Rest and Relax: Restorative Yoga


By Judith Lasater

The word Yoga comes from Sanskrit, the scriptural language of ancient India, and means “to yoke” or “to unite.” Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization of 2000 to 4000 B.C.E., Yoga practices are designed to help the individual feel whole. Ancient Yoga texts present teachings that include the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. The physical aspects of Yoga–poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama )–are the most popular in the West.

Traditionally, a Yoga class or personal practice session begins with active poses followed by a brief restorative pose. In this book, I’ll place the entire focus of practice on the restorative poses. The development of these poses is credited to B.K.S. Iyengar, of Pune, India. Author of the contemporary classic Light on Yoga and numerous other books, Iyengar has been teaching Yoga for more than sixty years. Widely recognized as a worldwide authority, he is one of the most creative teachers of Yoga today.

Iyengar’s early teaching experience showed him how pain or injury can result from a student straining in a Yoga pose. He experimented with “props,” modifying poses until the student could practice without strain. Iyengar also explored how these modified poses could help people recover from illness or injury. It is because of his creativity that the restorative poses in this book-most of which have been developed or directly inspired by him-are such powerful tools to reduce stress and restore health.

I often refer to restorative Yoga poses as “active relaxation.” By supporting the body with props, we alternately stimulate and relax the body to move toward balance. Some poses have an overall benefit. Others target an individual part, such as the lungs or heart. All create specific physiological responses which are beneficial to health and can reduce the effects of stress-related disease.

In general, restorative poses are for those times when you feel weak, fatigued, or stressed from your daily activities. They are especially beneficial for the times before, during, and after major life events: death of a loved one, change of job or residence, marriage, divorce, major holidays, and vacations. In addition, you can practice the poses when ill, or recovering from illness or injury.

Restorative poses help relieve the effects of chronic stress in several ways. First, the use of props as described in this book provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation.

Second, each restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These movements illustrate the age-old wisdom of Yoga that teaches well-being is enhanced by a healthy spine. Some of the restorative poses are backbends, while others are forward bends. Additional poses gently twist the column both left and right.

Third, a well-sequenced restorative practice also includes an inverted pose, which reverses the effects of gravity. This can be as simple as putting the legs on a bolster or pillow, but the effects are quite dramatic. Because we stand or sit most of the day, blood and lymph fluid accumulate in the lower extremities. By changing the relationship of the legs to gravity, fluids are returned to the upper body and heart function is enhanced.
Psychobiologist and Yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms, has done preliminary research on the effects of inverted poses. He found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a slowing of the heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body that comes from reversing the effects of gravity.

Fourth, restorative Yoga alternately stimulates and soothes the organs. For example, by closing the abdomen with a forward bend and then opening it with a backbend, the abdominal organs are squeezed, forcing the blood out, and then opened, so that fresh blood returns to soak the organs. With this movement of blood comes the enhanced exchange of oxygen and waste products across the cell membrane.
Finally, Yoga teaches that the body is permeated with energy. Prana, the masculine energy, resides above the diaphragm, moves upward, and controls respiration and heart rate. Apana, the feminine energy, resides below the diaphragm, moves downward, and controls the function of the abdominal organs. Restorative Yoga balances these two aspects of energy so that the practitioner is neither overstimulated nor depleted.

(From Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, copyright © 1995 by Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T. Reprinted with permission from Rodmell Press, Berkeley, Calif.)

For more information about Judith Lasater, visit her website.

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