What Is Restorative Yoga?

For any beginner yogi who’s familiar with Ashtanga or Bikram yoga, the thought of a yoga class probably conjures up the memory of shakily trying to hold a difficult pose, or the feeling of sore muscles the morning after class. 

Yoga can be a physically challenging activity that helps you develop strength, stability, and flexibility.

But despite all of its benefits, yoga can be intimidating. It’s an involved practice with a whole vocabulary of its own, and even attending a beginner’s class, you’ll probably experience the names of lots of poses that aren’t familiar to you.

It’s also not necessarily possible for people who are experiencing chronic illnesses or pain. Someone going through chemotherapy, for example, would simply not have the strength to hold some of the more intense poses for very long, if at all.

This is where restorative yoga comes in.

How Is Restorative Yoga Different From Other Types of Yoga?

The biggest difference between restorative yoga and other yoga disciplines is the pacing. Instead of a rapid-fire series of poses and stretches, a typical restorative yoga class will only include a handful of poses that are held for a long time, sometimes up to twenty minutes.

Restorative yoga is sometimes referred to as “yin” yoga, which focuses on more than just muscle stretching and flexibility. 

Yin yoga works to strengthen connective tissue and joints, while “yang” yoga is faster-paced and more active. It builds muscle strength and gets the blood flowing.

What Is a Restorative Yoga Class or Session Like?

In an hour-long session, you can expect to go through just five or six poses total, which you’ll be holding for a while. However, these poses are specially chosen for the purpose of restorative yoga, which means they will be easier to hold and don’t require a lot of balancing or extra strength.

A restorative yoga session is really kind of a cross between a guided meditation and a yoga class. You’ll be focusing on your breath and your thoughts, and the long poses allow for plenty of time for self-reflection and thought. This practice is meant to heal both your body and mind.

What Are the Benefits of Restorative Yoga?

When you regularly practice this type of yoga, you will experience a laundry list of positive benefits, both mental and physical.

Mood Boost

Yoga, in general, has been proven to have a positive effect on general mood and wellbeing. Specifically, restorative yoga can be incredibly helpful and pleasant for people struggling with depression.

Reduced Anxiety

Restorative yoga deals with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your nervous system responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response to stress or negative stimuli. It also decreases levels of cortisol, which is known as “the stress hormone.”

The focus on breathing and meditative aspects of yoga triggers relaxation in the body, which in turn decreases anxiety on the spot while lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and even blood glucose levels.

Improved Sleep

The positive impact on the parasympathetic nervous system means that the body reaches a state of relaxation. Along with the decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, you can enjoy much more restful sleep.

It can also help you feel more energetic and less fatigued in general.

Chronic Pain & Illness

Because restorative yoga is slower-paced and gentler than other types of yoga practice, it’s much more accessible. 

The use of props like blocks and bolsters is allowed and even encouraged, to make it easier to hold poses. That means that even someone with a very limited range of flexibility can make the poses work for them. 

You don’t have to be in perfect health and physical shape to greatly benefit from yoga practice. In fact, people with chronic illnesses and pain can experience decreased pain levels and relief from the various mental health obstacles that can accompany chronic illness.

Restorative yoga allows for restoration and healing that’s both physical and mental.

Is Restorative Yoga Just … Resting?

The slow pace and gentleness of this yoga practice might make it sound like people engaged in the practice are just lying around relaxing, which of course you can do anytime at home.

But anyone who’s ever tried to meditate knows that it’s really not as easy as it sounds. It does take some practice to get into the habit of meditation and to develop the ability to calm the mind and fully focus on your breath.

We spend so much time every day on our phones, experiencing breaking news as it happens, and lately, that news is often devastating and troubling. 

Most of our days are spent seeing thousands and thousands of images and advertisements and engaging with constant stimuli in our environments. This is so commonplace that we don’t really even notice it– that’s just how it is.

Our minds are going a mile a minute from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed. Restorative yoga practice is the active choice to be completely still, to calm and relax the body and mind and allow for silence, reflection, and healing.

While engaged in the handful of poses you’d experience during a session, you’re also not just lying there (well, unless you’re in Savasana or Corpse Pose). 

You may not be doing as many poses as you would in Ashtanga or Bikram classes, but you are still holding poses for an extended period of time– which, despite the aid of supportive props, still requires some effort.

And finally, healing your mind and body is not an easy or effortless task. Many of us shy away from that kind of self-awareness and reflection, and in restorative yoga practice, you have to face yourself head-on in order to heal.

Is Restorative Yoga Hard on the Body?

By its very nature, yin yoga doesn’t require a lot of physical strength or balance. The poses are intentionally simple and easy to hold. After a session, you probably won’t feel anywhere near as sore as you might with other yoga disciplines.

The difficulty of restorative yoga affects not the body, but the mind. “Easier” poses mean that you have to spend less mental energy on trying to hold your body in the right position, which frees up your mind for introspection. 

It requires you to look deeply inward and address the things you’ve perhaps been avoiding thinking about, the first step on the journey to processing those feelings and overcoming them. 

In that way, it has the potential to be painful and difficult. But much like building muscle strength in more athletic types of yoga, it works to ultimately provide mental strength, flexibility, and wellbeing.

What if It Makes Me Feel More Anxious?

The prospect of looking inward and focusing on what’s going on with our minds isn’t always incredibly appealing, especially during highly stressful times in our lives.

But those stressful times, when your body is full of cortisol, are actually the most beneficial time for restorative yoga practice. When you’re having a bad time at work or in a personal relationship, taking the time to center and calm yourself can be immensely helpful.

The moments when you have to confront those thoughts and feelings can be anxiety-inducing, especially if you’ve been suppressing them– but, as they say, the only way out is through. Even the scariest thoughts lose their edge when you’ve calmly examined them. 

All that to say: if you feel initially anxious during your yoga practice, it’s completely normal. You just have to keep in mind that it doesn’t last, and the overall benefits to your nervous system will make upcoming stress that much easier to handle in the moment.

What Kinds of Poses Will I Be Expected to Do?

Child’s Pose

In a standard yoga class, your instructor will most likely tell you to spend some time in child’s pose if you’re having trouble with the other poses.

Kneel on the mat or floor, on your heels with your knees about hip-width apart, and stretch forward so that your arms are extended all the way out and your palms are resting on your yoga mat or the floor.

This pose can be difficult if you have limited range of motion or flexibility in your hips or back, but part of the benefit of restorative yoga is that every pose can be modified. You can place a pillow or bolster between your knees so that your torso and head are resting on it, or rest your head on your folded arms rather than extending them all the way forward.

If you need to, you can also do Child’s Pose from a chair, supporting your torso on your thighs and touching your toes or the floor.

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose

Just like it sounds, this pose requires you to use a wall as support.

Essentially, you lie on the floor with your legs fully supported by the wall, from thighs to heels. You can use a pillow or bolster to support your neck or lower back (or both!), and let your hands rest on your belly or on the floor next to you. 

This pose requires gentle engagement of your muscles and gently stretches your legs, which can provide a great deal of relief if your feet are sore after a long day.

Typically, you’d hold Legs-Up-The-Wall pose with your buttocks as close to the wall as possible, but if you’d like to modify it you can do so by putting more space between you and the wall, letting your legs rest at an angle. 

You can also rest your legs on a chair instead of the wall, or keep your legs bent at ninety-degree angles. Pay attention to your body and do whatever you need to feel comfortable enough to hold the pose for an extended period of time.

Supported Forward Fold Pose

This one is similar to child’s pose, except you’ll be sitting directly on the floor instead of kneeling.

Sit with your legs together and extended out in front of you, and place a pillow, folded blanket, or other bolster on top of your legs. Lean forward and rest your torso and head against the bolster, with your hands touching your feet or simply resting on the floor next to you.

Just like Legs-Up-The-Wall pose, this one gives you a gentle stretch on your hamstrings while keeping you fully supported. 

If you want to modify this pose, you can place another bolster under your knees, or use a stack of pillows to minimize the amount you have to bend forward.

Supported Bridge Pose

Bridge pose typically requires you to support your body with your head, upper back, and feet, but the supported version looks a little bit different.

You’ll start out lying on your back, with your knees bent at about a 45-degree angle, and feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Push your pelvis outward and then place a block or sturdy bolster under your lower back and buttocks so that you can rest on that.

To make it a little easier, you can put your feet together and allow your knees to rest inward on each other, or put a pillow or folded blanket under your head and neck.

Happy Baby Pose

For this position, you’ll also start out lying flat on your back. Bring your knees up to your belly, reach forward and grab your feet (on the exterior side). Then bring your knees up to your chest and raise your feet up while still holding onto them. 

For the end result, your head and torso will be resting on the floor, with your knees against your torso and your lower legs at a ninety-degree angle, pointing toward the ceiling. You’ll still be holding onto the outsides of your feet.

This one requires some flexibility, so you can modify it in a number of ways– spreading your knees much further apart, or reaching between your knees to hold the insides of your ankles rather than your feet. Just make sure it feels comfortable and not painful, so you can hold the pose.

Final Thoughts

Restorative yoga isn’t as fast-paced and athletic as yoga typically is. It doesn’t burn as many calories as a cardio session. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful and an excellent addition to your daily life and yoga practice.

Working on the mind is just as important as exercising the body, and it’s pretty simple to do regardless of skill level. 

Simply holding these poses, focusing on long, deep breathing, and focusing the mind inward can have massive, lasting benefits for your mental and physical health. In other words: it’s worth it.

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