Friday, 22 April 2011

Restorative Yoga - Postures to Soothe the Nervous System and Calm the Mind

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the fast pace of the modern world and that feeling of ‘frayed nerves’ that can arise if we don’t take some time out to nurture ourselves.
Many of us are over-stimulated, meaning our sympathetic nervous system and adrenals are in a state of ‘alert’, great when needing to run or hide from danger, not as useful if that state of ‘alert’ won’t switch itself off when we want to rest.
We might say that many of us are in a hyperactive or rajasic state. And for the mind to rest we need to be in a more peaceful or sattvic state. The regular practice of Restorative Yoga can help immensely with this.
Restorative Yoga practices calm us down when we are overly ‘hyped up’, and give us an energy boost when we are depleted or drained. In other words, they encourage another part of our nervous system to dominate for a while, the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a state of calm.
These postures are fabulous if you’re completely exhausted and can barely contemplate doing a practice at all, and work equally well if you’re over- stimulated and need to wind down.  They’re also great for beginners and Yoga teachers alike.
The idea with Restorative Yoga is to be as completely comfortable and relaxed as possible. It takes time for the nervous system to calm down, so the postures are held for a longer period of time, typically 5 minutes or more. We make ample use of the ‘props’ available, including blankets, bolsters, eye bags, blocks, sand bags, etc. – whatever we can find that helps us to be comfortable and supported in the postures. Rather than going for maximum stretch, we are exploring deep, sustained, nurturing relaxation.
One suggestion is to dedicate at least one practice per week to Restorative Yoga. Another approach is to include a longer held Restorative Yoga posture near the end of your daily practice.
There are many Restorative Yoga postures, but today I’m going to introduce one very special one called Inverted Attitude Pose or Viparita Karani.

Although this posture is lovely and safe for most people, not all postures are suitable for everyone. So if in doubt, seek advice from a qualified Yoga teacher or trusted health professional. The key is, it should feel super comfortable and supported, as you’ll need to hold it for a while to reap the benefits. If it’s not, re-adjust or come out.
·      1 x bolster that is firm with a bit of ‘squish’ so you can relax into it (or two, firm, neatly folded blankets, folded lengthwise, can substitute).
·      1 x strap.
·      1 x eye bag.
·      1 x Yoga mat or a comfortable surface to lie on.
·      You will also need a wall to take your legs up.


1.     Place a bolster or two folded blankets a few inches away from a wall and sit on the bolster sideways so your right hip is touching the wall. Swing the right leg up and then the left until the feet are pointing up towards the ceiling. The feet can be hip-width apart for this version. Lie back on the floor so the sacrum and lower back are supported on the bolster.
2.    You may have to shuffle the buttocks closer to the wall. If the bolster is too high, new or unforgiving, use folded blankets under the hips instead. The arms can rest comfortably by your side with the palms facing up, or can be bent comfortably over your head. Place an eye bag on the eyes if it helps you relax.
3.    Stay for 5-15 minutes. To release, bend the knees and roll to the right side, resting for a few breaths before coming up to sitting.

 This is a wonderfully restorative posture that can be used to refresh and rebalance the entire system – body, nervous system and emotions. If you only have time for one Restorative Posture, this is a great choice, as it has so many benefits. 
- Viparita Karani relieves and helps prevent stagnant blood, water retention, lactic acid, varicose veins and tiredness in the legs. It is excellent after strong athletic activity or long periods of standing – for all the reasons stated above. If you have a job where you are standing for long hours, especially on hard surfaces, make sure to include this posture regularly. 
 - The benefits are similar to the full Shoulderstand, but viparita karani is much easier to hold for longer periods, and the neck is in a less intensely ‘flexed’ position, making it safer for the neck (although those with serious neck problems should read the Cautions section). 
- Digestion and appetite are improved.  Relieves constipation, hernia (not hiatal), hemorrhoids and prolapse. This is due to the inverted position, which relieves these conditions from the usual stress of gravity weighing down on them. 
- The neuro-endocrine system is balanced and under-active thyroid (hypo) can be balanced. Circulation increases to the upper part of the body, which assists with the prevention of respiratory problems such as sore throats, cough’s and cold’s. 
- Encourages relaxed, deep breathing and a calm state of mind.


 - Acute Neck Problems – practice the simple ‘Legs up the Wall Pose’ instead, where the lower back simply rests on the ground without being raised up on a bolster.  Since the hips are not raised, the neck is less flexed, making it a safer option for neck problems
- Very tight Hamstrings – will pull the pelvis back, making it hard not to slide off the bolster/blankets. Lower the height under the sacrum/hips and move them away from the wall slightly so the legs can be at more of an angle. You may need to remove the blankets entirely. Don’t hold for too long if it’s very intense, as we are trying to relax here.
- Strained Lower Back – Try moving the bolster/blankets further out from the wall so the legs are at more of an angle. Possibly substitute this pose with the simpler Legs Up The Wall Pose instead.
- Spondylolsis and Spondylolisthesis – this is a condition that concerns vertebrae misaligning or slipping, usually around L4, L5 (Lumbar 4 & 5). Avoid the full pose. You may find the simpler Legs Up The Wall Pose feels safer. 
- Hiatal Hernia – avoid because of acid reflux. 
- Menstruation – avoid the pose as it is an inversion, particularly the version with the height under the sacrum. 
- Prenatal – OK up until about 3 to 4 months, but after that the woman should not lie on her back because of pressure on the vena cava (the major vein that returns blood from the lower limbs and abdominal area, back to the heart).

For more information on Restorative Yoga, see Judith Lasater’s wonderful book: ‘Relax and Renew - Restful Yoga for Stressful Times’.

Photo of Rachel Hull taken by Haidar Ali, at Spirit Yoga, Osaka, Japan.


1 comment:

  1. i'm feeling more relaxed just reading this - thanks Rachel