Yoga is an ancient form of meditation that developed in India over thousands of years. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means union with the source of all life. The purpose of yoga is to develop flexibility in the body so that one can sit comfortably for long periods of time in sitting meditation. It is a means to an end, although that end is usually lost in our society. We generally learn yoga as an exercise unto itself.
Traditionally in India, students learn and practice restorative yoga for many years before the teacher considers the student ready to attempt any of the more difficult active yoga poses that we, in the west, learn in our first experience with yoga. What is the difference between restorative yoga and more active, yoga?
Restorative yoga poses are designed to open the body in a gentle and comfortable way. There is no forcing oneself into uncomfortable positions in this style of practice. In fact, many props are used in order to ensure comfort and support. If, while laying down in a spinal twist, for example, one’s knees do not touch the ground, a pillow or cushion is placed under the knees to support them. Since the restorative poses are typically helped for 5-20 minutes each, the student must feel comfortable. It is common to fall asleep while in a restorative pose. Indeed, this is part of the intention: to deeply relax the central nervous system.
The poses are held for a long period of time for a specific reason. While in active forms of yoga, it is common (although not recommended) to force oneself into a difficult pose that the body may not be ready for. A determined student, in a hot room, may be able to stretch their muscles very deeply during class, however the muscles will likely recoil the next day and become even shorter than they were before class. The muscle fibers recoil because they have to protect themselves from tearing. As an acupuncturist and massage therapist, I have treated many people for injuries sustained in yoga class due to stretching beyond the body’s limit in the name of flexibility. The irony is that the student who stretches beyond her body’s limit actually becomes less flexible.
This is why, in traditional yoga, the student will first practice restorative poses for years before doing the more active styles of yoga. Active yoga poses generally do not injure those whose bodies are open and flexible. I recommend restorative yoga to people who want to become more flexible, reduce pain, and calm their restless minds. Instead of forcing oneself into a pose that the body is not ready for, restorative yoga poses allow the muscles to open up when and if they are ready to do so. Typically, after 2-5 minutes of laying comfortably in the pose, the student will feel a subtle yet clear opening in the area being stretched. For example, after 5 minutes in the spinal twist pose, the student may all of a sudden feel a release in their gluteal muscles and will then naturally go deeper into the pose, following the signal of the body. After a few weeks of practicing the pose, the student may be able to remove the pillow under their knees as a result of increased flexibility and comfort in the pose. In restorative yoga, it is the body, not the focused mind, which determines the pace of the unwinding and opening of tight muscles.
To find a restorative class near you, search for these key words: Restorative yoga, Gentle yoga, Passive yoga, Yin yoga