Restorative Yoga: What is it and why we need it

Just two years ago, you wouldn’t catch me going to a Restorative Yoga class nor would you catch me practicing with bolsters. I felt that it was “boring,” and “too slow." I'd fall asleep anyways, so what was the point? 

Fast forward to today, I am now a big proponent of Restorative Yoga. 

So what is Restorative Yoga and what does it do?

As the name implies, Restorative Yoga is meant to “restore” your body to a place of equilibrium. In a Restorative Yoga class, we are not particularly trying to “stretch” any muscles, but rather we allow the “opening” and “release” of the physical body, so that our mental and emotional bodies can follow suit. 

To create these effects, a myriad of props are needed: bolsters, blankets, blocks, straps, eye pillows, and sometimes even chairs. Each pose is held for at least 5-10 minutes with plenty of support from the props so that our muscles, tendons, and ligaments can release their “grips” on the joints and bones, which unfortunately constitute most of our physical state now due to chronic stress. The classes are typically held in dimmed rooms with either no music or soft, ambient music to encourage turning the senses inwards in each asana. 

In addition, Restorative Yoga is the perfect balance to the fast lifestyles we live today—from the cars we drive, the smartphone apps we use, the food we eat, to the yoga classes we attend. The more physical and fast-paced practices of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Power, and Hot/Bikram Yoga constitute the majority of the Yoga market in the West because we can relate to them more. These styles of yoga are all great in moving the muscles and lymphatic system; they can empower people and help them feel stronger in their own bodies; they are a great combination of strength, flexibility, and balance. However, in our fast-moving lifestyles, if we only attend these classes 4-5 times a week, it can put on extra heat to our already over-taxed bodies. 

On a physical level, Restorative Yoga might look easy and relaxing. While feeling calm and relaxed is one of the main purposes of practicing Restorative, by no means is Restorative Yoga “easy.” It might seem like so on the surface, but like meditation, when we are faced with stillness, our minds can go into dark places. When we slow down, there are no more external distractions to keep us from facing our fears, unresolved traumas, and past memories. If the practitioner is ready, she would be able to process and resolve the “dark stuff” that surfaces. But if the practitioner is not ready, she might feel agitated and restless, sometimes even not knowing why she feels that way in a Restorative Class. 

Perhaps that was me two years ago. Restless, a little agitated, and using “boring” to describe the class because I was trying to grasp onto some distractions to keep my mind from going into my dark corners. My goal-driven personality aspired to achieve the perfect crow pose and handstand. I liked to whizz through asanas after asanas in my vinyasa’s to “clear out”—but really to ignore—unresolved memories and emotions. I thought that by heating up my body and sweating profusely for 2 hours everyday would help “burn” away my junk and baggages. 

Little did I realize that without recognizing what baggages I wanted to resolve, I was just burning away my physical body overtime without getting anywhere close to reaching enlightenment. 

In the past year, I have learned to slow down, and have come to appreciate the beauty of slowing down. By slowing down, I became more attentive to my inner dialogues and acknowledge them, but without being held prisoner by them. I started to figure out why I react more strongly under certain circumstances than other people might since I was able to witness the links between my childhood memories and my emotional reactions. I started to speak more truthfully, more authentically, and more from my heart. 

I’ve observed that even if you fall asleep during a pose, or even throughout the length of the class, it is a-okay. Look at it as a time of rest, while still bathed in the physical benefits of the postures. If you can stay awake throughout the class, you can use the opportunity to pay attention to each breath, each emotion, and each thought that arises. Besides, who wouldn't like to be nurtured by an abundance of bolsters and blankets that feels like a big bear hug?!

I still love the sensation of sweat, the big movements, and pushing my physical body to the edge from a Mysore practice, but now I balance that fiery, masculine aspects of the asana practice with the cooler, reflective, and feminine aspects of the Restorative practice. 

Curious? Come try out my Restorative Yoga Class on Sundays 6:15pm at the Yoga Garden SF. A great way to wind down the weekend and reboot for the week ahead! 

Stay tuned for the next post on my personal “Flow & Restore” practice that combines a mindful vinyasa flow with restorative practice.