Most people think of restorative yoga as a yummy, relaxing practice—a respite when you’re tired, injured, or you simply want to chill out. And while that may be true, restorative yoga is also an advanced practice that requires a tremendous amount of dedication, patience, skill, courage, and compassion. It can be a deeply transformative path toward self-awareness, insight, and emotional and spiritual growth. While the practice presents a way to fast-track calming your nervous system—thanks to supported resting postures designed to be held for long periods of time—it can be hard to shed the racing thoughts and tension that most of us carry throughout the day. In fact, restorative yoga is closer to a meditation practice than a movement practice. It challenges us to slow down, relax, and be with ourselves.
With each breath we take during restorative yoga, we consciously unwind. This creates an opportunity to release deep tension, which leads to ease in our bodies and minds and even helps us notice the ways in which we keep working and doing, physically and mentally—even when it’s not necessary.
I created the restorative yoga practice on the following pages to help you relax but also to help you transition back into your day-to-day pursuits in a more mindful way, so you can make more-nourishing choices all day long.
The following poses use props—such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks—so that you don’t need to exert any muscular effort. During this practice, it’s important to let go of any stretching or strengthening goals you may have. Try these poses all at once or individually, at any time of the day. Enjoy them after a mindful movement practice if you wish. If you are new to restorative yoga, stay in each pose for 3–10 minutes, and come out when you feel you’ve had enough. As you become familiar with the poses and the practice of deep relaxation, you can extend to 10–20 minutes per pose. Stay still with the variety of sensations, thoughts, and emotions that may arise. Each pose is accompanied by journal prompts that will help you transition back into your day with purpose and poise.
Start to feel grounded in Surfboard Pose
Place 3 folded blankets vertically up the center of your mat, stair-stepping the short edges, and place 2 blocks side by side at the foot of your mat with a rolled-up blanket on top (to rest your feet on). Start on all fours, and lower yourself onto the blankets—as if lying on a surfboard. Your pelvis, torso, and head should be supported by the blankets, with your kneecaps on the ground or on your mat (add support here if needed) and the tops of your feet on the blanket roll. Turn your head to one side with your arms resting on the ground in the shape of a cactus. Let your whole body fall into the blankets so that you feel comfortable, supported, and relaxed. Take slow, long breaths. Every few minutes, turn your head to the other side. To exit, bring your hands below your shoulders, gently firm your belly, and press up to all fours. Slowly come to sitting.
Surfboard is physically and emotionally grounding and soothing. It is a pose that feels protective of your vulnerable organs, which allows you to release tension in your belly and expand your breath into your back. When you exhale, give yourself permission to allow the props and the ground to fully hold you. This builds the foundation you need to begin to grow present, to release the way you hold your tension, and to create space for yourself in your body and mind.
• In what parts of your life—in what situations— do you feel most safe?
• What prevents you from feeling grounded?
• What can you do to feel more grounded today?
Stay Present in Easy Chest Opener
Stack 2 or 3 folded blankets vertically at the center of your mat. You may wish to place a soft bolster or pillow on top of them. Sit on the mat in front of your blankets, and place a block beneath each knee (horizontally) with a rolled-up blanket on top for additional support. Rest the backs of your heels on your mat, and lie down slowly. If needed, place a folded towel beneath your head for support with a rolled towel cradling your neck’s natural curve. Bring your palms to your sides, rest your hands on your belly with your elbows on the ground, or place pillows under your arms. Once you’re comfortable, take several long breaths to progressively release all of your body weight into the blankets. Relax here. For the last minute of the pose, bring your hands to your belly, and feel your palms receive your breath. Imagine your breath unraveling any lingering knots. To exit, mindfully roll to your side. Take the time to get into a comfortable seated position, then set an intention to stay aware of your breath.
The benefits of Restorative Yoga
Breathing is not something we need to accomplish. It is simply a process we allow to happen. This pose creates optimal alignment for experiencing the natural rise and fall of the breath. Notice that after an exhalation, your lungs spontaneously fill again with air. The breath is simply waiting for more room so that it can fill you. Focusing on your breath helps you stay grounded in the present moment. If you want to develop a sense of well-being and move your body into health and healing mode, you need to quiet your racing mind and come back to the present moment. As we practice staying with the breath in this pose, we learn how to be with the present moment rather than fight against it, avoid it, or simply miss it altogether.
• What helps you feel more present?
• When you realize you are distracted, what do you find yourself doing? WHere does your mind wander?
• Fill in the blank: Today, to help myself feel present and calm more often, I will ________.
Release Tension with Legs-on-a-Chair pose
Prepare your chair at the foot of your mat. Place a folded blanket or towel on top of the seat to support your knees and calves. Lay a folded a blanket vertically at the center of your mat in front of your chair. Sit with your left hip facing the front of your chair. Slowly lower down onto your right side while keeping your knees bent. Roll onto your back as you bring your legs up onto the chair. Rest your legs on the seat of the chair so they are supported from the backs of your knees to your heels. If you need to, place a folded towel beneath your head and a rolled towel under your neck. Rest your arms by your sides, bring your hands to your belly with your elbows on the floor, or come to cactus arms. Make any adjustments you need to ensure you are comfortable. When you are ready to settle in, take several long breaths as you progressively release all of your body weight into the ground. Rest here. To come out of the pose, bring your knees in toward your belly, roll to one side, and make a pillow with an arm under your head. Take your time to come to a comfortable seat.
The benefits of Restorative Yoga
This pose relieves excess tension in your pelvis, belly, and the back of your body while helping to balance your nervous system and quiet your mind. In this receptive state, you can begin to notice and care for the more-subtle tension you’re still holding in your body and mind. Before I learned how to deeply relax, I could go a whole night without ever giving my full weight to my mattress. I’d be lying down, but at the same time, I’d be holding tension in my body. I even started noticing it when I brushed my teeth or blow-dried my hair. It was eventually a revelation to learn that I could get myself ready every day without my shoulders up near my ears. As you begin to allow yourself to feel grounded, present, and relaxed in restorative poses, you’ll be able to notice all the spots where you’re still holding tension. Noticing this is the first step to releasing it.
• Recall a time when you felt particularly tense, and write about it in as much detail as possible. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was there?
• When you are stressed, where does tension live in your body? Choose one area. Caringly inform your tension that you are paying attention to it. Write a thank-you note to it for “protecting” you, and then let it know it doesn’t have to work so hard right now.
Embrace vulnerability and create space in Goddess Pose
Stack 2 or 3 folded blankets vertically up the center of your mat. You may wish to place a soft bolster or pillow on top of them. Sit on your mat in front of the blankets, and place 2 blocks side by side near the foot of your mat with a long, rolled-up blanket on top. Rest your knees over the roll with your feet on the floor. You may enjoy an additional blanket under your feet and ankles for support. Lie back, and hold the corners of your blanket stack to help you stay centered as you lower all the way down. With your seat on the mat, allow the blankets to support you from your lower back up to your head. Press the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall apart, creating a deep, wide diamond shape with your legs. Your outer thighs and knees should rest heavily on the blanket roll. Bring your arms to your sides, rest them on your belly with your elbows on the ground, or place blankets or pillows under your arms for support. Scan your awareness up and down your body, and notice all the places it makes contact with the ground and props. Take several long breaths, completely releasing your body weight to the ground. On your inhalations, allow your breath to soften your belly. On your exhalations, imagine your belly releasing into your back. Before you finish, bring your hands to your belly once again. Feel your palms receive your breath. To exit, slowly roll to your right side, and take a few quiet breaths. Then press to a gentle seated position with your hands over your heart. Feel your breath in your hands, and slowly transition back into the space around you.
Goddess Pose is a vulnerable pose; it exposes the entire front body. But when you relax in this position, you can create more space for your breath, vital organs, circulation, thoughts, feelings, and any sensations that arise. Making space starts by taking notice, like this: Hmm, there’s that tightness in my right hip. Look at that, there it is again. Whatever shows up, simply notice it, return your awareness to the support of the ground and your breath, and then allow your caring breath to create more space for whatever you may be experiencing. Like breathing, releasing tension is not something we do, it’s something we allow.
• What does being spacious mean to you?
• Can you think of a time when you felt very tight, limited, and closed in? How did you help yourself relax and create space?
• How can you help yourself remember to pause and expand more often?
Learn to listen in Full Relaxation Pose
Place 2 blocks side by side near the foot of your mat with a rolled-up blanket on top. If you wish, you may add a bolster for extra leg support and a blanket, for softness, under your heels. Sit facing the blocks, and slowly lower to the floor, mindfully resting your knees atop the roll with your feet hip-width apart. For additional head support, place a blanket or folded towel under your head and a rolled-up towel beneath your neck. Rest your arms at your sides—or on your belly with elbows on the floor. Once you’re comfortable, take several long breaths, progressively releasing all of your body weight into the ground. Relax here. For the last minute of the pose, bring your hands to your belly and feel your palms receive your breath. Imagine your breath loosening and softening any lingering hardness in your body.
To exit, slowly draw your knees toward your belly, and roll onto one side, making a pillow under your head with one of your arms. Relax on your side for 1 minute, then mindfully press up to a comfortable seated position.
In Full Relaxation Pose, we can practice listening to the breath and noticing the way it tenderly meets everything it comes into contact with. Imagine the way your dearest friend would listen to you if you needed kind support and attention. Most of us do not listen to ourselves with this level of care. This is important to consider in a restorative practice because once you begin to relax, it’s not unusual for things to start bubbling up—feelings or sensations that tension has tried to protect you from. Once you begin to unfurl those knots, it’s important to compassionately listen to, and observe, what’s being released. A listening practice begins with making the choice to relax with whatever comes up in your body, mind, and heart. It means choosing to receive—in a nonjudgmental way—whatever your tension has been shielding you from. It means opening up, over and over, to anything you may discover, without feeling the need to critique, fix, or change.
• Can you recall a time when you unexpectedly received a compassionate response from someone when you really needed it?
• Can you remember a situation where you shifted from feeling shut down and closed-hearted to tender?
• How can you promote listening to yourself in this kind and loving way today?
About the Author
Jillian Pransky is the author of Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart (Rodale). She is an international presenter and Certified Yoga Therapist, and she has taught mindfulness, yoga, and meditation for more than 20 years. Learn more at jillianpransky.com.
In YJ’s Restorative Yoga 101, Jillian Pransky helps you rethink rest one deep breath at a time. This four-week program offers students an in-depth look at eight essential poses that will help you elicit the relaxation response, simple prop setups that will help encourage deep mind-body release and healing, guided meditative sequences and breathing exercises, mind-body alignment lectures, and personal inquiry. Eager to learn more? Sign up now.