Restorative Yoga is a terrific complement to the stronger vinyasa practices that sometimes take center stage in the yoga world. In fact, I often take breaks from doing vinyasa flows to practice restorative yoga for a week or two depending on how I'm feeling and what else I have going on in my life.
The thing that really draws me to restorative yoga — aside from its calming effects on stress and anxiety — are the props involved (blocks, bolsters, straps, and blankets). Using props can help open the doors of yoga to many more beginners who might not yet be up to the task of tackling a full vinyasa flow. In addition, they also help with targeting specific muscle groups, going deeper into a posture while maintaining passivity, and keeping proper alignment.
Floors and walls can used for a full restorative yoga sequence and are terrific aids to accomplish deeper, longer held postures and fuller releases.
Even if your home yoga studio isn't fully stocked with blocks and bolsters, you probably have access to two simple and free props: the floor and a wall. Floors and walls can be used for a restorative yoga sequence and are terrific aids to accomplish deeper, longer-held postures and more passive releases. They are also excellent for supporting your body and allowing you to surrender more fully.
The following is a therapeutic sequence that I use for myself and for clients who are working on their flexibility. Try to keep this sequence as restorative as you can. If done slowly and mindfully with conscious breath, it should take you about 30-45 minutes to complete. Look to maintain at least 10-15 slow breaths in each posture, or whatever feels comfortable to you.
Props needed: 4 blocks, 3 blankets, bolster, strap, wall (or any combination thereof).
Bonus prop: Eye pillow
To begin, sit to center and focus your mind on the task at hand. Notice the breath and begin to allow the stream of thoughts to calm. In this example, I am supported by sitting on 2 blocks side by side with a folded blanket on top of them, while my knees are supported by a block underneath each. If you don't have 4 blocks, folded blankets can replace the blocks underneath the knees. In fact, use props in whatever creative way gives you the most support. There is no right or wrong.
To enter the next pose, place your mat against the wall and scoot your left or right hip as tightly to the wall as you can. While lowering down on to your back, raise your legs one at a time and rest them vertically up against the wall. The focus here is release your hips, pelvic bones, and shoulders as flatly onto the ground as you can. This pose is good to open up the lower back, calm the mind and turn your focus inward. A variation is to put a bolster or blanket underneath your sacrum and lower back for support and comfort. This is a good posture for you to witness your muscles warming while letting gravity do the work for you.
Now, grab a strap and wrap it around your right foot at the ball of the foot while holding the strap firmly in both hands.
Hamstring Stretch: Inhale to begin and then bring the foot and leg slowly off the wall on the out-breath. Bring it out to about the distance of your other foot to begin with. Hold this posture and breathe through it for a breath or two, deepening it (pulling it out further) on your exhalations only. Make sure your pelvis stays squarely on the floor with your leg as straight as is comfortable, while pushing up gently through your heel. After your 10 breaths or so, inhale and then lower your foot back to the wall on the out-breath.
Adduction: Adduction describes any movement that leads TOWARDS the midline (center) of the body. Begin the same as above but this time bring the leg over towards the other leg across the midline of your body using your left hand (the hand opposite of the leg you are working on). Don't go very deep at first, as a little goes a long way in this posture. As I like to say, "Millimeters are miles" with a posture like this. Remain mindful and confident with this pose, as you don't want to let gravity take over too much. This is a good one to open your glutes and all of the smaller underlying muscles of your backside. Be sure to press through the heel while drawing the toes back toward your face.
Abduction: Abduction describes any movement that leads AWAY from the center (midline) of the body. Begin the same way as above, but this time, slowly lower your leg out to the side as much as you are comfortable (bring the foot out, THEN lower on the out-breath) using your right hand (the hand on the same side as the leg you are working on). Again, you will not go too far at first, and you will be able to observe the leg lowering slowly to the floor as you give it time and relax the muscles with the breath. Lead with the heel and let gravity do its thing. Once your leg is on the floor, bring your focus back to your rear-end and the pelvis keeping both hip bones as squarely the floor as you can. Let go of all tension and allow your glutes to relax.
½ Happy Baby: Start as before, but this time once you get your leg out to about the distance of the resting foot, begin to pull your towards your armpit on that same side of the body. Place the strap about 2 inches more toward your heel than the ball. You will keep the strap in both hands, pulling with a moderate amount of force. Make sure you keep the knee coming in toward the armpit instead of splaying out to the side. Another important thing is keep the shin of the leg (from the knee to the ankle) at a 90 degree angle to the floor, that is, straight up and down.
Figure Four Stretch: Place your right ankle over your left knee. You'll find that the higher your left foot is up the wall, the less intense the posture will be. Lower the left foot down the wall and the posture deepens the intensity in the right hip. A key element of this posture is to keep the foot of the ankle that's crossed flexed to help protect that knee joint i.e. In the image below, the right foot is flexed.
Pigeon with Blanket: Come off of the wall for this and make your way into pigeon pose. Many people may not have the hip flexibility to remain passive in pigeon so there tends to be a bit of a battle to truly rest, so I find that a folded blanket underneath the hip provides enough lift to allow the body to settle. Another option I frequently encourage is to leave the trailing leg "pinwheeled", or bent slightly to relieve physical tension if your quadricep and low back is not opened up enough yet. If you are someone that is unable to find comfort and rest in pigeon pose, these are 2 options that can help change your relationship to it.
Before moving on to the bolster sequence, repeat the entire sequence above on the left side of the body.
Child with Bolster and Blankets: Next, we move on to Child's pose to get a spinal reset. Bring the bolster deeply into your groins and extend your torso long on the bolster. You will notice your quadriceps loosen as your lower back opens. Stay in Child for 1 - 5 minutes and work on returning your focus inward. Breathe as deeply as this posture will allow you. Scan your body to find tension, and breathe to release it. I find that putting the blanket on top of and underneath my calves and legs helps me to stay in this restorative posture for longer periods of time.
Side Twist with Bolster: Coming up from child's pose, pinwheel the legs to the right and then bring the bolster snugly into your left hip. Then, slowly rotate your torso over the bolster and begin to uncurl your upper body and spine long over the bolster. I enjoy placing a folded blanket under the lower part of my body to rest on. Repeat on the opposite side, aiming for 10-15 breaths on each side, or longer if you wish.
Savasana with Bolster and Blankets
Savasana is the most important posture in anyone’s yoga practice! This is final resting pose. We take this pose to allow our body - both energetic and physical - to absorb the work that we just did. The practice of taking savasana at the end of our session also serves to create discipline for ourselves, reminding us that it is important to create space in our lives to maintain not only our physical health, but our mental health as well.
Finally, keep in mind that it's important to listen to and ASK your body what it needs before each practice. Many times I find that I hit the mat with the intention of doing a more vigorous practice and I end up never even leaving the ground because the more restorative postures that I'm doing to warm up are all that's needed. But the reverse is also true in that sometimes I hit the mat intending to do only therapeutic postures, but the low lunges seem to lead to a simple sun salutation, which in turn leads to a more active practice. Yoga can, is, and should be spontaneous if you really take the time to listen, adjust, and be in the here and now during your practice.
Yoga has been growing in popularity among people of all interests and athletes of a diverse list of disciplines. The unique combination.