The Power of Restorative Yoga
This gently type yoga uses multiple props and supine poses and focuses on realignment, rebalancing, and relaxation.
Restorative yoga pose can lead to rejuvenation.
Warmth. Stillness. Darkness.
If that sounds like a prescription for a good night’s sleep, you’re on the right track. Those conditions are also necessary for participants in a restorative yoga class, according to instructor Jewel Young Barrette, whose study with master teacher Judith Lasater, founder of San Francisco’s Iyengar Yoga Institute, taught her those three precepts. She continues to use them in her workshops at Gaia Yoga in Richmond and in private sessions.
Until just a few years ago, few longtime yoga devotees had heard of “restorative” yoga. Yet it wasn’t new. Yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar, creator of the yoga system that bears his name, pioneered what has become known as restorative yoga, with its use of multiple props, supine poses, and focus on realignment, rebalancing, and most of all, relaxation.
Today, restorative yoga has become one of the most popular classes at many studios, not least because this gentle, healing form can be practiced by almost anyone. Restorative instructor Giulia Divina Colbacchini, who studied with Nicole Becker at Ojas Yoga Center in El Cerrito, explained that after years of intense ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice, she realized she “wanted to tend and care for my body as the inevitable aging process took its course. I started to look for a daily practice aimed to recover and rejuvenate, as a safe, balancing addition to the vigorous ashtanga.”
Barrette noted that restorative yoga is designed to affect the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest-and-digest” system. “The long, calm poses allow the body let go, slow the heart rate, and deepen the breath,” she said. The sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight/flight/freeze” reactions of the body, has been over-stimulated in many people during the past few years, she said, and restorative yoga is a way to “return to homeostasis.”
A typical restorative class may last as long as 90 minutes and include props such as large and small bolsters, yoga blocks, straps, and blankets. Participants are guided through stretches, gentle twists, and relaxation poses, including the classic “feet-up-the-wall,” a restorative inversion. In some classes, the practice is accompanied by a guided meditation; in others, such as Barrette’s workshops, sound healing techniques are also used.
“The more the body is relaxed, the quicker it can heal,” said Colbacchini. “Restorative poses give you the opportunity to notice where you hold tension.” She cited increased flexibility, improved sleep, lowered blood pressure, and a boosted immune system as benefits many restorative practitioners experience.
Both Barrette and Colbacchini emphasized that restorative instructors are trained to be able to modify the poses, so that even those recovering from injury, or with arthritis or other chronic impairments, can safely participate. Bolsters and blankets can be doubled or even tripled to provide more support, and students are reassured that comfort and deep relaxation are the priorities. “Above all, we are there to help the student drop into a deep state of healing,” said Barrette.
Like Colbacchini, who did not begin practicing restorative yoga until she was in her 40s, people who for years pursue very strenuous workout routines discover that as they age, they need to soothe and regenerate as well as push the body’s limits. “I knew my body could not endure the level of frequency and intensity [of her routine at the time] without suffering some long-term side effects from overuse of the joints, ligaments and muscles,” she said.
Another advantage of a restorative yoga practice, said Barrette, is that it can be done at home as well. A student can easily acquire a bolster, blocks, and a strap from online sites and replicate much of what they learn in class on their own. “You can do some of the poses while traveling to help muscles and fascia unwind,” she added. That said, the atmosphere in a class contributes to the quiet unwinding and reduction of stress and anxiety that are benefits of this form.
Yet another outcome for some students is an introduction to meditation practice. “Restorative yoga is a great segue into meditation, which can be intimidating at first,” Colbacchini noted. She described it as a “bridge” between familiar yoga poses and, for some, the unfamiliar practice of meditation. Her classes at Ojas Yoga and at Gaia Yoga and her private sessions usually include a guided meditation.
Judith Lasater describes restorative yoga as “healing the world one savasana at a time,” said Barrette. And if an occasional snore is heard in class … well, all the better.
Restorative Yoga Options
Many yoga studios in the East Bay offer restorative classes and workshops. The following are a few suggestions.
Gaia Yoga, 39 Washington Ave., Richmond, 510-255-0821, GaiaYogaStudio.com.
Ojas Yoga Center, 707 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito, 510-525-1369, OjasYogaCenter.com.
YogaKula, 1700 Shattuck Ave., Ste. 2, Berkeley, 510-486-024, YogaKula.com.
Namaste Yoga in Oakland and Berkeley, ILoveNamaste.com.
Nest Yoga, 3976 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-778-0887, Nest-Yoga.com
For Jewel Young Barrette’s workshop/private sessions, visit JewelYogi.com.