Many of us are so accustomed to living at a frenetic pace. We wear our 'busy-ness' like a badge of honour, dashing from one thing to another until we burn out. When faced with periods of 'empty' time we feel a compulsive urge to fill it (how many times have you been waiting for an appointment or in a queue and started scrolling through your social media feed?). We are so bombarded with messages and stimulus that we don't know how to just 'be'.
Taking time to relax and recharge is a not something to feel guilty about or think is a waste of time. It is essential to our wellbeing. The term 'stressed out' has become so prevalent, as have stress related illnesses. So why are we not listening to our bodies and hitting the pause button before we make ourselves sick?
That's not to say we want to eliminate stress entirely as small doses can be good for us, making us more resilient. It's when this stress becomes constant and chronic that it causes a myriad of problems from finding ourselves quick to anger and snap at our loved ones, problems sleeping, unwelcome weight gain (or loss), digestive issues and muscle tightness that can result in ongoing aches and pains (causing more irritation and thus the cycle goes on).
We've all heard of 'fight or flight' - the survival mechanism that helped save our ancestors lives when faced with a predator. For modern-day humans this current pandemic; the fear of job loss, recession and health crisis can elicit in us the same fight or flight response. We can feel as though our foundations have been shaken, leaving us with a sense of fear and on a rollercoaster of anxiety.
Our mental reaction to these high stress times can create a physiological response as the adrenals release hormones that act upon our nervous system. Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness and muscle tension increase. The body also shuts down systems we don't need in that present moment (such as digestion and repair). For our ancestors the threat was usually fleeting and those systems that shut down to enable them to fight or take flight resumed swiftly.
Unfortunately for us the perceived threats in our modern lives tend to be sustained and the adrenals continue to pump out those stress hormones, albeit at lower levels but having a cumulative effect.
So what can we do?
This is where a practice such as restorative yoga can become a useful tool in enabling what is called our parasympathetic response (also known as our rest and digest mode). When stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system switches on our digestive system, slows the heartbeat and calms us down.
By regularly practising restorative yoga we can give our bodies the much needed time to rest and recover from the stresses within our lives, therefore improving physical and mental wellbeing.
The vagus nerve is one of the primary nerves involved in the parasympathetic system. You can read more about the vagus nerve and other ways to calm anxiety in my good friend Caroline King's post on it.
Our usual yoga class tends to consist mainly of active poses followed by a brief restorative pose at the end. In a restorative session the entire focus is on this style of pose. You may think that means we simply lie in savasana for an hour but that's not the case!
Think of these poses as active relaxation. We are working in a different way, utilising props to bring the body back into a state of balance. They are designed, in some cases, to work on the body in different ways, targeting different areas where we may be holding on to tension (such as the shoulders or hips). We also incorporate mindfulness and breathing techniques to work holistically, to bring peace to body, mind and soul.
There are far less poses in this style than your usual practice (usually around 5-6 per class) and they are pretty much all floor based. It takes time to get into position, to arrange our props to fully support the body and to then allow the body to relax. Each pose is therefore held for around 5 minutes (sometimes longer) as we seek a stillness, first within our body and then our mind.
In fact the hardest part of this practice is the mind's tendency to want to rush to the next pose or get involved in some inner dialogue. It's very common and natural for your mind to wander so we anchor our attention within the sensations of the body and by paying attention to your breath. In this practice we work to cultivate attention, to work on being present. By allowing ourselves to surrender in this practice eventually thoughts may dissipate with the breath, like waves on the beach.
As I've mentioned, we fully utilise props in order to create a supportive environment that is conducive to relaxation, so you'll usually need a blanket (or large towel) and, if you have them, a bolster and some bricks. If you don't have a bolster you can use pillows or cushions or roll 2-3 large towels together to create a bolster shape. If you don't have bricks then you could use a hefty hard-back book or two or substitute those for a couple of cushions instead.
You could also use an eye pillow or mask for relaxation or, if you don't have one of those, a folded flannel or scarf (you could even gently warm it on the radiator).
It doesn't matter when you practice, it just matters that you do (although an evening practice can be heavenly for sending you off to sleep). You don't need a long time either but if you can regularly give yourself one hour a week then that can help to create a habit of personal restoration and repair.
You don't need fancy clothing (just something comfortable - I regularly wear my pyjamas!) and you don't need a lot of space, just make sure it's somewhere comfortable and quiet, switch off the phone and maybe dim the lights. You wont be as warm in this practice so you can always use an extra blanket and don some fluffy socks.
To add to the experience you might light a scented candle (safety first though please so no putting it near furnishings!), use essential oils or place crystals nearby or hold one during your practice.
As you'll be laying down, don't eat within 2 hours before practising. Restorative yoga is usually fine for most people (and can be excellent for many with wide ranging health conditions) but if you have a major health issue do check with your doctor and alert your teacher to your condition.
As with any practice you must always listen to your body, you know it best, and if anything causes you pain then make your way out of it. There are usually modifications that you can take so liaise with your teacher and if something doesn't work for you, skip that pose and just pause in something that is comfortable.
If this is a practice that might interest you then I am currently streaming a live class every Friday evening with Liberty Wellbeing from 6.30pm to 7.25pm. Alternatively I have filmed a restorative yoga session costing just £5, which you can access at any time and as many times as you like (you'll find the details on my yoga videos page - just scroll down to the bottom for the restorative one). In order to purchase you just need to get in touch.