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Restorative Yoga 101


Restorative yoga is a meditative practice that uses props such as blankets, blocks, and bolsters to support the body in positions of comfort and ease, to remind and ultimately teach the body how to exist in a restful state of physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. While we are designed to live in our rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system, let’s face it, when was the last time you stopped your going, doing, and achieving life simply to rest, be, and release? Our daily go-go energy, oftentimes precipitated by stress, pushes us into our fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system. As a culture, since we operate on autopilot in our “go” state for days, weeks, months and years on end we are, essentially, living in a constant state of stress! Living in this state wreaks havoc on the body. Restorative yoga helps remind the body of the rest state it was designed to live in, bringing the body back into the parasympathetic nervous system. If practiced regularly, this can ultimately help avoid massive body malfunction.


Stress, by my definition, is the mental and emotional reaction, often manifested physically, to adverse or demanding circumstances. Stress is not external to your body, rather it is your own internal reaction to the external stimuli. For example, your job itself is not stress but a stressor—something that causes you stress. How your body reacts to your job is what is defined as stress. Why is it so important to mitigate stress? Our constant going, doing, and achieving requires so much from our body that our sympathetic nervous system—our flight-or-flight response—often triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases the heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Living in this state, as many of us do, continually pumps cortisol into our system. Over time, the cortisol breaks down muscle and immune, heart, and brain tissues, disrupts hormonal balance, and ultimately leads to disease. Considering how stress can ravage the physical body, emotional balance, and mental health, the importance of learning how to trigger and live in your parasympathetic nervous system—our rest-and-digest response—is a top priority for overall wellness. The good news? You can teach yourself how to react to adverse and demanding circumstances without triggering your sympathetic nervous system, through the practice of restorative yoga.


The goal of restorative yoga is to release the physical body, with the idea that only when the physical body releases its physical manifestations of stress, are we able to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Stress comes to life on the gross body in a series of postures; think raised shoulders when feeling anxious, a hunched back when upset or scared, and a clenched jaw when angry. Short bursts of these stress postures have little consequence, if any, on health. We are expressive beings, and our bodies are designed to shift and change. The problem arises when we hold these stress postures for extended periods of time.


Living in a constant state of stress—living in the sympathetic nervous system—leaves no opportunity to release our musculature. Consequently, the connective tissue literally clamps down to hold the body in these stress shapes, making these postures our new normal. Over time, the connective tissue dehydrates, which in turn restricts circulation and closes important pathways within the body that transport messages from one system to another. These closed pathways may limit our access to the sympathetic nervous system.


The discipline of restorative yoga literally creates a cradle from the blocks, blankets, and bolster props to fully support and hold the body. When the body surrenders to being held, the areas of tension release—those areas that have formed adhesions in the connective tissue to support the stress posture. This release facilitates the opening of pathways, and therefore, more overall flow in the system. While you may only release with the help of a restorative yoga practice for a one hour period during your day, regularly practicing this discipline familiarizes the body with what it feels like to rest, and ultimately teaches the body how to release and how to access the sympathetic nervous system. With practice, you will no longer need the supports, and these lessons and habits will translate into everyday life.



CHALLENGE YOURSELF


Constructive Rest


This shape is beneficial for most anything, but is particularly helpful for anxiety, stress, depression, pain, insomnia, fatigue, headaches and migraines, neck and back discomfort, and digestive problems.


For support, collect a firm pillow or a thickly folded blanket.


1. Start lying on the back (supine) with head resting on the folded blanket or firm pillow, knees bent, feet grounded, and arms extended by the sides at a 45-degree angle (armpits free), with palms facing up.


2. Place feet slightly wider than the hips, and drop knees toward centerline to support each other. Maintain arms by the sides OR bring hands to the belly.


3. Inhale for two counts and exhale for two counts. Continue this process of counting the length of the inhalation and exhalation for three minutes, twice a day. Gradually add time.


4. To come out, gently roll to the right into a fetal position and hold for three breaths. Activate top hand into the floor and push yourself up – heart before head – to seated position.



Supported Relaxation


This shape is beneficial for most anything, but is particularly helpful for anxiety, stress, depression, pain, insomnia, fatigue, headaches and migraines, and digestive problems.


For support, collect a bolster or firm pillow and a thickly folded blanket.



1. Start in a comfortable cross-legged seated position. Place a bolster or pillow in front of you and a folded blanket behind you.


2. Extend legs and drape them over the bolster or pillow to support the knees.


3. Keeping knees supported, lower yourself onto your back (supine) and rest head on the folded blanket. Extend arms by sides at a 45-degree angle (armpits free), with palms facing up.


4. Inhale for two counts and exhale for two counts. Continue this process of counting the length of the inhalation and exhalation for three minutes, twice a day. Gradually add time.


5. To come out, gently roll to the right into a fetal position and hold for three breaths. Activate top hand into the floor and push yourself up – heart before head – to seated position.


Legs Up The Wall


This shape is beneficial for most anything, but is particularly helpful for anxiety, stress, depression, arthritis, headaches and migraines, digestive problems, back pain, cramping and tired legs or feet, insomnia, premenstrual cramping, and menopause.


For support, collect a chair and a thickly folded blanket or firm pillow.


1. Start in a comfortable cross-legged seated position facing a chair. Place a folded blanket or pillow behind you.


2. Lift legs, one at a time, and place calves, ankles, and feet on the seat of the chair. Legs are at a 90-degree angle.


3. Keeping legs at a 90-degree angle resting on the seat of the chair, lower yourself onto your back (supine) and rest head on the folded blanket or pillow. Extend arms by sides at a 45-degree angle (armpits free), with palms facing up.


4. Inhale for two counts and exhale for two counts. Continue this process of counting the length of the inhalation and exhalation for three minutes, twice a day. Gradually add time.


5. To come out, gently roll to the right into a fetal position and hold for three breaths. Activate top hand into the floor and push yourself up – heart before head – to seated position.


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