Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take it Easy

Today, on this beautiful lazy Sunday (a phrase I can never, ever say again without calling to mind that dang SNL sketch), I'd like to write an entry in praise of rest, relaxation, and one of my favorite ways in which to experience those things - Restorative Yoga!

I've loved restorative yoga since the first time I tried it a few years ago, but I never practiced it or went to restorative classes regularly.  I shared the mentality of most of us in the US, namely:  if I'm going to take the time to go to a yoga class, I'd like it to make me sweat.  We're so pressed for time that often workout time becomes very precious and very tight, and the idea of taking a class just to relax can seem to some people like a bit of a waste of both time and money.

I really lucked out, however, when I started as a Karma Yogi for The Giving Tree - working two shifts at the desk a week in exchange for unlimited free yoga.  My assigned shifts were Friday and Saturday evening, and one of the Saturday evening classes is Hatha Restorative, taught by the wonderful Dhyani.  Nearly every Saturday for several months, now, I look forward to Hatha Restorative as one of the highlights of my week.

I lovingly call it Naptime Yoga, but it's so much more than that.  This specific class offers about 45 minutes of gentle Hatha flow - yoga poses that never get quite so sweaty, intense, or quickly paced as Vinyasa tend to - and 45 minutes of restorative.

So what on earth is this Restorative Yoga?  It's a slow, gentle practice focusing on relaxation.  There are usually lots of props involved (blankets, blocks, straps, bolsters, glorious eye pillows - or maybe cucumber slices, if you're feeling extra indulgent) to completely support your body and deliver you into a state of complete comfort and stillness.  Poses are usually held a lot longer than regular asanas - anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes depending on what you desire.

Here are a couple of my favorite restorative poses, with suggestions on how to get into them with as few props as possible, as I know very few people who own tons of yoga props.  (You can also always substitute any folded blanket or pillow - no need to spend $30 on a special "yoga blanket" just to make yourself comfortable!)

Supported Supta Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose)
A more prop heavy version of this pose is pictured at the beginning of this post, but here's a simpler version if you don't have a million props laying around.  Sitting with your feet together in front of you, place a block under each of your knees and lay back, dropping your knees open so that the knees/thighs are supported by the blocks.  You can lay down on a bolster, pillow, or blanket situated any way that makes you feel supported and comfortable.  You shouldn't feel any straining or too much stretching in your hip flexors, but feeling an opening sensation is normal - and should feel good.  The hip flexors get a lot of abuse in our culture of sitting-at-a-desk-for-8-hours-a-day and should be gently opened up as often as possible to counter that tightness that develops as a result of prolonged sitting.

Supported Matsyasana (fish pose)
This is another laying-down pose.  Place a yoga block (or bolster, foam roller, or very firm pillow with a folded blanket on top) under your back so that when you lay down, the block is on its lowest level running lengthwise along the base of your shoulder blades.  The easiest way for most teachers to cue this is so that it hits right where your bra clasp would be.  (Sorry, guys)  Adjust as needed - and perhaps cover with a blanket if the block feels too hard - until you're able to lay down and feel a gentle expansion in the chest, collarbones, and shoulders.  If the neck is in any pain, you can always place another block or a pillow under the head for support.

Supported Setu Bhandasana (bridge pose)
This is very similar to support matsyasana except we're now raising up the lower part of the back instead of the upper back.  Move the block to your sacrum, that flat triangle-shaped bone between the tailbone and the lower back (if you practice yoga regularly, I'm sure you've heard the sacrum mentioned by your yoga teacher at least a half dozen times per class).  It should be on the lowest level.  This pose is beneficial in relieving digestive problems and can greatly reduce menstrual discomfort.

Supported Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold)
Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place a rolled up blanket or pillow under your knees to bend them, relieving any potential strain on the low back or hamstrings.  Next, place a bolster, several pillows, or stack several folded blankets on top of your thighs.  You could even place a block or two covered in blankets.  Fold forward and adjust your props as needed so that you are resting your forehead on a soft surface and feeling a very mild stretch in the hamstrings.  Make sure your props are stacked high enough and that you have enough support under the knees so that you can completely relax and sink your upper body onto your props without any strain or holding.

Finally, my favorite restorative pose as of late:  Viparita Karani.  

This one deserves a picture.  Viparita means "inverted" and karani means "action," but its English name is Legs Up the Wall.  And that's literally what it is.

There's not really a graceful way to get into this pose, so you just kind of have to go for it.  There's plenty of grace to be found once you've gotten yourself there.

Sit down close to a wall - turn to the side so that one hip is right up against the wall.  Then - well, put your legs up the wall.  You'll find yourself laying down.  Place a rolled up blanket, pillow, bolster - whatever makes you feel the best - under your low back so that your sit bones pour off it.  You're basically supporting the natural curve of your lumbar spine.

Arms can go over the head, as pictured, for a nice shoulder opening.  You can also place them on your belly, by your sides, supported by pillows or blankets - truly, it's all about your pleasure.  I've recently discovered the joys of putting slices of cucumbers on my eyes in this pose in lieu of an eye pillow.  (It's a cliche, but it really does help puffiness!)

There's a great article on viparita karani online at written by Claudia Cummins; another appeared in the most recent issue but isn't online yet.  I'll definitely provide the link when it is!

To learn more about the practice of Restorative Yoga, YogaJournal has a great informational article on it, as does WikiHealth.

So the next time you come home feeling exhausted and in need of relaxation, resist the urge to sit on the couch in front of the TV or computer to attempt to relax.  Truly let yourself go and free yourself from any outside stimulation by luxuriating in some restorative yoga.  Your body, mind, and stress-level will thank you.

1 comment:

  1. sign me up!! wish I lived closer so I could benefit from all your "yoga knowledge"!!


Resurrection of a blog (and a hip)

One year ago today - on a much cloudier, much colder, and quite frankly very hungover morning - I went out to run.  My goal was either 4 mil...