Image Map

guy lifting mad weightAdventures in Relaxation -Part II by: Scott La Pidus, M.D.

Many people lead stressful lives or commonly experience stress, yet lack effective means of coping with this stress. In my first article I discussed several kinds of meditation, and the use of music to foster relaxation. In this article I will discuss restorative yoga.

Yoga? Why should I read about this lame stuff?

Restorative yoga is a lesser-known style of yoga particularly well suited to fostering relaxation. It is very easy to perform and almost anyone can do it. Absolutely no experience is required, and restorative yoga can be performed no matter what your level of flexibility, strength or fitness.

In restorative yoga one passively assumes a pose (yoga poses are also known as asanas) supported by various props e.g. blankets and chairs. By putting one’s body in a yoga pose, but using props, one can experience many of the benefits of the pose, but without the need to expend effort.

In this article I will present

  • Background information you should know before you start to practice restorative yoga, and how to get the most out of your practice.
  • Details on how to perform a number of basic restorative yoga poses including how to vary the pose to make it most comfortable for you.
  • Suggestions on how to set up a restorative yoga practice i.e. which poses and for how long you should do them.
  • How to bring more relaxation into your life i.e. how to use the tools I’ve presented in the last article along with restorative yoga to help you be more relaxed consistently.

Background considerations

The poses I will describe in this article are comfortable to be in for most people. When you put your body in one of the poses, take time to get comfortable. Sometimes minute adjustments in your body or small additions/adjustments to props can make a huge difference in how comfortable you are. Within the constraints of the pose descriptions, make whatever adjustments you need. Don’t be stingy with the props e.g. if you need five folded blankets to be comfortable in a pose, use five folded blankets. Being comfortable is superbly important during restorative yoga, as this will facilitate relaxation.

When you are working with these poses, if anything you do results in you feeling pain, stop immediately and make adjustments. These positions should be comfortable and are safe for the overwhelming majority of people who try them. These positions or similar ones have been used safely by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.

The first time you assume one of the poses see how you feel. As a general rule one might want to stay in the pose only a short while the first time or two you do the pose. This will allow the body become comfortable with it. I would encourage you to spend more time in the poses as you get more experience and more comfort with them. As you get used to the poses, spending more time in them will yield greater benefits.

Specific details for coming out of the poses will be given in the appropriate sections. In general when you are ready to leave a pose, leave the pose slowly, and note how you feel. Do you feel different than before the pose? More relaxed? Calmer or more energized? Alternatively if something about a particular pose does not work for you, note that too, trying to be specific about what it is and how you feel.

The information presented here on restorative yoga has been drawn extensively from Judith Lasater (one of the major popularizers of restorative yoga) and her books 30 Essential Yoga Poses (a good general beginner yoga book) and Relax and Renew: Restful yoga for Stressful Times (the definitive book on restorative yoga) as well as Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (another good general beginning yoga book) by Donna Farhi.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

 

ow to get the most out of restorative yoga

  • Restorative yoga is best done on an empty stomach.
  • Choose someplace to practice that is quiet and without distractions. Many people find it preferable to do restorative yoga with only a low level of lighting.
  • Wear loose comfortable clothing. Socks are optional, and shoes should not be worn.
  • When you practice these poses, you are going to be still for some time. Some people will find it easier to lay still and be quiet if they have done something active before hand. Experiment and note what works best for you. Perhaps you respond best to some activity beforehand, or perhaps you respond best to a quiet period before the yoga.
  • If you are going to be in the poses for more then just a few minutes you may want to have handy a blanket to cover yourself as many people become chilly. Also many people like to close and cover their eyes as they find it enhances relaxation. One can use a folded hand towel or certain eye pillows made for this purpose.

You can be in the most wonderful restorative yoga pose, or located in the most peaceful place on earth, but if your mind is agitating you, relaxation may not happen, or may happen only with difficulty. For example your mind may dredge up an unpleasant conversation with your boss, spouse, or child, or perhaps fears or worries about future situations. In this way, your mind can be a real blockage to relaxation.

How can you deal with this?

1. When in one of the poses, put your full attention on the physical sensations of breathing i.e. the rise and fall of your chest. When you get distracted by thoughts (which is inevitable) just gently shift your attention back to your breath, returning over and over to the physical sensations of breathing.

2. Put your full attention on the physical sensations of your body in the posture, and keep coming back to those physical sensations when you get distracted by thoughts (which is again inevitable).

3. Feel and sink into the relaxation.

4. Doing restorative yoga with a quiet background is preferred. However if your mind it too active, or you find that this does not work for you, mellow pieces of music can be helpful to listen to while you are in the poses. Just focus your attention on the music. Two that would work well are:

Fairy Ring by Mike Rowland Narada CD ASIN: B000005P1O and

Vaughn Williams 3rd symphony. London symphony, Previn.
RCA ASIN: B000003F2I

Do not use any music with words or any music that you find stimulating in any way.

Having your mind interfere with relaxation does not simply happen when one practices yoga, it is a part of the human condition. One way to work with this is the mini-meditation that was discussed in my first article and can be found in its original form here:

Also at that web site there are two other articles worth reading. Bear in mind that these articles were written for people with a spiritual interest but you do not need any spiritual background or inclination to benefit from the information presented.

 

Notes about the pose descriptions below

When working with restorative yoga it is important to make the transition into the poses without stress or strain. For each pose I’ve presented one way to do this below. If you chose other ways to get into the poses be sure to enter and exit the poses slowly, and in a manner gentle on your body. Obviously rushing into a pose or putting stress on your body as you enter or exit a pose is counterproductive to the whole reason for doing restorative yoga.

The benefits of yoga derive from the specific body positions. This is why Iyengar yoga is so exacting about minute details of the poses, and why the poses below are described in detail. The details are generally for a reason. Obviously if you cannot do the pose as described, you will need to modify things. If the modifications listed are not sufficient for your needs, and you need to make extensive modifications, or you have injuries, your needs might be best served by having a private session with a local yoga teacher experienced in restorative yoga. If you need to find a local yoga teacher, one good way to start is to look for an Iyengar yoga teacher. This can be done with the search engine at the Iyengar yoga website here:

http://www.iynaus.org/Search/search.aspx

The other reason for the degree of detail presented below is safety and at a more subtle level, being gentle to your body. Thus the details when I describe poses that involve forward bends. The safest and kindest way to do forward bending is with the body made “as tall as possible” (see details below). Likewise, if you are not careful when exiting the supported backbend you can strain your back.

Please be sure to read a pose description all the way through (ideally several times) before attempting it.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

 

Basic relaxation pose and variations

IA Basic relaxation pose

This is a good pose to start with to explore the benefits of restorative yoga.

 

Basic relaxation pose

What you will need: a comfortable but firm surface to lie on e.g. carpeted floor, and one or more blankets.

DO NOT DO THIS POSE OR THE CHAIR VARIATION: if you are pregnant after your first trimester as lying on one’s back is not recommended.

Set-up: Roll up a blanket to use under your knees. A blanket folded a few times to support your head will also be helpful for many people.

How to get into the pose: Lay down on your back as shown with your legs a comfortable distance apart, and the rolled up blanket under your knees. Your arms should be positioned so that your palms are facing up if it is possible for you to lie comfortably that way.

Keys to the pose:

  • Knees: The rolled up blanket behind your knees is important because it helps to take the pressure off your low back.
  • Head/neck: You can adjust the position of your head by putting a blanket as shown under it. Many people will be most comfortable this way. Adjusting the height of the blankets/your head so that your chin is slightly lower than your forehead is a good position to start from (see below on how to do this).

Variations to make the pose more comfortable:

  • Increase or decrease the size of the roll under your knees
  • Increase/decrease the size of the folded towel under your head. Some people will not need this at all. Other people may prefer a small rolled up towel under their neck instead of, or in addition to the folded up towel under their head.
  • Add support e.g. folded up towel under the back of your ankles/heels. This further decreases the stress on your low back, though people with back issues will likely prefer the version below using a chair.

When you are ready to come out of the pose: Bend one knee, and roll onto your side. Remain there for a short while before getting up.

Benefits: This pose is good for all around general relaxation. Relaxation is particularly beneficial for the immune and nervous systems. It lowers blood pressure and heart rate, improves sleep, and reduces muscular tension.

IB Basic relaxation pose with chair

 

What you will need: a chair and possibly some blankets.

Set-up: A blanket for the surface of the chair may be needed depending on the chair and how comfy its seat is. The chair should be on a non-stick surface e.g. a yoga mat, or can be placed against a wall to prevent sliding. Again, a folded up blanket may be helpful under your head, and you may want to place it on the floor behind you before you lay back.

How to get into the pose: Sit on the floor in front of the chair, facing it with your knees bent. Put your arms on the floor behind you and use them to allow you to roll or layback onto the floor slowly, keeping your knees bent. Then put your legs up onto the chair seat.

Your arms should again be palms face up if this is comfortable, and palms down if not.

Keys:

  • The thighs should not be perpendicular to your body, but at a greater angle with your body as seen in the picture.
  • Your legs i.e. shins should be roughly parallel to the ground. If instead when you place them on the chair seat your heels are elevated above your knees (more likely for those vertically challenged) you should put some folded blankets under your body to elevate it. People who find their knees higher above the surface of the chair seat then their ankles, should put folded blankets on the chair seat to elevate their shins.

Variations to make the pose more comfortable:

  • Vary the distance between the chair and your body. The chair should be at a distance from you so that your legs and thighs are most comfortable.

When you are ready to come out of the pose: Slowly take your legs off of the chair, roll to your side with your legs on the ground, and remain there for a short while before getting up.

Benefits: In addition to the benefits described for the basic relaxation pose above, elevating one’s legs like this takes pressure off of the low back and people with lower back problems may find this variation particularly comfortable.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

 

IC Prone variation

 

What you will need: Cushions or folded blankets.

Set-up: Arrange stacked folded up blankets, sofa cushions or other suitable props to comfortably support the body as shown.

How to get into the pose: The basic idea is to lay prone supported by folded blankets, or cushions and with ones head, arms and legs flowing over the edge of the cushions onto the floor. Either keep your head straight and rest your forehead on the floor (or e.g. on a folded towel) or turn your head to whichever side is most comfortable. The arms should be up i.e. not at your sides, unless this is uncomfortable.

Variations to make the pose more comfortable:

  • The height, number and arrangement of support blankets, cushions, etc can be varied in any way needed for maximum comfort.

When you are ready to come out of the pose: Roll to your side and remain there for a short while before getting up.

As restful as the first two variations can be, there is something fundamentally different about this variation. In Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (pg 239-240) Donna Farhi attributes this to lying on one’s back stimulating the sympathetic (excitatory) nervous system and lying on one’s abdomen stimulating the parasympathetic (restorative) nervous system. Whatever the reason, this is one variation that is worth exploring for the profound degree of relaxation it can offer.

II Supported forward bend

Forward bends in yoga are calming, and so this gentle supported forward bend is a good second pose to explore.

 

What you’ll need: a chair, and some (perhaps many) blankets.

DO NOT DO THIS POSE OR ANY OF THE FORWARD BENDS IF YOU HAVE DISC PROBLEMS, spondylolysis, or spondolisthesis, or SI joint problems.

Anyone experiencing pain WHEN TRYING THIS POSE should stop immediately.

Set-up: Fold several blankets to sit on and cover the chair seat with a blanket (if needed for comfort). Set the chair in front of the blankets as shown. The chair should be on a non-stick surface or otherwise prevented from sliding.

How to get into the pose: Sit down on the folded blankets, facing the chair. Comfortably cross your legs e.g. at the ankles. Sit up straight actively trying to reach the top of your head toward the ceiling. If this is uncomfortable, use a higher stack of blankets to sit on. Keeping your body long i.e. extending through your head as you slowly bend over and put your crossed arms on the chair seat, and then your head on your arms. Extending through your head as you bend forward helps avoid putting undo stress on your back. This way of bending forward is important to keep in mind for maximum comfort and safety in any of the poses where forward bending is involved.

Note in the picture that Christina’s back is arched rather than rounded. It is important to attempt to keep your back straight as you bend over, even if it winds up slightly rounded. You do not want your back to be very rounded or collapsed. If your back rounds, put folded blankets on the chair seat to elevate it.

Keys:

  • If your knees are higher than your navel you need to sit higher i.e. add more blankets to the stack you’re sitting on.
  • People with knee problems can experiment with different leg positions (keeping the legs crossed) to find one that is the most comfortable. This pose can be done with the legs straight out in front of you under the chair but it is much more tricky to perform correctly and without causing back discomfort.
  • If your hips are tight the chair will need to be closer, if they are looser, the chair will need to be further away.
  • If you do this pose on a regular basis you need to alternate the way you cross your legs i.e. which leg is in front. Not alternating legs will create imbalances in the body.

Variations to make the pose more comfortable:

  • Experiment with the height of the folded blankets, distance of the chair from you, and if needed height of blankets on the chair. You can always rest your folded arms on the top of the back of the chair if need be (you will need to turn the chair around, so that the back faces you if you need this much height).
  • Your forehead can be on your arms, or your head can be turned to the side.

When you are ready to come out of the pose: Reverse the above process remembering to extend through the spine as you come up slowly.

Benefits:

  • Being a forward bend, it is calming. It also relaxes the organs of digestion and elimination.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

 

III The great restorer

This next pose is aptly named and wonderful for anyone tired or fatigued. Everyone interested in restorative yoga should explore this pose.

The first picture shows the starting position used to get into the pose, and the second picture shows the pose itself.

 

Starting position to get into the pose

(The blankets are not needed for the basic pose)

DO NOT DO THIS POSE IF YOU HAVE DISC PROBLEMS, spondylolysis, or spondolisthesis. Anyone experiencing pain doing this should stop immediately.

This should also be avoided by women when they are menstruating, as well as people with glaucoma or retinal problems.

What you’ll need: A wall with sufficient empty floor space in front of it.

 

The pose

How to get into the pose: This is most easily explained as three steps

1. Start as in the first picture sitting on the ground, knees bent, and with your right shoulder and right hip against the wall.

2. Keeping your knees bent, roll back so that your back is flat on the ground, your knees in the air and your right side is against the wall.

3. Press away from the wall with your right hand rotating your body so that your head moves away from the wall. As you do this straighten your legs and extend them up the wall. This should bring you into the pose as shown in the second picture. Arms can be as shown, or if that is not comfortable, they can be down (again, if they are down, palms up is preferred). With practice one can go smoothly from the first picture into the second very easily, and one can roll back and swing your legs up the wall at the same time.

Potential problems: If you have tight hamstrings and/or calves you may find it difficult to keep your legs relatively straight. Just move your buttocks a little bit away from the wall, or bend your knees a little. If your back aches try the “advanced” version (described below) as the blankets under your buttocks may relieve this.

Keys:

  • Your legs should be relaxed, and you should not feel any stretching as you might in ordinary yoga–If you do, make adjustments as above.
  • Again, support your neck if needed. Adjust your head until your chin is slightly lower then your forehead. Do not force your chin down and flatten the back of your neck, use support if needed to do this.

When you are ready to come out of the pose: Roll onto your side with your legs on the ground and remain there for a good minute or so before getting up.

Benefits:

  • Relieves tired or cramped legs and feet. Reduces water retention in the legs and ankles.
  • Worth exploring by anyone who is overworked, overtired, or fatigued.
  • Preliminary research by Psychobiologist and yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms has demonstrated that yoga postures such as this one (inversions) “dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a slowing of the heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body that comes from reversing the effects of gravity.” (Judith Lasater Relax and Renew: Restful yoga for Stressful Times).Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

    IIIB The advanced variation

    This is a more effective version though a bit trickier to get into the pose.

     

    The advanced pose

    The simplest way to try to get into this pose is to:

    • Place a folded stack of blankets against the wall as in this picture.
    • Follow the same directions as for the basic pose above, only in step 1, sit on the edge of the blankets. When you do this you will likely find that as you swing your legs up the wall, you will start to slide off of the stack of blankets with your buttocks moving further from the wall then in this picture. This is OK, and again having your legs further from the wall will probably be more comfortable for people with tight hamstrings. You can lift your buttocks, adjust the blankets, by pulling them towards you and under your buttocks, and then resting your buttocks on them.

    The better way, and the way Christina got into this “advanced” version of the pose is:

    • Set up the folded stack of blankets perpendicular to the wall as shown in the “STARTING POSITION TO GET INTO THE POSE” picture for the basic pose above.
    • Get into the basic pose, and then as you can see in the next picture:

     

    Transition to the advanced pose

    • Bend your knees, press your heels into the wall and lift your buttocks (I am assured by an experienced yoga teacher that this step is accomplished easily by most people).
    • Reach your arm over and rotate the stack of blankets until it is against the wall and under your buttocks as in the picture “transition to the advanced pose”.
    • Lower your buttocks into the advanced pose. The same potential problems and adjustments apply as for the basic pose.

    IV Child’s pose (restorative)

    This can be a very relaxing and comforting pose, though it may take some experimenting and a number of props to make it comfortable.

     

    What you will need: A number of blankets, stacked as in the picture.

    Set-up: Create a folded stack of blankets as above.

    How to get into the pose: Depending on your flexibility and the health of your knees, you may need a number of props. The basic idea is that you:

    1. Kneel on the ground with your torso upright with your knees spread and your feet together (see picture for feet position).

    2. Sit down until your buttocks are on your heels.

    3. Take the prepared stack of blankets and move them toward you between your legs until the stack touches you.

    4. Bend over and lay down on the blankets as shown. As before extend your head toward the ceiling before bending over.

    Keys:

    Ankles: Note the position of Christina’s feet in the picture. Many people will need support between the front of the ankle and the floor. Note one end of the blanket on the floor behind her has been rolled up and placed between the front of her ankle and the floor to support it.

    Knees: People with knee problems need to approach this pose cautiously, and again a session with a yoga teacher may be the best way.

    If you are unable to sit down with your buttocks on your heels because of knee issues, put one or more folded or rolled up blankets under your buttocks and on top of your heels/calves until you are able to sit down comfortably. Alternatively, some people with knee problems will feel more comfortable with a rolled up or folded blanket in the crease behind their knee before they sit down on their heels.

    When you are ready to come out of the pose: Reverse the above process remembering to extend through the spine as you come up slowly.

    Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

     

    V Prone twist

    This is a variation on child’s pose that is worth including since it may be comfortable for people who may not find’s Child’s Pose comfortable.

    What you’ll need: Blankets stacked the same way as for Child’s pose.

    DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU HAVE DISC PROBLEMS, spondylolysis, or spondolisthesis.

    Anyone experiencing pain doing this should stop immediately.

     

    Starting position to get into the pose

     

    The pose

    How to get into the pose:

    • Sit as in the first picture above, back straight, next to the end of the blankets with your right thigh touching the sides of the blankets and your back even with the back of the blankets. Your legs should be straight out in front of you (see first pic above).
    • Bend both knees to a comfortable position e.g. as seen in the second picture.
    • Without moving your lower body turn your torso to the right, till you are facing along the stack of blankets.
    • As before, before you start to bend over, actively extend though the top of your head.
    • Start to bend over, putting your hands on the ground on either side of the blankets.
    • Using your arms, slowly lower yourself face down on the blankets continuing to actively extend through your head as you do so.
    • Once you lay down, your head can be facing whichever way is most comfortable.
    • Your arms should be comfortably placed on either side of the bolster on the floor.

    It is important to spend an equal amount of time twisted to each side. So when you are ready, sit up slowly and return to your starting position. Then turn your body 180 degrees so the left thigh is against the stack of blankets and again lay down as above.

    Benefits:

    • This pose relieves stress in the back muscles and those along the sides on the body.
    • While this pose should not be done without supervision (i.e. a yoga instructor) if you have medically diagnosed back problems, many people with various back problems will find this asana particularly relaxing and comforting
    • This pose is also said to loosen the neck and spine, and stretch and relax the hips and shoulders.

    VI Supported backbend

    This pose is different from the other ones presented in this article in that it may not be comfortable while you are doing it. So why is it in this article?

    1. 3 of the poses above are forward bends, so it is important to have a backbend for balance. More importantly:

    2. Many people sit hunched over and rounded forward, and this pose helps to counteract this.

    3. While it may not feel comfortable to be in this pose for some, many feel relaxed and refreshed after they come out of the pose.

    Because this pose is tricky, I recommend that you read Judith Lasater’s description here:

    http://www.yogagroup.org/relax.html

    Scroll down to SIMPLE SUPPORTED BACKBEND

    Conclusion

    In this article I’ve provided a range of basic restorative yoga poses. If you are willing to work with these, they can provide benefits including bringing periods of relaxation and a feeling of being refreshed and restored into your life.

    As is true for the meditations described in the last article, maximizing the benefits of these poses requires working with them regularly over time. While one might experience some benefit the first or second time one tries one of these poses, more likely one will see maximum benefit (and get a feeling of how much these poses can do for you) after doing one of the poses regularly. Thus I would encourage you to explore one or more of the poses by doing it daily for a week, even if only for a few minutes each day. One way to work with these poses would be:

    • Practice IA The Basic Relaxation Pose daily for a week spending at least 5 to 10 minutes/day
    • Depending on your needs add either II Supported Forward Bend (for relaxation) or III The Great Restorer.
    • Once you’re doing those two daily, explore the basic relaxation pose variations (IB and IC) and the other poses listed trying each pose for at least 4 or 5 days to get a feel for what each can do.
    • Be sure to spend some time with the supported backbend to get a feel for what it can do, and how you feel afterwards.

    A regular restorative practice might include daily:

    • The basic relaxation pose or one of it’s variants (IA, IB or IC) for 10 minutes
    • Either II Supported Forward Bend or III The Great Restorer for 10 minutes
    • One of the other poses of your choice.
    • The Supported Backbend.

    Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

     

    Post-script: Using these tools to bring more relaxation into your life

    In writing this article and the previous one I have presented various tools that people can use to relieve stress and bring periods of relaxation into their lives. By presenting a number of choices, I hope to provide options suited to people’s varying needs and temperaments.

    If you are having a stressful moment at work, or in your personal life:

    1. A few minutes of one of the meditations described in the first article can bring you into a calm centered place from which you can better deal with whatever is going on. This will be most effective if you have been practicing this meditation regularly.

    2. Or if you have music accessible e.g. an iPod if you are at work, one of the mellow pieces of music I listed can be used to relax you and leave you in a more centered space, again better able to deal with whatever is going on.

    If you are motivated to increase relaxation, regular practice of:

    one or more of the meditations, or the restorative poses will leave you more relaxed as a baseline, and again better able to deal with the daily stressors of life.

    Thanks to Christina Sible Renne of Yoga on Centre in Pittsburgh, PA for posing for the pics.

    References

    http://yogajournal.com/

    http://www.yogajournal.com/newtoyoga/991_1.cfm

    Judith Lasater:
    30 Essential Yoga Poses (a good general beginner yoga book) and
    Relax and Renew: Restful yoga for Stressful Times (the definitive book on restorative yoga)

    Donna Farhi.
    Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (another good general beginning yoga book)

    Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the author. No reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, permitted without permission.

×