What is restorative yoga and how to use the breath

What is restorative yoga and how to use the breath

This month here at La Crisalida Retreats, we are focusing on finding time to breathe. One of my favourite ways to practice breathing techniques is in restorative yoga positions. In this article we look how we can use restorative yoga and our breath to help us move into states of deep relaxation.

What is restorative yoga?

Have you ever spent a night in bed but woke up still feeling exhausted? If so, then maybe restorative yoga is for you. Restorative yoga helps us to learn to relax deeply and completely, which in turn benefits the whole body. Restorative yoga is a wonderful balance to anyone who has a busy and stressful lifestyle (which seems to be the norm in today’s society). Restorative yoga has seen a huge rise in popularity over the last ten years. Judith Hanson Lasater, who is credited with developing and spreading this style, describes it as “the use of props to create positions of ease and comfort that facilitate relaxation and health”. Therefore, in restorative yoga we use props such as blankets, bolsters, chairs, blocks and so on, to create positions where the body can drop into a state of deep relaxation. As the body and mind can take time to fully relax restorative yoga positions are often held for at least five minutes, and often longer.

Whilst restorative yoga is particularly good for those that may need special healing, for example recovery from surgery, or those who are exhausted; I believe that is it also good for all people. We are called “human-beings” and not “human-doings” for a reason. Take a moment to reflect: How much of your time do you spend doing things, and how much of your type do you spend just being? Practicing restorative yoga can be a fantastic way to take time to breathe and just be.

Benefits of restorative yoga

Even though restorative yoga is relatively new style of yoga, there are already a number of recorded benefits from practicing this style. These include deep relaxation, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, increase in energy, better mood and improved cellular function. The way restorative yoga works is by switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, to move into a state of rest and restore. When we use restorative yoga, we also tap into the many benefits of deep breathing, which you can read about here. 

How can restorative yoga help us improve our breathing?

In many more active styles of yoga we might try to direct the breath, for example, using Ujjayi breath whilst doing a flowing style of yoga. In more active styles of yoga, we use effort to direct or control the breath. In restorative yoga, we support the body by using props and allow the breath to open the body naturally from inside out. Many restorative yoga positions such as Supta Baddha Konasana (see photo and below) help to open the chest and act as a wonderful counter to a closed sitting position. When I practice restorative yoga, I make a point of simply observing the natural breath. Allowing it to flow in and out of my body without trying to change it. When we watch the natural breath often it starts to lengthen and deepen of its own accord. Also when we use the breath consciously, for example by practicing a deep belly breath, this helps us to relax. Restorative yoga elicits a sense of surrender or letting go, which can move us into a state of ‘rest and restore’ or ‘rest and digest’ (see our other article: using your breath to alleviate depression, anxiety and panic for more information on how this works).

I could write all day about the benefits of restorative yoga and breathwork, however yoga is an experiential practice and it only works when we can feel it in our bodies. I have explained two simple practices below which you could have a go at in the comfort of your home. This yoga style does use quite a few props but there are plenty of things in your home that you can use instead of purchasing yoga-specific props. I have made some suggestions below however feel free to experiment.

To practice restorative yoga, find 20 minutes, turn off your phone and set up your mat in a warm place with soft lighting. You could choose to do both of these practices, followed by Savasana or Yoga Nidra together to form a longer session, or just take one.

Supta Baddha Konasana with Three-Part Breath

Supta Baddha Konasana or Reclining Bound Angle Pose is a wonderful pose for opening our chest and hips. I like to practice this pose with Three-Part Breath. To set up this pose, you need a yoga brick (or a large book), bolster (or two firm pillows), three rolled up blankets (or towels), or two yoga blocks and one blanket.

Take a bolster, or a couple of pillows placed on top of each other and lay them lengthwise on your matt. Place a yoga brick or large book beneath the far end of the bolster so the bolster is at a slight angle. Next sit with your tailbone touching the bolster (or edge of the pillows) and the soles of your feet together. Allow your knees to drop open wide to the side, support with pillows (or rolled up blankets). Fold the other blanket and place it under the head at the higher end of the bolster. It is important that your chin is below the level of the forehead. This head position helps the nervous system to calm down.

Once you have settled into this position and the body is comfortable you can practice the Three-Part Breath:

  • First take your hands to the belly and rest the hands there for 3-5 minutes noticing the natural flow of breath in the belly.
  • Next, take the hands to the ribs (keep the elbow on the floor as we want to release tension from the body). Focus on the movement of the breath in the ribs.
  • Then, take the hands towards the collarbones feeling the breath in and out of the upper chest.
  • Finally rest one hand towards the belly and the other towards the upper chest. Ensuring that the elbows are in a relaxed position. Simply focus on the rise and fall of the breath and feeling it move into different parts of the body. Imagine you are inviting the breath into the body and welcoming the breath in a bit deeper.
  • You can notice the inhalation, the pause after the inhalation, the exhalation and then a slight pause. Allow each stage of the breath to happen on its own accord, without rushing or forcing the breath.
  • Stay here for as long as you like. If the hips are not comfortable you can always stretch the legs out in front of you.
  • When you are ready to come out simply bend the legs, bring the soles of the feet to the floor and then supporting your body with your hands, carefully roll over to the side. Stay in a foetal position on your side for a few moments, and then use your hands to help you up to sitting. Notice how you feel after this position.

Prone lying position with back breathing

This is a wonderful pose to use to help bring the breath into the back of the body. Often when we practice restorative yoga, we focus on bringing more breath to the front of the body, however the lungs expand in all directions including into the back. When we focus on bringing the awareness to the back body, this can help us move into a more restful state. Additionally, by restricting the movement in the front of the body, the back of the body (including the lower back and shoulders) benefits from the gentle movement of the breath. This can ease deep physical tension.

You can use a bolster in this pose or a couple of folded up blankets. To come into the pose either fold the blankets so they cover the top half of the mat or position the bolster so it is lengthways along the top part of the mat. Next lie face down with the torso on the folded blankets (or bolster). The position should be comfortable. You can start with the neck turned to one side and then turn to the other side about half way through the pose. Please note this position is not suitable for pregnant women. Once you are comfortable you can begin to focus on breathing into the back.

  • First focus on breathing into the belly. See if you can notice that when the belly pushes into your blankets or the bolster there is a corresponding movement in the lower back.
  • Try to imagine that the skin of your lower back is porous and you are breathing directly into the lower back.
  • See if you can feel the subtle movements, and imagine all the muscles and tissues sliding and moving gently over one another. You could imagine you are oiling the muscles of the lower back with the breath.
  • Next, take your awareness to your upper back. With each exhale imagine that the shoulder blades are moving down and away from the centre of the back. Feel as though you are surrendering to gravity and easing tension with each breath.
  • Finally, see if you can imagine that the whole back of the body is porous and you are breathing in and out of the back of the body.
  • When you are ready to come out of the pose, simply take your hands under your shoulders and gently push yourself back into a childs pose.

Restorative yoga and the breath

One of my favourite breath work teachers, Donna Farhi says “the breath is like an anchor, it keeps us tethered to the present moment”. My interpretation of this is that when we are focusing on the present breath, we can be neither having regrets about the past, nor worry about the future. In addition when we can accept our natural breath as it is, without any agenda about changing or directing the breath, we can learn to accept the natural ups and downs of life. Also, by noticing the pauses between the breath we can also find time to pause in our lives.

I hope you have enjoyed this month’s yoga practices and found some time to breathe! If you would like to take some more time for yourself and to breathe why not think about booking onto one of our Yoga Retreats, here at our beautiful yoga retreat centre on the Costa Blanca, Spain.

About the author

Tania is one of our programme team, who loves teaching yoga, mindfulness and other programme activities.