Midway through my yoga teacher training experience I took a workshop on Yin Yoga – which is an extensive (and intensive) form of restorative yoga. If you have been following along with my yoga journey, you may recall that my yin yoga experience didn’t exactly go super-“well” for me. So when it came to signing up for these final tech sessions to wind down my training experience, I opted out of the yin yoga session – but felt compelled to try as many different yoga forms as possible. I wasn’t sure how “restorative” yoga was different from “yin” yoga (or if they were even different at all), but I felt like I owed it to myself to invest the 90 minutes of tech time to find out.
The teacher who conducted this restorative tech session was different from the instructor who has taught all of the yin/meditation/energy/emotional healing/shakti/deva/mudras/woo woo classes I have had to this point. Today’s teacher was also big on chakras/nadis/koshas/visualization/etc., but her presentation of the content was just, well, different than the other teacher. Both instructors shared a lot of similar content, but expressed it in rather different ways. For whatever reason, tonight I could ‘hear’ the information, and be more open to receiving it non-judgmentally, than I have been before. Maybe it’s because of the teacher, maybe it’s because I’ve grown over the past eleven months, maybe it’s because I’m continuing to evolve and become more open/receptive/tolerant/willing/inquisitive… Likely it’s a combination of all of those factors, plus other causes and conditions I’m not even conscious of. But for whatever reason(s), during this class I began to understand how important these restorative aspects of yoga are; and I felt myself begin to have more acceptance of – and compassion towards – restorative yoga as a “valid” asana form.
Okay, so what *is* restorative yoga? The teacher told us that restorative yoga is the yoga of being rather than doing. There are many different reasons why people might be drawn to restorative yoga (stress reduction, recovery from illness/injury/accident, healing from child birth, emotional support during a major life transition like a marriage/new job/divorce/death/etc., to supplement a meditation practice, or just to chill out and do something physically soothing and replenishing/rejuvenating/relaxing for a change); and one of the key components of restorative yoga is an emphasis on the mind, and on connecting with the mind (as well as soothing the body). Now yes, the mind (and mind/body connection) is important in every yoga class; but when a person is struggling through a tough asana practice, sometimes the mind can get downplayed (or even ‘forgotten’)… whereas in a restorative class, because the body is more still and more quiet, it may be easier to connect with the mind more fully.
The teacher then talked a bit about the power of the mind. For people who may question if they really need a restorative yoga practice, the teacher commented about how our body and our mind don’t know the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. The example I have heard many times is that of a rope/snake: If we see a rope coiled in a corner, but we think it is a snake, our bodies will respond exactly as if it were a snake – even though it’s just a harmless rope. This same concept applies to negative self-talk, to engaging in ‘pretend’ violence (i.e., movies, video games), to thinking all tasks are *mission critical!* and imposing unnecessary stress in our lives, etc. etc. – and suddenly it becomes a bit more clear that an unconscious, untended mind really can kill us – quite literally. (Think high blood pressure resulting from chronic stress as just one example: the high blood pressure leads to a heart attack or stroke, and there you go – death.) So while this body/mind/imagination connection can be really devastating to us, it can also serve us – if we learn how to use it to our advantage. We can use/teach/train our minds to help us rather than hurt us – and that is one of the many benefits of restorative yoga.
One last comment on the mind, and then I’ll move on: Actions follow thoughts, and thoughts follow intention. If we are unaware of our thoughts, we can’t possibly know our intentions. And if we are unaware of our intentions, we can get into big trouble – and we won’t even know why. But. If we work to at least try to set our intentions, and attempt to become aware of (and then over time to guide) our thoughts, we can learn to be more authentically “conscious”; and when we genuinely “know” better, we can then do better.
So, in restorative yoga we are looking to become aware of, listen to, and enhance our own body’s wisdom and intuition.
Alrighty, so how does one actually do restorative yoga? There are a whole bunch of poses that are “restorative” in their nature (think forward folds, child’s pose, legs-up-a-wall, legs-on-a-chair, savasana…) – entire books have been written on restorative yoga. Basically, one makes a regular ol’ asana “restorative” by getting into the pose with a sense of steadiness and comfort (so no pushing/straining/struggling), breathing deeply and consciously (use 3-part breathing), making deep relaxation the ‘goal’ of the practice, and visualizing the prana (energy) moving through the body as appropriate.
One thing I found interesting in the class was the instructor’s comment/caution that people *can* get injured in a restorative yoga class, especially if they don’t receive a proper physical warm-up. While the poses may be more gentle and static than intense or dynamic, it is still yoga – the body is still being challenged in physical ways.
Along those lines, I also appreciated the teacher reminding us that a tiny adjustment really can make a big difference in the experience of a pose (both in physical feeling and in emotional feeling). In my own practice, I’ve been amazed at how a teeny-tiny tweak of a body part (sometimes as slight as a single finger) can deeply change the experience of a pose for me! And when a pose is held in a restorative fashion (so, for longer than just 3-5 breaths), I can understand and appreciate how the concept of adjustments are all the more important in a restorative class.
Okay, here’s the last thing from the class that I thought was cool, and then I’ll end this post: The teacher informed us that if a person can’t enter a certain pose (let’s say a woman had a c-section so she can’t do a forward bend, or a guy had some knee/hip trauma so he can’t invert his legs, or whatever…), even having the person just breathe into an area of the body that feels pained, stressed, fatigued, etc. can be a very effective restorative method to employ. Physical asanas are good, but they simply aren’t the ‘only’ path to health: even ‘just’ directing breath (prana) into a part of our physical body (or mind, or both) can yield tremendous benefits. [So, on days when I might be feeling ill, and want to do something healthy for my body but don’t feel up to doing yoga, I can lay in bed or on the sofa and engage in conscious breathing – and really can practice yoga, and really can consciously help by body heal. That’s cool.]
Indeed, to that end, the teacher closed with the following comment: “The universe knows where to go, and what to do – all you have to do is be willing to receive it.”
So, wow…. After all of this reflection and writing, I guess I do see some value in restorative yoga. I guess it just took the right person, at the right time, to share the ‘right’ message. (Or probably more accurately, for my mind/heart to be in the ‘right’ space to receive it.) :)