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What is Restorative Yoga: All You Need to Know

Updated: Mar 14

Supported heart opener with butterfly legs with bolster and blankets

Restorative yoga is a style of yoga that is more like a meditation practice than a movement practice. You are invited to slow down the pace as you open your mind and body through passive stretches and breathwork practices with the support of props. Restorative yoga invites you to explore the power of stillness, silence and present moment awareness. This practice can help deepen the mind-body connection. 


Restorative yoga is a unique style of yoga with many physical, mental and emotional benefits. 


Learn about what restorative yoga is, the many benefits of the practice, what you can expect during a restorative yoga class, and explore a restorative yoga sequence for lower back pain relief.


Table of Contents


What is Restorative Yoga?


Restorative yoga is a heart-centered, self-compassion style of yoga with the opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with yourself. Restorative yoga is a powerful mind-body practice that can create physical, mental, emotional and energetic shifts within the body. 

Restorative yoga originated from the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1950s. Iyengar made use of props in his classes to support students who were injured, unwell, and for those needing rest. Students used ropes, blankets, blocks and a wall in order to reduce the amount of effort and strain placed on the body. This allowed students to remain in the pose longer with more ease. Judith Hanson Lasater, a student of Iyengar, popularized restorative yoga in the United States in the early 1970s. Since then, restorative yoga has been growing in popularity.


The word, ‘restorative,’ contains the word ‘restore.’ ‘Restore’ means returning to a former condition. Humans are emotional beings. We are designed to feel. Society either directly or implicitly tells us that certain emotions are unacceptable or even shameful. We learn this at a young age. These messages become internalized. As a result, we push down our thoughts, feelings and emotions in order to feel safe and accepted in the world. This suppression of emotion gradually changes how you feel about yourself and how you show up in the world. Habitual suppression of emotion can show up in the body as chronic stress, anxiety, chronic pain, muscular tension, headaches, migraines, digestive issues, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and more.


Restorative yoga plays a role in bringing you back to a “former condition,” or back to your natural state. You are invited to surrender to stillness and silence as you turn your attention inward. You have the opportunity to observe thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations experienced in your body from a place of compassionate curiosity. You have the opportunity to acknowledge, feel and release physical, mental and emotional tension through posture holds and breathwork practices. In doing so, you return to a state of internal balance and ease. It’s like returning home.

 

Restorative yoga practices can help you move from a state of sympathetic activation (fight or flight response) to parasympathetic activation (rest and digest response). Restorative yoga is one of many tools that can support nervous system regulation.

 

Restorative yoga is typically regarded as the “yoga of rest.” Some may describe it as “adult nap time” as there is minimal physical movement that takes place during restorative yoga practices. Postures are held anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes with the support of props. It is likely that you will explore between 4 to 6 poses throughout a restorative yoga class. This invites your mind and body to soften and relax as you engage in gentle passive stretches intended to open the energetic channels throughout your body.


The Use of Props in a Restorative Yoga Class


In restorative yoga classes, props are used to support your physical body. Props help you remain in postures for longer periods of time with more ease. You are invited to surrender the weight of your body onto your props. This encourages deep relaxation and a gentle release of mental, physical and emotional tension. The use of props creates a safe, warm and nurturing environment for your body. Feelings of safety can open you up to exploring your internal landscape from a place of compassionate curiosity.

 

Typical props used during restorative yoga classes include: blankets, pillows, bolsters, yoga blocks, towels, yoga straps, chairs, sandbags and eye pillows. Some restorative yoga poses use a wall, such as Legs up the Wall (How to do Legs up the Wall). Some restorative yoga practices use a wall for the entire practice (Wall Yoga for Beginners - Restorative Yoga). Props allow you to experience all the amazing benefits of a restorative yoga practice.


Yoga blocks, eye pillow, towel, pillow, bolster, blanket and towel

Benefits of Restorative Yoga


1. Regulates the stress response


Stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, get released into your bloodstream when you are feeling stressed out. The increase in stress hormones creates physiological changes in the body. Changes like muscular tension, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, digestive issues, pupil dilation and blood vessel constriction, occur when in a state of fight or flight. If we find ourselves in a chronic state of stress, these physiological changes can create a myriad of health-related issues.


Participating in a restorative yoga class is like pressing a “reset” button. This “reset” allows your nervous system to move from a “fight or flight” state to a “rest and digest” state. This is accomplished through restorative posture holds, breathwork practices, repeating affirmations and mantras, self-touch, and so on. A regular restorative yoga practice can bring about balance to an overactive nervous system.


2. Improves sleep quality


Do you experience difficulty falling asleep? Do you toss and turn in your bed hoping to eventually fall asleep? Do you wake up numerous times throughout the night for no apparent reason? Insomnia and sleep deprivation are unfortunately common experiences. 

Many of us experience fatigue, even first thing in the morning. Sleep can elude you due to what’s happening internally. Strong emotions, a stressful day, an overwhelming situation, rumination, worries about the future, and so on, can keep you up at night.


A restorative yoga practice invites you to take stock of what is happening internally. Bringing awareness to your thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations is a powerful practice. This awareness practice can help you release that which doesn’t serve. This can prepare your mind and body for deep sleep and relaxation.

 

3. Improves breathing


Restorative yoga practices include pranayama techniques, or breathwork practices, to help elicit the relaxation response. Elongated exhalations stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is responsible for many autonomic functions within the body, including breathing. Stimulating the vagus nerve can help shift you from sympathetic activation to parasympathetic activation. When you experience feelings of calm and relaxation, your breath can flow with ease.

 

4. Improves flexibility and mobility by releasing muscular tension


Holding postures for extended periods of time can increase flexibility. The use of props and your breath can help deepen the passive stretch, softening tight and tense muscular tissues.

 

Slowing down and exploring stillness sends messages of safety to your brain. When your brain feels safe, the relaxation response can kick in. As your nervous system calms down, muscles that were in a state of tension can relax and soften. This relaxation response can promote ease of movement.


5. Deepens self-awareness and introspection


Restorative yoga invites you to turn your attention inward. This invitation opens you up to exploring your body, thoughts and feelings through a lens of curiosity. You are invited to be an observer of your mental and emotional states. This practice invites you to turn towards your body for feedback and guidance. Connecting with your body in this way is an act of self-love and compassion. As you get to know yourself on a more intimate level, you open yourself up to healing.


6. Gentle on the body


Restorative yoga is generally considered safe for all ages and body types. This style of yoga is open to all levels, including complete beginners. Restorative yoga is considered safe for those who are ill, injured, as well as those experiencing chronic pain. Restorative yoga poses are gentle on the body. Restorative yoga can be a healing practice for many!


7. Improves quality of life


The tools of restorative yoga can lower stress levels, promote better sleep, reduce aches and pains, help you access feelings of joy more readily, and can cultivate feelings of connection and self-love. This changes how you show up in the world. This can have a positive impact on your interactions with others, your work and your personal life. When you feel good, others will notice and feel the difference. Most importantly, you will notice and feel the difference too!


Head to bolster pose with bolster and rolled blankets

What to Expect in a Restorative Yoga Class


You can explore restorative yoga in a public space, such as at a yoga studio or a gym, or you can join a restorative yoga class from the comfort of your home.

 

If you are practicing at a studio or gym, you can expect that the yoga instructor will communicate what props are needed at the beginning of the practice. It is likely that the yoga instructor will have props available for you to use. Some students prefer bringing their own props to class. The instructor will likely have some ambient music playing before, during and after the practice. It is common for a yoga instructor to dim the lights during a restorative yoga practice.


If you are practicing at home, you can use household items for your props. For example, you could create your own bolster using two stacked pillows or two rolled blankets. Another example is using a face cloth as your eye pillow. An at-home yoga practice encourages you to get creative as you work with what you have. You are encouraged to practice in a quiet space with minimal distractions. Reducing external stimuli can help you tune into what is happening internally. You may be encouraged to reduce the brightness of the screen that you are using to reduce light exposure, encouraging deep relaxation.


Whether you are practicing at home or in a studio, you are invited to wear comfortable clothing. It is recommended to wear socks, warm clothes or dress in layers. Your internal body temperature will lower as you tap into the relaxation response. It is common for you to feel cooler as the class progresses. Keeping your body warm helps your muscles relax. As your muscles relax, your mind and body become more receptive to healing.


It is important to turn off your devices and notifications before your restorative yoga practice. The goal is to minimize the amount of potential distractions that could occur during your practice. This is time that you have carved out for yourself. Embrace the silence.


You can expect the yoga instructor to provide detailed instructions or cues as you get into each pose and as you transition out of the poses. The instructor will likely offer you options to try as you explore each restorative yoga pose. The instructor will provide space for silence throughout the practice. The yoga instructor will likely include a breath awareness practice, and they may include a short meditation at the beginning of class or near the end of the practice.


30 Minute Restorative Yoga Sequence for Lower Back Pain Relief


Here is a restorative yoga sequence that you can explore for lower back pain relief.


1. Supported Child’s Pose


Supported child's pose with bolster

How to:

  • Come to all fours.

  • Bring your big toes together and open your knees wider than hip distance apart. 

  • Sit back towards your heels. 

  • Place a bolster, firm pillow or two stacked folded blankets between your knees and inner thighs. 

  • Place your hands on either side of your prop. 

  • As you breathe in, explore finding length from the base of your spine to the crown of your head. 

  • As you breathe out, slowly walk your hands forward as you ease your upper body onto your prop.

  • Turn your head to the right side, resting your left cheek on your prop. 

  • Allow your hands and forearms to rest alongside your prop.

  • Your palms rest gently on the ground.

  • You could also experiment with sending your hands back towards your feet, turning your palms to face upwards.

  • Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  • As you breathe in and out, observe the flow of your breath. 

  • Explore sending your breath to your lower back, feeling the expansion on the inhalation and the soft release on the exhalation. 

  • Allow your breath to soften areas of tension throughout your spinal chain.

  • After about 3 minutes, slowly lift your head away from your prop, and turn your head to the left. 

  • Rest your right cheek on your prop. 

  • Explore how your breath can help you release tension from your physical body.

  • Stay here for another 3 minutes before transitioning out.


Modifications:

  • Place a folded blanket under your knees and shins.

  • Place a rolled blanket between your calves and hamstrings to reduce knee discomfort. 

  • Add two yoga blocks under your bolster. You can slide your arms between the yoga blocks and under the bolster, giving your bolster a gentle hug.

  • Add a folded blanket on top of your bolster to cultivate more comfort and ease in the pose.  


Transition out:

  • Lift your head away from your prop, turning your head to face your prop.

  • Press your hands into the ground.

  • Slowly lift your torso away from your prop. 

  • Make your way to all fours.

  • Stack your knees under your hips and allow your shins to run parallel to one another. 

  • Slowly swing your legs to one side and make your way to a seat of your choosing on your mat.


2. Supported Spinal Twist


Supported spinal twist with bolster

How to:

  • Place your bolster, pillow or stacked folded blankets lengthwise along the top end of your mat.

  • Sit sideways on your mat, resting your left hip against the narrow end of your prop.

  • With your hands on the ground to offer support, extend through your legs, and then bend your knees.

  • Tuck your feet in behind you.

  • Move from center as you slowly turn your upper body to face towards your prop.

  • Your navel and heart space face towards your prop.

  • Breathe in to find length through your spinal chain.

  • On your breath out, slowly lower your upper body onto your prop.

  • Turn your head to the right to allow your left cheek to rest on your prop.

  • Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  • Soften through your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, upper back and lower back.

  • As you breathe in, observe how your belly connects with your prop. 

  • As you breathe out, allow any tension to wash off of your body, flowing onto the surface beneath you.

  • Remain here for 3 minutes before transitioning out of this pose.

  • Repeat the same sequence, but with your right hip resting against your prop.

Modification:

  • Place a folded blanket between your ankles, shins and knees for extra comfort and support.

Transition out:

  • Bend at your elbows and slide your hands under your shoulders.

  • Gently push your hands down to help you rise to a seated position, unwinding the spinal twist as you rise up to a seat.

  • Turn your body, and allow your right hip to rest against the narrow end of your prop.


3. Supported Bridge Pose


Supported bridge pose with bolster

How to:

  • Position your bolster or stacked folded blankets horizontally across the middle of your yoga mat.

  • Sit on top of your bolster or blankets with your buttocks and sacrum supported by your prop.

  • Bend your knees and rest the soles of your feet on the mat.

  • Place your hands at your sides and slightly behind you.

  • Very carefully ease your upper body onto the ground. 

  • Your head, upper back, shoulders, arms and hands gently rest on the ground.

  • Explore a gentle tuck of your chin to lengthen through the back of your neck.

  • Walk your feet back so they rest beneath your knees.

  • Toes point forward.

  • Release your arms to your sides, creating a “V” shape with your arms.

  • Allow the backs of your hands to rest against the surface.

  • Soften through your palms and each finger.

  • Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  • Observe all that is making contact with the earth. 

  • Explore sending your breath towards your belly to help soften the core muscles. 

  • Stay in this pose for 5 to 10 minutes.  

Modifications:

  • Place a folded blanket under your head and neck. 

  • Place a yoga strap around your thighs to encourage your legs to relax completely in the pose.

  • You can use a yoga block instead of a bolster. Select a foam yoga block as they tend to be both soft and firm. Place your yoga block on the lowest setting under your sacrum. Allow your lower back to drape off of your block as you explore Supported Bridge Pose.

Transition out:

  • Press the soles of your feet into the earth to help you lift your hips away from your prop (keep this movement small).

  • Push the bolster off of the mat. 

  • Lower your back body to the ground.

  • Rest here for a moment.

  • When you feel ready, lower your knees to one side as you roll onto your side.

  • Use your top hand to help you press up to a seat on your mat.


4. Basic Relaxation Pose


Basic relaxation pose with bolster and blanket

How to:

  • Place a folded blanket at the top of your mat, and roll the bottom edge of this blanket a couple of times.

  • Position your bolster, pillow or blanket roll horizontally on your mat, resting near the bottom third of your mat.

  • Sit between your props, facing towards your bolster.

  • With your hands and feet on the ground, slowly lower your back body to the earth.

  • As you lower, walk your feet over your bolster. 

  • Rest the backs of your knees on your bolster, as your heels make contact with your mat.

  • Rest your head and neck on the folded blanket situated at the top of your mat. 

  • Allow your neck to rest on the rolled edge.

  • Slowly release your arms to your sides. 

  • Turn your palms to face up, as you invite the fingers to soften and curl in.

  • Soften your gaze or close your eyes.

  • You can place a blanket over your body for warmth and comfort.

  • You can place an eye pillow or a face cloth over your eyes to help darken the room and to stimulate the vagus nerve.

  • Allow your breath to flow in and out with ease.

  • Observe how tension slowly leaves your back body as muscular tissues begin to soften.

  • Remain in this restorative yoga pose for 10 to 20 minutes.

Modifications:

  • Place a blanket roll under the backs of your ankles.

  • Place rolled towels under each wrist.

Transition out:

  • Explore some gentle movements, such as wiggling your fingers and toes.

  • Slowly walk your feet in, bending at your knees.

  • Rest the soles of your feet on your bolster for a moment.

  • Draw your knees in towards your chest.

  • Carefully roll over to one side.

  • Remain on your side for a moment.

  • When you feel ready, use your top hand to help press you up to a seat on your mat.

  • Explore a comfortable seat of your choosing.

  • To help reorient you back to your space, name 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and one thing that tastes good to you.


Ease back pain, discomfort and tension with the help of this class: Restorative Yoga for Lower Back Pain.


Watch this video to learn more about what restorative yoga is and the benefits of the practice!



Final Thoughts


Restorative yoga is an inward-looking practice that invites you to meet yourself with an open mind and heart. Restorative yoga provides a space for quiet introspection, where you are invited to observe your inner dialogue, feelings, emotions and sensations with compassionate curiosity. Restorative yoga invites you to turn towards your body for feedback and guidance. You are invited to connect with your inner light and wisdom. A regular restorative yoga practice paves the path for renewal, growth and healing.

 

I invite you to join my restorative yoga program: Restorative Yoga for Relaxation and Stress Management. This program includes full length restorative yoga classes, as well as additional content.


 

Stay connected by signing up for my biweekly letter. In these letters, I share stories, free yoga classes, updates, inspirational quotes, calendars, and more.


I look forward to connecting with you soon!


Disclaimer: Rachel from Yoga with Rachel, recommends that you speak to a healthcare practitioner prior to participating in this exercise program. Follow safety precautions as outlined by your physician. Participating in any fitness class or program involves the possibility of physical injury. Listen to your body. Stop the exercise if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort. If you decide to engage in the exercises, you agree to do so at your own risk. By voluntarily participating in these exercises, you assume all risk of injury to yourself.

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