Restorative yoga is the most gentle, relaxed and slow type of physical yoga you can do, designed to release muscular and mental tension, calm your nervous system, and ease you into deep relaxation. For a start, unlike other yoga, it’s done mostly lying down. Props are used to support the body, so that it can fully relax and lie in the various positions for 12-15 minutes each, while the muscles are passively stretched. Props include bolsters, yoga blocks, cushions and blankets.
Two things in particular make restorative yoga very different to other styles of yoga. The first is holding the body in each position for 12 or more minutes. It takes this long for the nervous system to move out of a frazzled state – the fight-flight-freeze reaction – into a deep relaxation response. The second is that the body is fully supported and comfortable, so that you can let go of tension in your muscles, breath and mind.
It is staying in the postures for this length of time – which means you only do four or five postures in a one-hour class – that helps to passively release chronic muscular tension, and soften and relax the body. It allows the natural breath to become very soft and subtle, and soothes the nervous system until it deeply relaxes.
Restorative yoga takes you into a state of relaxed awareness. It is not meant to make you sleep (though it can prepare you for better sleep later). While it is deeply restful, you are at the same time aware of your body, breath and surroundings. It’s a soft awareness, sensing that all those things are there, but without getting caught up in thinking about them. You still stretch the muscles – with forward folds, backbends and spinal rotations, as other forms of yoga also have – but in a restorative yoga sequence these are passive, relaxed, supported stretches, unlike active and dynamic forms of yoga such as hatha, ashtanga and vinyasa flow.
Done correctly, with the guidance of an experienced, knowledgeable and supportive teacher who is specifically trained in restorative yoga, it is deeply comforting and is more than just relaxation of the body; it uses the physical body to also access the mental, energetic and nervous systems, to have a deeply restorative effect and nurture you at all levels of your being.
You can benefit from restorative yoga if you want to feel less tense or stressed and want to deeply let go and relax – both physically and mentally.
The primary focus of restorative yoga is the breath. When we’re stressed, we switch to short shallow chest breathing rather than full breathing using the diaphragm (the main breathing muscle). It’s a normal part of the short-term nervous system response to danger. However, it’s not sustainable. It can become a pattern – along with other unhelpful patterns such as holding our breath or reverse breathing (not taking in enough oxygen when we inhale) – and this can become chronic, which is a vicious cycle as it then keeps the mind stressed and the nervous system aggravated.
Restorative yoga allows the breath to become naturally slower, deeper and more relaxed, as we allow the body to be completely still. This not only benefits the mind and nervous system during the session, but if repeated regularly over time can help to correct unhelpful breathing patterns so that our involuntary day-to-day breath becomes more optimal.
“Restorative yoga is the most gentle, relaxed and slow type of physical yoga you can do. It's designed to release muscular and mental tension, calm your nervous system, and ease you into deep relaxation.”
The breathe is the foundation of our life, and how we breathe reflects how we are living – holding, tense, restricted and unaware or free, yielding, open and soft, and all shades in between. The breath can guide us to the core of our being – the essence of who we are.
As you try to relax in the postures you may feel the places where you’re holding tension. Restorative yoga helps you to gradually release these through a passive, gentle softening and allowing, rather than an active stretch or forcing. It can help you to overcome the disconnection many of us have with our bodies (where, for example, we ignore stiff shoulders and continue hunching over a laptop until it becomes chronic and painful), and instead develop a respect, understanding and connection with your body.
When we do more in life than the nervous system can cope with, or are dealing with personal and environmental stressors, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and we go into survival mode. This system has evolved to keep us alive, so when it perceives something as a dangerous situation it releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to help us run from it or fight it.
But this level of response is meant to be short-term, to keep us safe. It takes a lot of energy and is not sustainable long term if we’re regularly, perhaps almost constantly, in survival mode. If we are, this can then compromise other systems, such as digestion and immunity. Stress is the main cause of long-term illness.
Many of us do too much in life; working long hours, working too hard, not taking breaks, or trying to fit too many tasks and calls into our day. We don’t allow ourselves space and silence. When we slow down and quieten the noise, we can appreciate the beauty of space, silence and simplicity, and reset our minds to enjoy each moment with full awareness. Life is made up of small moments and details, and becomes more meaningful and fulfilling when we are present for them.
Let tension melt away through restorative yoga shutterstock/ESB Basic
All of the benefits above contribute to another one: better sleep. Over time, restorative yoga creates the conditions – deeply rested, more relaxed, a nervous system that’s not consistently aggravated, breathing more optimally, holding less tension, giving ourselves more space and silence – that guide us into deeper, better quality sleep. Then we wake up refreshed and can greet the day with more energy and joy.
This is a list of everything you need for restorative yoga. The most essential prop is a yoga bolster. All these can be substituted with things you have at home. However, I recommend you buy a specific yoga bolster, as it’s the right shape and firmness, and easier to use.
1 yoga mat – or lie on a non-slip rug
1 or 2 yoga bolsters – or rolled-up yoga mat and blanket (see below)
4 yoga blocks (the flat-ish ones) – or lots of cushions and pillows
1 yoga brick (the brick-shaped one) – or use the cushions
1 yoga strap – or dressing gown belt
1 large blanket, to fold and place on your mat for extra comfort
1 small blanket, towel or throw, to roll into a mini-bolster or for under the head
1 eye bag or folded scarf to cover your eyes
If it’s not possible to buy a purpose-made bolster, tightly wrap a folded blanket around a rolled yoga mat. It must be firm, the shape of a bolster, smooth (rolled with no wrinkles), and tied securely at both ends so that it doesn’t unroll (dressing gown belts work well). However, this is more faff and it’s not as easy to move around between postures.
The second bolster is not essential but is useful for some poses, and a good idea if you have a stiff or painful lower back or hips.
Different types of bolsters are available but I recommend a regular, rounded bolster (compare different types here). Try this one by Yogamatters or the more environmentally sustainable hemp bolster filled with organic buckwheat hulls.
Being in a yoga studio equipped with all the right props makes setting up the postures a lot easier. The teacher can help you with them, and can skilfully guide you into the relaxation state, which can work better than being at home surrounded by distractions. On the other hand, it means you get into a very relaxed state then have the disruption of travelling home.
It is not always possible to get to a yoga studio, so here is a simple restorative yoga sequence you can do at home, using one bolster and your cushions and pillows.
If you’re new to restorative yoga, have several lessons in-person with an experienced teacher (or on Zoom, in a very small class size so that you’re seen). At the beginning, you need a teacher to give you instructions and small individual adjustments that make it more comfortable; to clarify things you’re not sure about; and to guide you into relaxation (rather than leaving the mind to its own devices). With their words they can skillfully guide you into deep stillness, relaxation and silence. They create a safe, comfortable and nurturing space.
This is preferable to a recording, where the teacher cannot see you and you may have to disturb yourself to adjust your computer screen or volume. Videos can be helpful so that you can follow the teacher’s cues, see what to do, and relax without looking at the time. However, looking at a screen or using the keyboard to adjust volume, view etc are the antithesis of everything described above. Never crane your neck to see the screen, don’t open your eyes once you’re in the posture, and set the volume and place the screen where you won’t need to adjust them.
“As you try to relax in the postures you may feel the places where you’re holding tension. Restorative yoga helps you to gradually release these through a passive, gentle softening and allowing.”
Here is a simple 75-minute home restorative yoga sequence. Print it, so you don’t look at a screen during your session. This is no substitute for personal teaching and is done at your own risk. Do not do anything that’s uncomfortable, unpleasant or aggravates injuries. If you don’t know what something means, don’t do it. Attend some classes first, or see below for video links instead.
1. Savasana – initial relaxation. Lie on your mat with a widthways bolster under your knees, your knees and feet apart, a thinly rolled blanket under the backs of the ankles, 1 or 2 cushions under the head (but not the shoulders) and an eye bag over closed eyes. 12 minutes.
2. Reclined Easy Pose – hip opening. From here, draw the bolster nearer your bum, cross your legs at the shins or ankles (as when sitting cross-legged) and allow the hips to open, supported by the bolster. If they’re not supported, put yoga blocks on the bolster under the hips until they are and you can fully relax. 12 minutes. Eye bag over eyes. Halfway through, with minimal disturbance, swap to the opposite ankle in front.
3. Reclined Spinal Twist. From here, place the hands on the outer thighs and support your legs as you uncross them and bring the knees together. Rest your feet on the bolster for a minute. Then drop both knees to the right and rest them on the bolster. Position the feet comfortably and securely (not sliding off). Keep the backs of both shoulders in contact with the ground, so that you’re rotating the spinal muscles. Only turn the head the opposite way to the knees (as in the active version) if it feels relaxing. 8-10 minutes, then change sides for 8-10 minutes, then untwist and lie on your back.
4. Reclined Backbend. Slowly sit up with eyes closed. Open your eyes and place the bolster behind you, lengthways on the mat. Place a block or cushions at the far end (your head will rest on these). Sit on your mat facing forwards with your knees bent and bolster behind you. Pull it close to your sacrum. Slowly lie back over it. Adjust the block so it’s under your head. If the backbend is too much, come up, put a second bolster on top of the first, staggered, and try again. Once in position, straighten your legs along the mat. If that’s uncomfortable, bend the knees, place your soles on the mat, separate the feet and let the knees rest on each other. Hands rest wherever is comfortable. Eye bag on the eyes. 12-15 minutes.
5. Supported Forward Fold. From above, slowly sit up with eyes closed. Open your eyes and turn round to kneel in front of the bolster (omit this posture if kneeling is uncomfortable or you can’t sit on your heels). Remove the block. Separate the knees and pull the bolster(s) closer in to you. Lean forward and rest the front of your torso and head on the bolster. Rest the hands and arms wherever is comfortable. Have the forehead on the bolster, or turn the head to one side. Have a cushion under the head if you want to. 12-15 minutes. To end, lift up slowly with closed eyes and sit for a few moments before you open your eyes and end the session.
Many videos on YouTube with the title ‘restorative yoga’ are not restorative yoga. They are quiet, slow yoga sequences with deep active stretches (often for highly flexible bodies) but are not true restorative yoga, as described here, and do not have its benefits.
It is not restorative yoga if it includes unsupported postures, use of strength, active stretches, postures that are held for only a few breaths, or more than five postures in an hour. It’s not Pigeon Pose without bolsters, Downward Dog or Ardha Matsyendrasana (seated twist) – all things that are on YouTube labelled restorative yoga.
Here are three of the best restorative yoga sequences on YouTube:
Restorative yoga for hips and back opening
Focuses on opening your hips and lower back. Four postures in 45 minutes, allowing time for the benefits described above.
Restorative yoga, 40 minutes.
A varied selection of postures for opening different parts of the body. However, they are only held for around four minutes, so use this video as an introduction to them, then do them on your own, staying in them for 12 minutes.
Restorative yoga, 60 minutes.
Clear explanations and set-ups, staying in the postures for several minutes. There is talking and music all the way through so it doesn’t have the deep benefits described above (the mind cannot fully turn inward when it’s being directed to external sounds), but if your mind wanders a lot you might like this.
Restorative yoga benefits us not by challenging us or powering our way to health but by slowing down, being gentle and nurturing ourselves.
As a yoga teacher, and someone who has done yoga for 20 years, I know it can be tempting to always do our more dynamic practice. But once we allow ourselves to slow down and regularly take a restorative yoga class, we realise how much we needed it – especially if we’re living a busy life, working, studying or looking after a family.
It is a therapeutic practice, developed in the 20th century by BKS Iyengar (one of the most influential yoga teachers of the modern age) to help people who couldn’t do a more active physical yoga practice because of injury, illness or chronic health conditions. However, don’t reserve it only for these times. Build it into your week as a counterbalance to a strong physical practice, to a busy stressful life, or for any and all of its multiple wellbeing benefits.
To learn more, three of the leading teachers in restorative yoga to look for are Judith Hanson Lasater (a pioneer in this field), her daughter Lizzie Lasater, and Anna Ashby, who teaches online and trains yoga teachers in restorative yoga (she taught me).
In summary, the key features of restorative yoga are:
Main image: shutterstock/Koldunov
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