What is Restorative Yoga?

What is Restorative Yoga?

restorative yoga Recovery

When you think you don’t have time to relax, that’s probably when you need it the most. When you cannot muster up enough energy to go to the gym or you can't stop moving for fear of collapsing physically, mentally or emotionally, this is the perfect tonic.

Sometimes we don't realise how run down we are...until we stop. Most of us know from personal experience that a life lived on overload or ongoing chronic stress can affect us in many negative ways. when we are trying to our best to be all things to all men, women and children and do ten things at once, we can end up getting jumpy, irritable and anxious, perhaps even confused, depressed or ill - sound familiar? 

I find it interesting to ask students how they 'relax' - often answers are usually somewhere within the range of reading a good book, watching TV, cooking a meal from a recipe, dancing, the night away, having a good laugh with friends, having a glass of wine or two, a walk in nature, being creative. Sounds relaxing just reading the list - yes, of course we know how to switch off from our worries and pressure of time, and move into a different mind set.

However, within those relaxing past times, there is still a 'doing' involved...how do we relax without distraction, do we need to LEARN how to 'take proper REST'? This is where I find RESTORATIVE yoga is useful, often with a large dose of yoga nidra added in for good measure.

In restorative yoga, props such as bolsters, blankets, blocks and eyepillows are used to place the body in various yoga positions that are totally supported which can induce a sense of safety, comfort, and letting go - the first steps to induce a deep state of relaxation.

When ongoing stress builds up and the ‘flight, freeze, fight or collapse’ response holds the body in a constant state of danger alert and looking out, the body loses the capacity to heal itself, or recover physically, mentally and emotionally from distressing events. 

The antidote to stress is relaxation - restorative yoga holds the body still with the focus turned inwards to the flow of the breath. The brain starts to slow down and the mind becomes quiet. It takes at least 10 minutes for the average person to fall into a relaxed state so the aim is on positions of complete comfort where the body is cradled and held in a position for at least 15 minutes, closing off the outside world with an eye pillow and covered with a blanket to keep warm and cocooned. This is ME time! This is slowing down, tucking yourself up, cocooning yourself in a nourishing safe space, looking after yourself...and not doing anything for anyone else. ..for a change.

As it is a form of ‘yoga’, there is an emphasis on awareness, and inducing an altered state - preferably being deeply settled within your body, mind and in your self but no experience of yoga is needed, just a willingness to take time out for a little space and quiet, to take stress off the body especially the immune and nervous systems. Once you build up a pile of useful props and know how to organise the props, the rest is easy.

Do you feel like you're holding yourself together? How would it be to let go and fall into the arms of trust?

Yoga bolsters are essentially round pillows and can vary in size and density. Used in general classes to modify poses - the bolster can be used to avoid compressing the spine and causing more tension when moving into and holding a pose.

They are a must for restorative yoga where props are used to do the work, taking stress off the body; all you need to do is drape your body over the bolster for some time to release blocks and tension. Therapeutic classes such as back care, stiff shoulders, and pregnancy classes encourage ease and comfort, allowing the body and mind to settle, and the nervous system to relax. Yin yoga invite you to hold postures for longer and support the soft tissue and joint to find space to breathe! Personally, I wouldn't be without one and consider my bolster like a familiar and supportive friend, good company on a rainy day and cools me down when I'm feeling hot-headed - So be kind to your body - release tension from your body and mind by using bolsters to remind you to let go of your grip a little, soften your outlook, and allow your body to smile. Originating in India, even Ganesh is depicted reclining on his side with his bolster, relaxing after a hard day's dancing, playing music, standing to attention, and in seated meditation.

I could think of 108 ways to use a yoga bolster but here are my top 8 to get you started. Once you get the idea, you can follow your curves...

1. For sitting - Sit towards the front curve of the bolster, you may want a blanket under your ankles too.

What for: creates a lift for the buttocks (softer than a block) and allows the hips to open and the knees to drop out and down. This angled pelvis allows the spine to be naturally aligned and vertical without effort so you can focus on breathing and being.

When: For longer periods of sitting comfortably - Great for practicing sitting with your legs crossed, preparation for seated pranayama and meditation

2. Lying over the length of the bolster (supta baddha konasana) - Sit on your mat and place the bolster behind you, press it into your lower back and keeping your knees bent, lie your spine down along the length of the bolster with your head on the far end. Use a folded blanket under your buttocks if the lower back feels too arched and sore and a yoga belt , blocks or mini bolsters under the thighs to support your hips in opening. Find a position for your arms where your chest feels open but you're not hanging off your shoulder joints.

What for: this is a backbend which supports the whole of the spine so it can be lifted, and the front of the spine can open wide, the shoulders can relax back around the shape of the bolster, opening the front of the shoulders and collar bones to counteract slouching. The front of the chest and breast bone is also being held in an open way so breathing reaches further and wider into the lungs and rib cage, and the diaphragm is free to move massaging the internal organs. There is an opportunity for the lower abdomen, pelvis and hips to open and should always be supported so the muscles around the hips can let go of their grip and let the yin take you!

When: great way to start a yoga practice to allow the brain to get the message that you are now in a different head space. Preparing for active practice. Good for general feeling of tightness and compression especially with respiratory problems, tight hips, period pains or just after a long day at the computer in front of facebook, I mean working.

3. Lying over the bolster on your front - Come to the hands and knees, place the bolster under you and lie over it face down with legs stretched out behind you. The pubic bone should be resting on the back end, the chest on the front end. Make a pillow with your hands to support your head which drops off the end of the bolster allowing the neck to release. Use blankets as appropriate to support chest or raise the head. Take your feet apart so you feel like you won't fall off!

what for: lifts the whole of the front of the body up towards the spine, activating energy around the abdominal organs, allowing the vertebrae to open along the back, the back muscles to release and fall away from the spine. The limbs fall below the arms allowing them to ease away from any grip.

When: Great support to prepare for cobra pose keeping the bolster in place for those who find the back muscles get pinched and sore. Good for releasing lower back pain, face down is grounding when feeling anxious, support lifting into the belly is great for digestive problems or general feeling of stuck-ness, and of course, soothing the mind and releasing thoughts which may get stuck like a broken vinyl record. Sedative for the nervous system.

4. Side-lying poses - Two bolsters if possible - Lie down on your side with one bolster under the side of the ribcage, the other under your head, with your knees out at around a 90degree angle so you are stable, arms out in front of you with one palm up and the other resting on it.

What for: Opens up the thoracic spine (upper back), relaxes tightness in the shoulders and neck muscles. Breathe deeply into the upper side of the body to open the ribcage. Open the upper arm up towards the ceiling and turn the head to follow the hand. Then stretch one arm back, other leg forward to stretch open along the side of the body. Turn to do the other side

When: pain, tightness and stiffness in the upper back, shoulders and neck. Asymmetrical pose is recommended for any uneven spinal conditions. During pregnancy when lying on your back is no longer recommended and on you front is...well, impossible!

5. Relaxation pose - savasana - Lie down on your back and place the bolster under your knees, possibly a blanket under your neck. You could also use two mini bolsters to support your arms so you can fold your hands over your abdomen. An eye pillow over the eyes or resting on the throat or forehead can deepen the relaxation, especially if its filled with lavender, or you have some essential oils to enhance the senses.

What for: allows the lower back to soften, back to release into the ground. It can make conditions right for the nervous system to move into the 'relaxation response' - stay if that's how it feels to you or adjust the props if need be.

When: after an active practice to allow the after-effects to settle into body and mind. Any time you are feeling tired, all over the place, need a rest.

6. Restorative yoga - rather than using the bolster to prepare for an asana, use the bolster to support the body in the pose - the bolster does the work and all you need to do is drape yourself, soften the muscles, relax the mind and allow yourself to do 'nothing' - any of the above can be used for restorative work - just relax there for 5-10 minutes. Too many uses to name here...108 here we come! Look up Judith Lasater's book 'Relax & Renew'

7. Legs up the wall pose (viparita karani) Lie with your legs up the wall and a bolster under the pelvis so it is parallel with the ground.

What for: Allow the lower back to soften into the bolster, legs to relax up the wall, breathe down in the belly

When: Jetlag and swollen ankles, translates as the great rejuvenator so speaks for itself, when you need rest, feel the flowing breath, brings energy to the pelvic organs.

8. Off your mat - In bed, driving, soft furnishings - sleeping with your bolster can be comforting and supportive - Cuddle your bolster like a grown up teddy bear. A mini bolster or cushion is great behind the lumbar curve for driving or sitting on the office chair to help support the upright position for your spine. Stops you slouching - you know it makes sense!


Yogamalai bolsters come in three sizes so you can support your structure well - we felt bolsters should mould to t

he body and not crack them open so they have some 'give'! Treat yourself or your furniture with colours to suit your decor and your mod. They are made by Yogamalai, using fair trade principles in India by families we know personally.

For our Restorative Teacher Training Course in London, CLICK HERE

For restorative workshops, nourishment days and short courses with Judy in London, CLICK HERE

Look out for Yoga United trainings in 2018 - As experienced yoga teachers and therapists, we're very excited to be offering practical courses for YU - Learn more!

If you have any questions, please email Judy Hirsh at Yogaunited for clarification or add your comment here.

Email judy@yogaheadspace.co.uk