

In the practice of restorative yoga, stimulation is reduced, and comfort is heightened.  The practitioner is alert and conscious but with minimal information for the brain to process.

When is the right time to practice?

While we often associate restorative practices with being done just before bed, they can be a great refresher at any time of the day. My favorite time to practice is mid-afternoon when many of us feel the post-lunch slump – a great time to surrender to rest in place of a siesta.  

It’s worth practicing at different times within the day to determine how the practice feels and then you can write your own restorative schedule!

a woman in reclined bound angle pose with many props

Is Restorative Yoga a Beginner’s Practice?

According to most yoga schedules, restorative yoga is suitable for all because it does not require a presumed level of fitness. Restorative yoga is undoubtedly suitable for a significant proportion of people, but it is by no means an easy practice.

Props and comfort can be a welcome addition to a yoga practice, but these things reduce distraction. Without movement and sensations of stretch and strengthening, we are left with interoception and self-inquiry. Arguably this is an advanced practice requiring a certain level of familiarity with self-inquiry practices which is why beginners may benefit from increased direction and guidance.  

What is restorative yoga? – Key Take Aways

It is important to remember that restorative yoga is not superior to dynamic styles but simply a complement that allows us to develop fluidity in moving through the different states of our nervous systems.

Stress, which is often vilified, is a necessary part of life that helps us to perform, compete, and develop but it is not helpful mentally, or physically, to stay in the stress zone. 

We all need regular rest so that we understand how to call on it when we move too far in the opposite direction. 

We all need comfort so that we can distinguish from discomfort. 

We all need quiet so we can listen attentively to ourselves.

We all need, in my opinion, restorative yoga.

Practicing restorative yoga

If you’re ready to start restorative yoga, teach restorative yoga or just brush up on your knowledge and practice then check out:

Relax and Renew

Bo Forbes

Adelene Cheong

Anna Ashby

Practices of Rest

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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