Restorative Yoga: Antidote to Stress

Anthropologists tell us the body that experiences stress has not changed much over the millions of years of being human. Our ancestors had the same anatomical and physiological characteristics as we who drive freeways and communicate via the information superhighway. We have an ancient body subjected to a modern problem: living with chronic stress.

At one time, stress was a term used chiefly by physiologists who measured its effects in their laboratories. Today the term is used in common parlance. “I’m stressed out” is a familiar idiom describing how a life lived on overload affects health, sexual function and reproduction, relationships, job performance, athletic performance, and most importantly, our sense of self. The effects of stress have reached epidemic proportions in our lives, and stress-related diseases have become a medical specialty.

Sometimes the effects of stress present themselves during milestone life events: marriage, birth of a child, getting a new job, or death of a loved one. Other times it’s the little things that get us as we try to juggle the myriad responsibilities of job and family. Regardless of the trigger, stress is often accompanied by one or more negative effects — impatience, frustration, irritation, anger, muscle tension, headache, indigestion, or poor elimination. One thing is certain: The more stress we experience, the more its effects compound within us. When stress becomes chronic, a residue builds up in the body that can lead to disease.

Relaxation Solution

The antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply. This rest is different from sleep. Deep states of sleep include periods of dreaming, which increase muscular tension, as well as other physiological signs of tension. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort and the brain is quiet.

Common to all stress reduction techniques is putting the body in a comfortable position, with gentle attention directed toward the breath. Do these techniques really work? Scientists have researched the effects of relaxation and report measurable benefits, including reduction in muscle tension and improved circulation.

Among those whose scientific study supports the mind-body connection is Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. He studied those with atherosclerotic heart disease and concluded that daily periods of relaxation are essential in preventing further deterioration. Ornish also created a unique lifestyle program that includes diet, yoga and meditation.1

The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, the scriptural language of ancient India, and means “to yoke” or “to unite.” Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization of 2000 to 4000 BCE, yoga practices are designed to help the individual feel whole. Ancient yoga texts present teachings that include the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. The physical aspects — poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama) — are the most popular of yoga teachings in the West.

Typically a yoga class or personal practice session begins with a series of active poses followed by a brief restorative pose. The development of restorative poses is credited to B.K.S. Iyengar, of Pune, India. Iyengar’s early teaching experience showed him how pain or injury can result from a student straining in a yoga pose. He experimented with props — simple tools such as folded blankets, pillows, blocks, chairs and walls, used to modify poses so that students could practice without strain. Iyengar also explored how these modified poses could help people recover from illness or injury.

I often refer to restorative yoga poses as “active relaxation.” By supporting the body with props, we alternately stimulate and relax the body to move toward balance. Some poses have an overall benefit. Others target an individual part, like the lungs or heart. All create specific physiological responses that are beneficial to health and can reduce the effects of stress-related disease.

In general, restorative poses are for those times when you feel weak, fatigued, or stressed from your daily activities. They are especially beneficial for the times before, during and after major life events: death of a loved one, change of job or residence, marriage, divorce, major holiday and vacations. In addition, you can practice the poses when ill or recovering from illness.

How Restorative Yoga Works

Restorative poses relieve the effects of chronic stress in several ways. First, the use of props provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation.

Second, each restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These movements illustrate the age-old wisdom of yoga that well being is enhanced by a healthy spine. Some of the restorative poses are back bends, while others are forward bends. Additional poses gently twist the column both left and right.

Third, a well-sequenced restorative practice also includes an inverted pose, which reverses the effects of gravity. This can be as simple as putting your legs on a bolster or pillow, but the effects are quite dramatic. Because we stand or sit most of the day, blood and lymph fluid accumulate in the lower extremities. By changing the relationship of the legs to gravity, fluids are returned to the upper body, and heart function is enhanced.

Psychobiologist and yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms, has done preliminary research on the effects of the inverted poses. He found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a slowing of heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body due to reversing the effects of gravity.2

Fourth, restorative yoga alternatively stimulate and soothes the organs. For example, by closing the abdomen with a forward bend and then opening it with a back bend, the abdominal organs are squeezed, forcing the blood out, and then opened, so fresh blood returns to soak the organs. With this movement of blood comes the enhanced exchange of oxygen and waste products across the cell membrane.

Finally, yoga teaches that the body is permeated with energy. Prana, the masculine energy, resides above the diaphragm, moves upward, and controls respiration and heart rate. Apana, the feminine energy, resides below the diaphragm, moves downward, and controls the function of the abdominal organs. Restorative yoga balances these two aspects of energy so the practitioner is neither overstimulated nor depleted.

Poses for Times When There’s No Time

In a perfect world, we would all have time for a long restorative yoga practice daily. But obligations to work, family, and community often leave us with little time for self-care. It is precisely when we are the most stressed that we need to relax and renew ourselves.

Some of the most stressful times are at work. These two restorative poses need a chair and desk (or table) and together take only 5 minutes.

Desk Forward Bend

Photo © 1992 Fred StimsonI remember how restful it was during my school days to lean forward and rest my head and folded arms on my desk. Try this pose at your desk or in the lunchroom at work or school.

Place your chair (without rollers) near your desk so that you can easily lean forward. Sit at the edge of the chair seat, with your feet flat on the floor. Lean forward and place your folded arms on the desk, so you feel securely supported. Rest your forehead on your arms. Tilt your chin slightly toward your chest.

Close your eyes.

Breathe slowly and deeply for the first few breaths, then resume normal breathing. Let the desk support your arms, your head, and your cares. Let the next few minutes of relaxation fill you.

Practice Desk Forward Bend for 3 minutes. To come up, unfold your arms as you lift your head. Inhale, and press your hands into the desk to help you return to sitting. Sit in your chair for one more long slow breath before moving on to the next pose or on with your day.

Caution: Take care of your neck and lower back in this pose. When you are forward, make sure your chin is tucked close to your body. Come up slowly to protect your lower back.

Chair Forward Bend

Photo © 1992 Fred StimsonThis pose is another supported forward bend, but this time you rest on your thighs instead of the desk. Chair Forward Bend provides the double benefit of a forward bend and a mild inversion. Chair Forward Bend stretches the lower back, relieves tension in the shoulders, and quiets the mind.

Select a stable chair that does not roll, and position it away from your desk. Sit near the edge of the chair seat, with your feet firmly on the floor and about 6 to 10 inches apart. Slowly bend forward until your chest rests on your thighs. Let your head hang down naturally. Allow your arms to dangle by your sides. Close your eyes.

Breathe quietly. Let gravity stretch your back. Feel all tension in your shoulders melt away. Rest.

Practice Chair Forward Bend for 2 minutes. To come up, put your hands on the sides of the chair seat, and press down as you inhale and lift your torso. Once upright, take 2 slow breaths before returning to your day’s activities.

Cautions: Do not practice this pose if you are more than three months pregnant or if you have hiatal hernia, retinal problems, eye pressure or a sinus infection. Proceed very carefully if you have disc disease. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this pose for your, consult your health care professional.

The Totally Invisible Relaxation

There may be times when you need to practice restorative yoga poses but your situation does not permit it. Perhaps you are involved in a long business meeting or immersed in family responsibilities. With the Totally Invisible Relaxation, you can actually relax, just where you are, sitting or standing. The first step is to realize that you need to relax. If you have been practicing the restorative poses, you may find it easy to drop down into relaxation. If not, try it anyway. Your skills will improve with practice.

Bring your attention to the position of your body, especially your spine. Sit or stand with the spine long. Avoid rounding your lower back if you are sitting, or slumping if you are standing. Ideally there should be a gentle concave arch at your back waist.

Once you have positioned yourself with a long, gently curving spine, make sure that your head and neck are in line with the spine. Feel as if you are being gently lifted up by the crown of your head. Close your eyes, if your situation permits, or soften your gaze and look downward.

Gently bring your awareness to your breathing. Take several long and quiet breaths. If your breath seems stuck anywhere, it is likely that you have lost the lift of the spine. When the spine is lifted, your diaphragm can function at maximum efficiency and your breathing will feel easy.

As you exhale, let your shoulders drop away from your ears and your arms feel long and fluid. Let the hands and arms rest in your lap or on a table, or hang easily from the shoulders. Soften the abdomen and notice how it moves with your breathing. Release any tension around the eyes or in the jaw muscles. If sitting, your thighs are supported by the chair. If standing, keep your feet rooted to the floor, but don’t overwork your legs.

Rest in the present moment. As you inhale and exhale, be who and where you are. Do not attempt to separate yourself from what is happening around you. Rather, be with what is, equally aware of your internal sensations as well as the external world. Notice the sounds in the room and the sounds outside the room. Feel the weight and texture of your clothes on your body. What is around you and in you is part of this perfect moment. Weave it into your relaxation.

When you have finished, take several more long, slow, silent breaths. Slowly open your eyes and allow your vision to come into focus. Return to the task at hand refreshed, optimistic and present. The Totally Invisible Relaxation will enhance your ability to work, to create, to interact with people and situations more skillfully.

Caution: If you have low blood pressure, do not practice the standing variation for more than 2 minutes.

Gentle Reminders To Relax

My prescription for reducing stress in your life: decide here and now that you are your own first priority. We each have the same twenty-four hours in a day and can make choices about how to live them. There are many simple, low- or no-cost things that you can do to reduce stress and I have a few suggestions. They are all intended to help you slow down, take care of yourself, and relax and renew. Your reward will be twofold: you’ll feel good in the moment and for the next few days.

Choose something you feel you can actually do over the next several days. Write your choice on a note and stick it on a mirror, the refrigerator, the dashboard of your car, or in another place where you will be sure to see it. For example, “I will drive within the speed limit.” You may want to post a reminder in more than one place. After several days, take some time to reflect on what you have noticed since you began this practice. You may decide to continue with it as it is, or to modify it, or to move on to a new topic. Use the suggestions here, or make some of your own.

  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Drive within the speed limit.
  • Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”
  • In a stressful situation, ask yourself this question, “What is the most important thing right now?”
  • Position the interior rearview mirror in your car so you have to stretch a little to look in it. This will remind you to lengthen your spine and not collapse when driving. Write on your posted note: “Breathe.”
  • When you feel yourself pushing to complete a self-imposed task, ask yourself this question, “Will this matter in a year?”
  • Take several long, slow breaths at every stop light.
  • Notice how often you say “Hurry up!” to yourself or someone else, especially a child.
  • Drive in the slow lane; avoid the fast lane, especially if you are in a hurry.
  • Remember, the only people who are finished with everything are dead.

Adapted from Relax and Renew by Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D. (Rodmell Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011). Reprinted with permission of Rodmell Press, publisher of books on Yoga, Buddhism, Taoism and Aikido.

A yoga teacher since 1971, Judith Hanson Lasater holds a bachelor of science degree in physical therapy and doctorate in East-West psychology. She is the president of the California Yoga Teachers Association and author of several books about yoga.

1. Dean Ornish, M.D., Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (New York: Random House, 1990).
2. Roger Cole, personal communication with author, August 3, 1994.