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 mini vacation. 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, 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 minimise 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.
Times of high anxiety or stress are the times you can most benefit from the healing aspects of a restorative practice.
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.
Restorative Yoga’s Challenge
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 practising 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 destabilising 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 emphasises 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, 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.
Restorative Yoga Techniques
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.”
Stay in each pose for up to 15 minutes. Even a few minutes will make a difference.
The poses in this sequence are designed to give you the experience of being cradled and protected while providing the opportunity for deep relaxation and rejuvenation. When you’re practising them for the first time, it can be helpful to have a friend assist you in setting up the props. Warm up with a few rounds of Cat-Cow Pose, or any other gentle poses that help you connect with your breath. Once you’re propped and positioned, take the first few minutes in each pose to sense where you connect with the floor or the props. What part of your body rests most heavily on the support underneath you? Let this area be like an anchor rooting you to the earth. Slowly allow this sense of connection to spread to all the areas where you meet the ground and the props.
When your body feels completely supported, let your attention turn toward your breath. Like an ocean wave, each breath will rise and fall on its own. Rest your mind on the tide of your breath. Throughout each pose, let your attention move back and forth between the earthlike qualities of your body and the fluidlike qualities of your breath.
Stay in each pose for up to 15 minutes. Even a few minutes will make a difference. If you feel restless but want to stay in the pose, you can do small vinyasa movements with your hands to help yourself settle down: roll your open palms to the sky as you inhale; roll them back to the ground as you exhale.
Karen Macklin is a writer, editor and yoga teacher.
Asana Sequence by Jillian Pransky
1 Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), variation
This pose is usually done with the legs extended all the way up the wall. Having the legs lower, with the feet against the wall, encourages grounding by creating a sensation of “standing” on the wall, as opposed to having the feet wide open to the sky.
Lie on your back with your calves and feet supported by either bolsters or blanket-covered blocks. Wrap or cover your calves with a blanket. Rest the soles of your feet against the wall. Place an additional folded blanket across the pelvis to help release tension there and to encourage the pelvis to rest more heavily on the ground. Rest your arms by your sides, either palms down or, if facing up, with an eye bag in each open palm. If your upper back and shoulders don’t rest heavily on the floor, support them with towels or blankets. Place a folded blanket under your head.
You should feel firm support all the way up the torso, out through the arms, and up through the neck and head. Your throat should feel open and tension free. On each exhalation, allow the weight of your lower legs, pelvis, upper back and head to be fully held. On each inhalation, allow your ribs to expand in all directions. Stay in the pose for 5 to 15 minutes.
2 Salamba Balasana (Supported Child’s Pose)
Place blocks underneath the two ends of a bolster and come into Child’s Pose, with your torso supported by the bolster. It should feel as though the support is coming up to meet you rather than your torso dropping into the support. Slide your arms underneath the gap between the bolster and the floor, bringing each hand toward the opposite elbow. If your forearms or elbows don’t touch the ground, fill in the space with towels or blankets so that you are supported from the elbows to the fingers. Supporting the elbows and arms helps to release tension in the upper back and neck and to integrate the arms back into the body. In order to release tension in the lower back and create a deeper sensation of groundedness, place a heavy blanket on your sacrum. If the base of the shins or the tops of the feet are off the floor, prop them with a rolled-up towel.
Turn the head to one side, alternating sides halfway through the pose. On each inhalation, feel the back body expand; on each exhalation, feel the support under the chest and belly. Stay in the pose for 5 to 10 minutes.
3 Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), variation
Supta Baddha Konasana opens the whole front of the body: the pelvis, belly, heart and throat. These are areas we instinctively protect, which is why a pose like this can leave one feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Place a block lengthwise under one end of a bolster to prop it up on an incline. Sit with your back to the short, low end of the bolster. Place a second bolster under your knees and bring your legs into Bound Angle Pose with the soles of your feet together. Wrap a blanket around your feet to create a feeling of containment. Place another folded blanket over the pelvis to create a feeling of insulation. Lie back on the bolster. Place supports under your arms so that they are not dangling and there is no feeling of stretch in the chest. Stay in the pose for 5 to 15 minutes.
4 Side-Lying Savasana and Jathara Parivartanasana (Side-Lying Corpse Pose and Revolved Abdomen Pose), variation
Twists are generally good for the nervous system, but some twists can make breathing feel constricted, which can be anxiety provoking. This gentle, supported twist allows more room for the breath to come into the rib cage and belly.
Start by lying on your left side with your feet at a wall and your back against a bolster that is at least as high as your spine. Bend your right knee to 90 degrees and support your right knee and shin with a bolster or folded blankets so that the right leg is as high as the right hip; rest the sole of your left foot against the wall. Next, place folded blankets under your top arm and hand to lift them to the height of your shoulder. Finally, tuck a folded blanket under your head and neck to lift your head in line with the spine (see photo above left). Rest here for 2 to 5 minutes.
To move into the twist (see photo at left), roll your torso to the right over the bolster, keeping your right arm fully supported by it from shoulder blade to fingers. Your right hand should be no lower than the height of your right shoulder. If you have tightness in your shoulder or chest, try placing more support under your arm until your hand is higher than your shoulder. You should not feel a stretch, but rather as though your chest is open and your breath is fluid. Stay in the twist for 2 to 5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
5 Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Savasana can be a very expansive pose, especially when done with the legs wide apart and the arms away from the side body. Keeping the legs and arms a little closer to the body encourages a more contained feeling.
Roll up a blanket and place it alongside a wall. Lie down with the soles of your feet against the blanket. Place an additional rolled blanket or bolster under your knees to encourage the thighbones to drop deeper into your pelvis. This helps release tension in the iliopsoas and allows the pelvis to rest more heavily on the ground. Place a folded blanket over your belly to release tension and weigh the hips down even more. Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down.
If your upper back and shoulders are rolled toward your heart and don’t rest heavily on the floor, fill in the space with towels or blankets so you feel firm support all the way up the torso to the neck and head. Support your cervical curve with a small rolled towel and place a folded blanket under the head to create a cradling effect. Your chin should be perpendicular to the floor, and your throat should feel open and tension free. With each exhalation allow the earth to fully hold each part of your body: your heels, thighs, pelvis, upper back and head. Once you feel completely connected to the ground, rest your mind on the waves of your breath. Stay in the pose for 5 to 15 minutes.
6 Reverse Savasana (Corpse Pose), variation
This reversed variation can feel more secure for someone who feels vulnerable in Savasana. Lie on your belly. Turn your head to the right. Bring your arms out to the side, elbows bent. Take your right knee out to the side. If needed, place a blanket for cushioning and support under the right arm, knee, thigh, belly or all four. Cover your entire body with a blanket, including the exposed soles of your feet. After a couple of minutes, turn your head to the other side and switch the position of the knees. Stay here 5 to 10 minutes, releasing your whole front body into the ground.
Karen Macklin is a Yoga Teacher and author