The Benefits and Purpose of Restorative Yoga

Learning to Slow Down, Soften, Release and Restore

When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world. Your innermost sense of self, of who you are, is inseparable from stillness.” – Eckhart Tolle

As our lives become ever busier, more hectic and stressful, there is a greater need than ever for us to take regular time to stop, slow down, release and restore. Modern day life has us running around firing on all cylinders and in “fight or flight” mode (activated by the body’s sympathetic nervous system) most of the time.  The effect of this increases our blood pressure, speeds up our heart, raises blood sugar levels, elevates levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, causes problems with our digestion, redirect blood away from our internal organs (making them function    less effectively) and makes our breathing faster and shallower. Doesn’t sound so great does it?

It’s not a problem if the sympathetic nervous system is activated for short periods of time, which evolution designed it to do back when we were fleeing tigers in the jungle. The problem is that the stress and relentless pace of modern life leads to people being in this state most of the time and that’s when the problems with our body and mind start to happen.

Restorative yoga can combat the effects of all of this running around at high speed by kick-starting our “rest and digest” or para-sympathetic nervous system and bringing our whole system back into more harmony. This enables our body to rest, recover, and regenerate itself. Activation of the “rest and digest” or relaxation response helps to lower blood pressure, slow our heart rate, boost immune function, restore good digestion, reduce our anxiety and stress levels and improves our sleep.

Restorative yoga is by nature a receptive practice rather than an active practice, and in that receptivity you can guide yourself towards a more healthy and balanced state of being. It is a practice of consciously turning inwards, of quietening the body and mind, and kindly nurturing ourselves. Restorative yoga is much more like meditation, relaxation or yoga nidra than like other more dynamic forms of yoga. Restorative poses are be held for anything between 5 and 20 minutes and you are always supported and held in these shapes with the aid of blocks, bolsters and blankets. When you are in these passive postures supported by props, and thereby using no muscular effort, the focus can really be on releasing the grip of deep muscular and inner tension, and you can begin to feel more spacious and receptive.

The beauty of restorative yoga is that there are no goals of stretching,  strengthening or “getting somewhere” in the pose. All you need to do is set up the pose and then simply be there, tuning into your body, your breath and exploring what happens when you slowly release your habitual ways of holding. Since restorative poses are held longer than more active yoga poses, they have time to really penetrate our bodies’ systems, including our mind and emotions, and thus creating significant shifts in both physical and mental health.

Restorative yoga is an incredible way of helping to heal the whole body and mind. In activating the para-sympathetic or relaxation response it helps to balance the whole nervous system and sets up the whole body for deep healing, growth and repair. Specific sequences of restorative poses can be used to help with numerous issues, including relieving back pain, menstrual and menopausal symptoms, stress, anxiety and depression, digestive disorders, insomnia, exhaustion, headaches and asthma.

As we settle into and stay in these longer held poses we slowly begin to create more space in those places that are holding tension, settling our awareness on them so they begin to change or loosen in ways they maybe haven’t for months or years. As we are so accustomed these days to holding ourselves together at all cost, it can sometimes be a little unnerving to begin to let go and surrender that rigidity, and for some people it can be very challenging to just “be”. But as we continue to stay and soften we can begin to find more ease in both our bodies and minds, and shift into a different way of being, both during our practice and in our daily life.

Restorative yoga can be seen as a special treat, and time to really slow down and let go, a little like having a massage. As with all practices though, the more often we do these slower and longer held poses, the more we can reap the benefits. It’s also worth remembering that in order for us to be able to really surrender and release deeply held tensions it’s important to take time and care when setting up our props for these poses, so that we can feel completely at ease and almost cocooned in each pose.

Another great benefit of restorative yoga is that is that it can be a great segue between more active yoga practices and meditation. As the body begins to really settle in these poses, so the breath can slow down and the mind can also begin to find more stillness and spaciousness. So it makes it a perfect preparation for meditation practice. And indeed we can bring many of the main tenets of mindfulness meditation into our restorative practice, as we aim to stay aware of our bodies, the sensations that arise as we remain in the poses and the feelings and emotions that may come up, observing all of these without judgement. Both practices have the same qualities of acceptance, allowing, surrendering to the present moment and stillness.

The American philosopher Ken Wilber writes beautifully about the need for balance in all aspects of our being, and these slower practices of restorative yoga can help us to find that inner harmony in our minds, bodies and lives:

In addition to learning how to take control and assume responsibility, a person also needs to learn when and how to let go, to surrender, to go with the flow and not resist or fight it. Letting go versus taking control — this is, of course, just another version of being versus doing, that primordial polarity of yin and yang that assumes a thousand different forms and is never exhausted. It’s not yin or yang [that] is right, that being is better than doing — it’s a question of finding the right balance, the natural harmony between yin and yang that the ancient Chinese called the Tao — between doing and being, controlling and allowing, resisting and opening, fighting and surrendering, willing and accepting.” 

So why not take some time out to let go, slow down and just see what happens? You may soon find yourself wanting to carve out time to do this every day!

Sarah teaches regular Sunday afternoon workshops focusing on slowing down and finding more inner space and tranquility through the practice of restorative yoga, yin yoga, pranayama, yoga nidra and meditation.

The next one is on Sunday 19th November. To find out more and to book a place: www.yogacreation.co.uk/workshops.php

She is also available to teach 1-2-1 restorative sessions.

Pose of the Month: Headstand (Sirsasana)

Going upside down and seeing the world from a different perspective can be both exhilarating and terrifying too. Generally in our yoga practice we begin our journey into inversions with Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana) and once we feel at ease in this pose we move on to Headstand.

Headstand (Sirsasana) is often referred to as the King of Yoga Poses, and it is one that many people are drawn to, but which many of us also find challenging. It can bring up understandable fear, and facing and overcoming this fear is part of the headstand journey.

Standing on your head in proper alignment strengthens the whole body, calms the brain and has many other benefits as a pose, including:

  • Relieving stress and mild depression
  • Stimulating the pituitary and pineal glands
  • Strengthening the arms, legs, and spine
  • Toning the abdominal organs
  • Improving digestion
  • Helping to relieve the symptoms of menopause
  • Also therapeutic for asthma, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis
  • As with all inversions, it reverses the blood flow and improves circulation

Whilst it can calm the mind once we are comfortable in it, Headstand is also a pose where our ego and “drive” can often take over and we become determined to hurtle ourselves into the pose doing whatever it takes to get lift off, before falling just as quickly back out of it.

It goes without saying that this is not the approach we want to take for a strong, balanced, sustained and injury-free headstand. A quiet mind, focus and patience are all very important when coming into this pose.

For a few people headstand will come easily, but for most of us it takes practice, patience and perseverance, during which time we can build up the necessary strength to be able to enter and hold the pose safely and with ease. It should be remembered that traditionally Sirsasana has been considered to be an intermediate to advanced pose, and not one that is suitable for most beginners.

For the pose to be comfortable and stable, we really need a certain amount of strength in our upper back, shoulder girdle, core and leg muscles, and also an ability to connect to and engage Mula and Uddiyana bandha, which are essential for entering headstand safely and with ease, and for finding stability once in the pose.

Once we have the strength and focus to safely come into headstand, we need to ensure that the pose is aligned so we can comfortably stay in it without struggle. We are looking to align the outer ankle bone, the centre of the hip, the centre of the shoulder, and the ear hole. When this alignment is found, the energy flows freely and physical effort in the pose is minimised.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up and entering the pose safely and with control, which will mean that once you’re up you’ll be able to stay there with ease.

1. To prepare for headstand, a useful pose to take first is Dolphin Pose, as this builds strength in the core, the arms and the legs, whilst also nicely opening the shoulders in preparation for Headstand. If you are new to Headstand, try to do a couple of rounds of Dolphin, holding for 5-10 breaths each time, before moving on to Headstand.

Come onto the floor on your hands and knees. Set your knees directly below your hips and your forearms on the floor with your shoulders directly above your wrists. Firmly press your palms together and your forearms into the floor. Curl your toes under, then exhale and lift your knees away from the floor. At first keep the knees slightly bent and the heels lifted away from the floor. Lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling and continue to press the forearms actively into the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, then widen them away from the spine and draw them away from your ears toward the tailbone. Hold your head between the upper arms; don’t let it hang or press heavily against the floor.You can straighten your knees if you like, but if your upper back rounds it’s best to keep them bent.

2. Once you feel comfortable in Dolphin and have built up some stamina in the pose, then you are ready to move on to Headstand. Use a folded blanket or yoga mat to pad your head and forearms. Kneel on the floor with your toes tucked under. Measure the distance between your elbows by lining them up with your shoulders.

3. Interlace the fingers together and set the forearms on the floor, keeping the elbows shoulder-width apart.

4. Roll the upper arms slightly outward, but press the inner wrists firmly into the floor. Set the crown of your head on the floor.

5. If you are just beginning to practice this pose, press the bases of your palms together and snuggle the back of your head against the clasped hands (Position  One).  More experienced students can open their hands and place the back of the head into the open palms (Position Two). Or for some, a half-way point between these two positions is most comfortable and stable (Position Three). Either way, always ensure that the natural curvature of the spine is maintained.

  

6. You may also need to experiment with exactly which part of your head you place in contact with the mat. For most people it’s best to place the centre of the crown on the ground, for others it’s more comfortable to be a little further forward of this point. Experiment carefully and see which feels right for you and most comfortable for your neck.

7. Inhale and lift your knees off the floor, straightening the legs as much as you can. With the heels off the floor, slowly walk your feet in towards your head until the hips are directly above the shoulders.

8. Take one heel up towards the sit bones, and then press down firmly through the wrists and forearms, lengthen the spine, engage your core and strongly draw up through mula bandha so that the other foot almost floats off the floor and draw it into the bottom, pulling the knees into the chest. Resist the temptation to jump the feet up to this stage!

  

 

9. Once you can get to this point, try to balance for at least 5 breaths before moving on. Remember that the majority of the weight should be on the elbows, forearms and wrists rather than on the head itself. When you are comfortable you can begin to straighten the legs. You have a choice as to how you do this – you can either begin to press the heels up towards the sky, being sure to keep the feet and legs together as you do this, and slowly begin to straighten the legs, or you can begin to lift the knees towards the sky and then uncurl the lower legs from there.

 

  

Either way, move slowly and with control, and continue to press firmly into the wrists and elbows, lifting the shoulders away from the ears and not allowing the elbows to “run away” from each other.

10. Once you have straightened the legs, pause, breathe and don’t panic!! Roll the inner thighs in slightly and squeeze the legs together, press up through the balls of the big toes and fan out the toes. In order for the pose to be comfortable, we want the centre of the arches to align over the centre of the pelvis, which in turn should align over the crown of the head. A teacher or friend can check this for you.

Allow the mind to quieten, the breath to be slow and steady and find a point on which to focus your gaze (either the tip of your nose or a point on the horizon).

11. When you can comfortably get to this stage, firm the outer arms inward, and soften the fingers. Continue to press the shoulder blades against the back, widen them, and draw them toward the tailbone. Keep the weight evenly balanced on the two forearms. It’s also essential that your tailbone continues to lift upward toward the heels, and that you think about drawing your lower front ribs and front hip bones towards each other to avoid ‘banana-ing” in the pose.
Breathe and feel your connection to the earth and allow the body to grow upwards from there.

12. As you are first learning headstand aim to stay for 10 seconds. Gradually add 5 to 10 seconds onto your stay every day until you can comfortably hold the pose for 3 minutes. Then continue for 3 minutes each day for a week or two, until you feel relatively comfortable in the pose. Then gradually add 5 to 10 seconds onto your stay every day or so until you can comfortably hold the pose for 5 minutes.

13. To come down from the pose, engage your core and your bandhas, exhale and begin to lower the legs (straight or bent) without losing the lift of the shoulder blades, and aim to bring both feet lightly down to the the floor at the same time. Rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana) for at least 10 long breaths, breathing deeply into the back as you inhale and allowing the body to release and soften with each exhale.

14. Balance in this pose can be difficult to begin with so you can use a wall, especially if you are practising at home. However, if you do use a wall be sure to still move into the pose with the same awareness and control that you would when practising in the middle of the room, and avoid just jumping or kicking up into the pose. The wall should just be there to help with your confidence whilst you become accustomed to being upside down. If you kick up into the pose you will never learn to do it freestanding without the wall.

15. As you become more confident and comfortable in your headstand, you may be able to enter and exit with straight rather than bent legs (strongly engaging mula bandha)

  

From there you may be able to hover the legs parallel to the floor for 5 or 10 breaths,

and eventually you may even be able to lower the feet to the floor and then raise the legs back up to vertical 5 or 10 times (this requires practice and strong bandha control!!) From there the variations are numerous – twists, headstand with lotus, legs wide apart, different arm positions, one leg up, one leg down . . .

Lastly, so as always to be safe in your practice, please note the following contraindications to practising headstand: back injury; retina problems; headaches and migraines; heart conditions; high blood pressure; menstruation; neck injury and pregnancy (unless you have had a very consistent and strong headstand practice before becoming pregnant).

Overcoming our fear of going upside down in headstand can be very liberating and can also lead to increased self-confidence which can filter from our yoga practice into our daily lives.

Happy practising and remember to resist the urge to ‘conquer’ headstand and instead try to approach the pose with a quiet mind, patience and focus, and soon the fruits of this King of Poses will be yours.

To find out more about the magic of headstand, and to understand which poses can help build the strength and flexibility required to enter this pose with ease, join Sarah in her ‘Working up to Headstand’ workshop on Saturday 30th September at Yoga Creation.

The Power of Mudras during Pregnancy Yoga

What is a mudra and how can they be helpful during pregnancy yoga?

Mudra means “seal,” “gesture,” or “mark.” Yoga mudras are symbolic gestures mostly practiced with the hands and fingers. They facilitate the flow of energy in the subtle body and enhance one’s journey within. These gestures help to focus the mind and also connect to particular energy channels in the body to produce a specific effect on the nervous system, the energetic body and the mind.

Each area of the hand has a reflex reaction in a specific part of the brain. A mudra therefore locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain.

Mudras can be very beneficial in helping pregnant women to become calm, centred and more focussed and will often be used in conjunction with a specific focus on the breath. Many mudras help to foster inner strength and confidence.

They can help pregnant women to focus on a specific intent, including opening the heart centre; giving and receiving; removing obstacles; developing a feeling of unconditional love; and cultivating and connecting to sense of deep inner calm.

Once a woman is familiar with a mudra she can practice it anywhere and anytime to bring about a particular energetic effect.

Some examples of mudras that are very useful to practise during pregnancy are:

  1. Ganesha Mudra – the remover of obstacles
    Ganesha Mudra is named after the Hindu deity who removes obstacles. It can be used to relieve stress and tension and lift your spirits.

*  Interlock the fingers of both hands in front of the chest, elbows in line with the hands, shoulders relaxed.

*  As you exhale gently pull the elbows out towards the side, as though you want to pull the hands apart.

*  As you inhale, soften and release the pull.

ganesha-mudra

*  You can repeat this five times, working with the breath, and then swap the interlock of the hands and repeat a further five times.

*  Afterwards release the hands on to the thighs and sit quietly for a few minutes, breathing well, and noticing the effects on this mudra on your mind and emotions.

*  The benefit on this mudra is that it helps pregnant women to focus on the concept of removing obstacles – be they mental or physical.

*  A regular practice of this mudra can help women to feel confident and trusting in their ability to give birth and can help remove anxieties or worries.

2) Lotus Wish Mudra
*  Begin by placing the hands in prayer position in front of the heart.

*  Then join the wrists, inner edges of the palms and little fingers together and the inner edges of the thumbs to form a little lotus bud shape, and lightly touch the tips of the fingers together. Take a moment here to connect to your breath and to your body, and then think of a heartfelt wish for yourself and your baby.

lotus-wish-mudra

*  Slowly open the finger tips slightly apart and as you do so gently blow the wish into the lotus bud. Then seal it there by bringing the finger tips back together, and hold it close to your heart centre for a few more breaths.

*  On an inhalation take the arms up, still with the hands forming the lotus bud, and then on an exhalation open the lotus bud into a flower releasing the wish to the universe, allow the hands to part and then bring the arms down by your sides in a wide circle.

lotus-wish-mudra

Finish by bringing the palms of both hands to rest on the heart centre, in a calm and grateful acceptance of whatever may come.

lotus-wish-mudra

*  This mudra is very helpful in connecting the mother with her baby in a positive way. It is reinforcing optimistic thoughts about the future relationship between the mother and baby, helping with the bonding between them. The final part of bringing the hands to rest on the heart in an acceptance of whatever may come can be useful in preparing a pregnant woman to be accepting of both the joys and possible challenges ahead, both during and after birth.

3)   Opening to a feeling of never-ending and unconditional love mudra
*  Begin with the hands in prayer position in front of the heart centre (Anjali Mudra).

*  Relaxing the shoulders and the jaw, draw the awareness inwards and connect to the breath. As you inhale gently press the palms of the hands together and as you exhale open the arms wide, palms facing upwards and really allow the heart centre to open.

love-mudra

love-mudra

*  Repeat five times moving slowly with the breath, and then rest the hands back on the thighs, with the palms of the hands turned upwards.

love-mudra

*  Allow a feeling of a deep sense of unconditional love to spread from your heart centre through the whole of your body and mind – that deep love between yourself and your baby.

*  This mudra is very helpful in cultivating a deep bond between a mother and her baby in the womb.

4) Giving and Receiving Mudra
*  This mudra has both a physical and emotional/energetic benefit.

On a physical basis it can be very helpful in relieving and preventing discomfort and pain in the wrists which can be quite common during pregnancy.

On an emotional level it helps women to deepen their bond with their baby as they think about all they will be giving to their new baby in terms of care and love, and all that they will receive back in terms of love and joy.

*  Begin with the hands in front of the heart centre with the outer edges of the wrists and the little fingers touching.

*  Inhale and as you exhale rotate through the wrists so that the inner edges of the wrists and the thumbs come together and the hands move away from you. Repeat 5 times and then change the direction of the movement.

5) Adhi Mudra
“I am always calm in the centre of my being.”

*  Sit comfortably and place your thumbs inside your palms and gently make loose fists around thumbs.

adhi-mudra

adhi-mudra

*  Turn the hands downward on your lap.

adhi-mudra

*  Begin to notice your breath, sensing its natural rhythm through your body, and allow yourself to connect to the inner stillness that is always present deep within you.  Repeat for 10 breaths, or longer if required.

adhi-mudra

*  This mudra helps us to feel secure and grounded and also helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It can be a helpful one to do before bedtime if disturbed sleep is an issue, or in the middle of the night if you wake up and can’t get back to sleep.

*  It is also good for lowering blood pressure (N.B. if you have low blood pressure do make sure this mudra feels good in your body, otherwise move on to one of the other mudras.)

These are just some of the mudras that can be helpful during pregnancy. Sarah teaches these and other mudras during her weekly pregnancy yoga classes at Yoga Creation.

© Sarah Burgess 2017