Roger Cole, a relaxation physiologist out of Stanford University and the University of California, as well as a renowned Iyengar Yoga instructor, says that “relaxation is an inborn, integrated physiological process that you can easily trigger just by setting up the right conditions.” In other words, we all can just relax! Restorative Yoga is mistakenly thought of as Yoga only for the elderly or people with injuries or conditions. This is not true. Restorative Yoga should be practiced at least once a week, as the benefits are tremendous both physically and mentally. Restorative Yoga reduces over-stimulation and has immediate calming effects on the mind and body.
Relaxation takes time and practice. Everyone can relax, but not everyone has the skills to do so. Roger recommends that we take a look at relaxation through a scientist’s eyes. He asks, “What happens when you are in danger? Your brain automatically prepares your body for action by triggering a domino-effect system: your heart speeds up, you tense your muscles, your blood pressure rises, your breath quickens, your eyes open wider, and your mind starts racing. This is often called the “fight-or-flight” response, and it happens in a split-second without you having to do anything at all.”
He suggests the “rest-and-digest” response instead... in order to amplify the opposite. Our parasympathetic nervous system is a part of this. It has a set of pre-programmed physiological changes that activate rest and recovery. As you practice Restorative Yoga, the systems of the body relax your muscles, slow down your breathing, settle your mind, and lower your blood pressure. Once the relaxation response is triggered in the body, the fight-or-flight response disconnects and you are able to go deeper into relaxation.
What conditions should you have in order to practice Restorative Yoga? First, choose a warm and quiet room and collect some blankets, towels of varying sizes and an eye-pillow or hand towel to cover your eyes. Then, turn off potential interruptions (phones, TV, etc.) and turn off or dim the lights and your space is ready!
Here are some common Restorative Yoga poses that Roger spotlights. Practice these regularly and experience the benefits!
Supported Sukhasana (Easy Pose) forward bend is the first. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and legs crossed. Most people need to raise the pelvis on one to three folded blankets to ease the low backs. Then place your forehead and arms comfortably on a padded chair seat in front of you. Stack folded blankets on the chair until you reach a comfortable height. This pose releases tension in the back and neck muscles and feels very calming.
Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), with pelvis elevated on a bolster or folded blankets stimulates baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and upper chest. This triggers reflexes that reduce nerve input to the adrenal glands, slow the heart rate, slow the brain waves, relax blood vessels, and reduce the amount of norepinephrine circulating in the bloodstream. If the legs tire of being straight, bend the knees and cross the legs, with knees near the wall.
Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is traditional Bridge Pose with the hips supported on a bolster or on long, folded blankets. This pose also stimulates the baroreceptors, so it has many of the same effects as Viparita Karani. It relieves tension in the chest and front body, and prepares the lungs for breathing practice.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) is a proper ending to any practice. Lie flat on your back with your legs slightly separated, arms a slight distance from your sides with the palms of the hands facing upwards. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly through the nostrils. Start with normal inhalation and long, slow exhalation. This pose allows complete relaxation in a neutral position. Emphasis on exhalation slows the heart and calms the mind.
Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.
Read Roger's article on the physiology of Restorative Yoga, Conditions for Calm.