For someone who's never practiced yoga, the thought of contorting yourself may be far from your idea of relaxation and restoration. But don't be fooled-there are several different types of yoga, and it can look different depending on the modality. While you can always try a more intense, accelerated and strenuous form of yoga to get your heart rate up and muscles working (in other words, you can always practice yoga as a workout), the practice of restorative yoga is a slightly different type of yoga that may be just the right prescription for mental catharsis, muscle relaxation, and stress relief.
What Is Restorative Yoga?
Restorative yoga is a slower, more restful and more passive approach to yoga that's meant to melt away muscle tension, create space in the body, and alleviate stress. Though restorative yoga is rooted in the same discipline and includes many of the familiar and fundamental poses held during other types of yoga, the intention is a bit different: Restorative yoga is less about building strength or working up a sweat than it is about deep mental and physical relaxation. So during a typical session of restorative yoga, either at home or an in-person class, you'll likely hold just a few-often very few-tension-relieving stretches and positions for longer than you might for, say, energizing vinyasa yoga (which flows from pose to pose more fluidly and quickly). You'll likely pay close attention to the breath while maintaining one pose: breathing deeply into each stretch, decompressing tense areas, focusing on what you feel and think, and cultivating a connection between brain, breath, and body. Restorative yoga often incorporates helpful props-such as yoga blocks or bricks, pillows or bolsters, or a blanket or towel-that support the body in various poses. You might also use straps or bands to help hold, lengthen, or deepen specific stretches.
Restorative Yoga Benefits
Studies have found yoga to be beneficial as a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)-as an add-on to your current wellness routine (other examples of therapeutic CAM approaches can include meditation, acupuncture, massage, or intentional dietary changes). It's no wonder that Stephanie Rojas, LMHC, founder and lead therapist at Emergent Mental Health Services in New York City, is a proponent of yoga for her clients.
Rojas says that restorative yoga, specifically, can help both the body and mind. "Yoga helps regulate the nervous system," she explains. "That's the key to regulating your emotions, reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and lowering blood pressure and heart rate, which alleviates the nervous system and [helps you develop] a more effective stress response over time. "
As a psychotherapist and advisory member for Hope for Depression Research Foundation, she recognizes movement as a way to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. "Since the body stores stress in common areas like the neck, shoulder, and hips, yoga helps with stretching and opening up these areas to release stored stress," She explains. "It also eases chronic pain, which can be a symptom of trauma." Some examples of chronic pain are frequent headaches, low back pain, and nerve damage.
What to Expect if You're Just Starting Out
Restorative yoga is wonderful for both true yoga beginners and more seasoned practitioners-everyone benefits from weaving low-impact, low-intensity movement into their fitness routine. If you are a novice and just starting out with restorative yoga, Gina Ward, a certified yoga instructor and leadership coach at Shift2Lead, says it's important to recognize that different postures may bring out different reactions in different people. And don't be alarmed: They may even induce some momentary stress for some-it seems counterintuitive, but it's totally normal.
"Any type of backbend or heart opener [pose] exposes the chest and gets the nervous system going in the opposite direction than it's used to going," she says. "It's a vulnerable position because you're putting your heart forward, whereas when you're stressed, you kind of hunch your shoulders or [cross] your arms to protect the soft part of your body."
Someone going into a restorative yoga class or at-home practice with a lot on their mind, may struggle through some poses at first, or take a minute to fully execute them and allow their body to open up and relax. For example, Ward says that for a while wheel pose was inaccessible to her. "It wasn't until I had a really good cry one day that I was able to do the wheel. It wasn't actually anything in my body, it was something I needed to move in my mind."
Below are six stress-dissolving, beginner-friendly restorative yoga poses, including three amazing chest openers and one more advanced progression if you're up for a challenge.
Ease into this lovely chest-opener to expand your lungs and diaphragm, gently stretch the abdomen and subtly strengthen the wrists and shoulders.
How to do it: From a plank position, lower yourself to the floor. As you near the floor, tuck your toes under, straighten your arms, and lift your chest toward the sky. To execute properly, remember to pull your shoulders down and away from your ears and draw your shoulder blades toward each other.
Let this fundamental floor pose be your go-to stretch to decompress the spine (especially the lower back), open up the shoulders, and offer a moment of peace. Child's pose is a great refuge for anytime you need a break from more vigorous poses too. Return to it as often as you need to and hold for however long feels good, breathing deeply into the lower back and rib cage.
How to do it: Kneel with your knees spread at a slight V angle and toes touching (like the point of the V). Sit back on your heels and lower chest toward your knees. Extend your arms in front of you, and let your head rest on the mat.
Not only does Dancer Pose relieve stress, but it also improves balance, posture, and leg strength. (Bonus: It's also one of the most beautiful poses.)
How to do it: Start by standing with your feet close together and firmly planted through all four corners. Bring one knee up towards your chest; slowly kick the bent leg back behind you, catching and holding that foot with the your hand on the same side (i.e. if you're lifting your lift leg, grab your left foot with your left hand.) Stretch the opposite arm forward and lean your chest forward, keeping weight on your planted foot.
Wide Angle Forward Fold
Among its many physical benefits, yoga is a helpful way to process trauma and other forms of emotional unrest, says DuShaun Pollard, a Chicago-based registered yoga instructor and founder of Sage Gawd Collective. This includes, for example, the recent traumas of COVID-19 and social justice issues of the last year.
"[Wide Angle Forward Fold] is my go-to stress-relieving pose-and I use a chair," she says. "I love it because it's a combination of strength and surrender, since I can exhale deeply in this pose."
How to do it: From standing, step your legs 3 to 4 feet apart (a bit wider than hip distance), then place your hands on your hips. Lengthen your torso toward the sky, then slowly begin to fold your upper body over. You can either place your hands on the floor directly under you, stretch them behind you on the floor, or fold them behind your back using whatever expression with your hands feels best.
Wheel pose is the fullest expression of this back-bend position, and it's typically done toward the end of the practice. But beginners can (and should) start with a less intense, basic bridge pose, then progress to try a wheel once they're more comfortable (if desired-no shame in sticking to bridge). Both are fantastic for spinal mobility and opening up the hips and chest.
How to do it: To get into a bridge pose, start by lying on your back with knees bent and heels close to your butt. Arms are lying straight on the ground at your sides and fingertips are stretching toward your feet. Press your feet firmly and evenly into the ground, gently squeeze your glutes (butt muscles), and lift hips off the mat.
How to do it: To progress into a more advanced wheel pose, start in the same position as above. Bend your elbows up and over your head, placing palms on the mat on either side of your ears (elbows should point up to the ceiling and fingers should point toward your feet). Press feet firmly and evenly into the ground and slowly lift your hips as you did for bridge-but this time also lift your shoulders off the mat. Make sure you're stable before tilting your head back onto the mat, and pushing your hips to the sky.