It's been a long week, so you sign up for a Friday evening restorative yoga class. Unwinding with some rejuvenating supported postures for an hour and a half sounds perfect—almost like a minivacation. But moments after you close your eyes and immerse yourself in the first pose, an unexpected visitor arrives: anxiety. Suddenly your mind is filled with an endless stream of thoughts about the past week's events, your job security, and everything you have to accomplish over the weekend, not to mention doubts about where your relationship is headed and whether or not you paid that credit card bill. The pose feels as though it's going on forever, and although your body isn't moving, your mind won't stop racing. You feel restless, agitated, and out of control. This is supposed to be "restorative" yoga. What happened?
Restorative yoga is a passive practice in which poses like Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) are held for several minutes at a time, propped with blankets, blocks, and bolsters to minimize the amount of work that the muscles are doing in the pose. A restorative practice can rest your body, stretch your muscles, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and calm your nervous system, moving you into a peaceful state of deep relaxation. But while the practice of restorative yoga comes easily to some people, it can present real challenges for others.
"A lot of people think that restorative yoga is like a bliss practice, where they'll just be lying around and relaxing," says Jillian Pransky, the national director of restorative yoga training for YogaWorks. "But the practice of being still and restful provokes anxiety for many people. And during times of extreme stress, such as illness, a difficult transition, or grief, releasing control of the body can overwhelm the nervous system."
Passive postures can evoke feelings of discomfort for myriad reasons. On a physical level, Pransky says, the body is in a vulnerable state: You are releasing control of all your muscles, lying with your eyes closed and your chest and abdomen—the location of your vital organs—exposed. In many restorative poses, the body is also splayed out, and often the bones are not resting in their sockets, which can leave you feeling physically unstable or insecure. In Savasana (Corpse Pose), for example, the thigh bones pop up from the weight of the feet on the floor and the external release of the leg muscles, as opposed to resting inside the joint as they do when you're standing or reclining with the knees bent.
On an emotional level, restorative poses can be challenging because, when the body is in a passive posture, the mind has fewer physical tasks and sensations to focus on than it does in more active poses, making your attention more likely to turn inward. Any emotions you might have been suppressing throughout the day—fear, frustration, sadness, anxiety—are likely to come to the forefront of your mind once your body begins to relax.
Finally, if you go very deep into the meditation of the pose, says Pransky, you can lose a sense of your physical shape. If you are in a content and secure frame of mind, this can deepen your experience and provide a sense of bliss; but if you are going through a difficult time, losing a sense of your body can feel frightening and disorienting.
But just because restorative yoga can trigger anxious or uncomfortable feelings doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. In fact, times of high anxiety or stress are the times you can most benefit from the healing aspects of a restorative practice. The solution, Pransky says, is to support passive postures with props in such a way that the body and mind feel grounded, safe, and integrated. That way, you can still experience the benefits of restorative yoga, and can eventually learn to use the practice as a tool for being with all those feelings.
Pransky didn't always teach restorative yoga with these adaptations. Her own restorative practice was initially more about feeling light and blissful than feeling rooted and stable, she says. But 11 years ago, a death in the family brought on a period of intense anxiety that caused her practice to change. Suddenly her former way of practicing restorative yoga—going so deep into the meditation of the pose that she'd be aware only of her energetic body, not her physical body—was no longer blissful but destabilizing and disconnecting. "I was just out there. It was really scary," she says.
Pransky's experience with anxiety led her to develop an approach to restorative yoga that could accommodate and support an agitated mind. She drew on her training in Anusara Yoga, which emphasizes the biomechanical and alignment principles of "integration" (setting up the bones so that you can draw them toward, and not away from, the core of the body). She also tapped into her studies with somatic therapist Ruella Frank, PhD, in which Pransky says she learned how to "contain the outline of the body" with the use of supportive props and blankets so that the body feels cradled and safe, similar to the way a baby becomes calmer when swaddled.
Other techniques for making the body feel less vulnerable in restorative postures include using blankets to create a layer of warmth and protection, and placing eye bags over open palms to create a "hand holding" effect. Pransky also recommends resting the feet against something—a wall, a rolled-up blanket, or a partner—in every pose. This helps the body feel more connected to the earth, she says, and integrates the legs back into the body, creating a deeper sense of stability and safety. Props such as folded or rolled blankets placed to support the arms and legs likewise ensure that the weight of the leg bones and arm bones drops in toward the body, and that the weight of the head is fully supported.
Finally, Pransky recommends leaving the eyes open during a restorative practice if closing them is uncomfortable for you. "When you have a very busy mind, closing the eyes can be an invitation for the mind to wander into worry," she says. "Keeping the eyes open can help you feel more connected to the outside world."
With these adaptations, Pransky says, you can develop the capacity to be more grounded and relaxed in restorative postures, whatever your mental state. "Once you can become more connected to your breath, the whole nervous system calms," she says. "And then, when those difficult emotions arise, you might find that you can handle them more easily than you thought you could."
Sara's note: If you would like to read the entire article at Yoga Journal's website click here. I'll post the sequence of poses in the next few blog posts.