Learn the guiding principles that will help you provide a fully relaxing restorative yoga experience for your students.
Students come to a restorative yoga class to let go of the stresses of everyday life—including the need to do things right and the constant pressure to improve or to achieve. The teacher who understands that motivation can provide a yoga practice that goes well beyond a few relaxing stretches and gives students permission to truly let go.
The guiding principle of restorative yoga is that support creates release. Every pose is a variation on that theme, and the aim of each pose is the same: relaxation. The most obvious feature of a restorative yoga class is the array of props: blankets, bolsters and blocks support the body to release muscular tension. Equally important, though less obvious, is the teacher’s skill in creating an atmosphere that encourages students to let go of mental stress. This article describes a short restorative yoga sequence that can maximize the benefits of physical relaxation (see page 96) and offers teaching guidelines for making the practice a full body-mind experience.
Keep the following factors in mind when designing and leading a restorative yoga class.
Teaching restorative yoga requires a different mindset than teaching other styles of yoga. The restorative yoga teacher sheds the role of instructor and authority, instead adopting the role of guide and caregiver. To prepare yourself to serve in this capacity, center yourself before each class. Take time to practice meditation, breathing or gentle stretching before you teach. Letting go of your own stress will allow you to hold the space for students to let go of theirs.
Restorative yoga uses a wide range of props to support the body. When the body is fully supported in a pose, students can relax into the shape of the pose without exerting any physical effort to stay there. They can therefore “receive” rather than “do” the pose.
Restorative yoga props serve two basic support roles: they can “prop up” (support the shape of a pose from below), or they can “anchor” (stabilize the shape of a pose, preventing both effort and movement). Bolsters, blankets and blocks can be arranged in many shapes and heights to support from below, as shown in supported bridge pose and reclining bound angle pose (see page 96). The primary anchoring props are straps and sandbags. For example, straps can support the legs in bridge and bound angle, allowing students to let go of the effort to hold the legs in place. Sandbags can be placed on top of the body, as shown in bound angle and in gentle inversion (see page 96). In both these cases, the weight of the sandbags creates a sense of being held in the pose, much like when a yoga teacher applies a hands-on adjustment in an active yoga class.
In other styles of yoga, students are encouraged to find the edge of their flexibility in a stretch. Stretching to the point of resistance creates tension; in restorative yoga, the aim is muscular release, which happens before one becomes aware of the sensation of stretch. For this reason, you need to help students support the body in a shape that is comfortable and sensation-neutral—not in a deep stretch. This can be surprising to students who, in other yoga classes, are told that props are only for individuals who “can’t do the full pose.” Some students may even ask to leave out props because they feel they can go farther into poses without them. If students ask, “Where should I be feeling this pose?” or are confused because they aren’t “feeling anything,” try using phrases like “floating on a cloud” or “a deep sense of ease” to communicate that keeping sensations neutral is the intention in this type of practice.
For restorative yoga, you need to adapt your usual correcting and adjustment skills to provide a different kind of personalized attention. Instead of instructing students on how to improve their form, focus on helping them figure out how to adapt a pose to their own needs. If you have trained your eye to look for what is “wrong” in a student’s pose, retrain your eye to look for signs of effort or discomfort. It’s a good clue that effort is needed to stay in a pose when some part of the body remains unsupported (for example, arms or knees don’t fully rest on the floor and could use the support of a small folded blanket). The biggest sign of discomfort is a student fidgeting or adjusting props.
There are no rules for how to use props, as long as they serve the function of support. Be creative in finding ways to support each student’s unique body. Any hands-on touch should be gentle, rather than corrective, and extra props should be given as suggestions, rather than commands.
In a restorative yoga class, poses are typically held for several minutes, and it is quite natural to have long stretches of silence as students relax into a supported pose. A restorative yoga practice is like an internal retreat, and silence facilitates the process of relaxation. However, inexperienced teachers can get nervous leaving students in poses for 5 minutes with no continuing instruction or ongoing commentary. If you are new to teaching this kind of class, you may wonder if participants are bored, and you may feel the urge to “fill up” the empty space. Keep in mind that students are having a very different experience than you are, as the teacher. Attend other restorative yoga classes as a student to appreciate how lengthy silences can comfortably fit into a class structure.
That said, if your students seem uncomfortable with long periods of silence, there are many options for “filling the space” that honor the intention of a restorative yoga practice. Give participants a focus that prevents them from carrying on with mental list-making, worrying or daydreaming. The simplest option is to guide students through breath awareness, inviting them to notice each inhalation and each exhalation. You might also consider reading a poem, quote or passage from a favorite text. A guided meditation or visualization can provide an active mental task that enhances relaxation.
Give your restorative yoga class an early cue when the end of a pose is near. Some teachers use a chime or other special sound, but the cue can be as simple as saying, “Five more breaths in this pose.” If you teach in a room that has a dimmer switch for the lights, you can brighten the room slightly to indicate transitions. Provide students specific verbal instructions on how to mindfully move props and find their way out of poses. Careful guidance can prevent the chaos of props being abandoned: the clunking of sandbags falling off as students shift weight; confusion over exactly how to roll off a stack of bolsters; or entanglement as a student gets trapped in a clasped strap. Allow practitioners to come out of each pose at their own pace, and offer a simple recovery pose, such as child’s pose or a reclining pose, for them to move into next.
Most restorative yoga poses are gentle enough to stand alone or be practiced comfortably in almost any order. A restorative yoga sequence should focus instead on maintaining a relaxing atmosphere. A common complaint from students is that the setup for some poses is so elaborate that it interrupts the flow of the practice. As you build a sequence, include some poses, like the supported child’s pose (see page 96), that require minimal setup. As the class progresses, students will be able to relax more deeply in each new pose. Build toward progressively longer holds (up to 10 minutes in a pose), and allow more silence in the final poses of a sequence.
Props are an important part of restorative yoga, but they are not always available. You can create a restorative experience without props by focusing on the principles of support, self-care, mindfulness and ease. Relaxation pose can be the foundation of the practice, repeated between simple reclining poses and other gentle movements. The gentle inversion that is part of the illustrated sequence (see page 96) can be practiced in most settings, and chairs can provide support for a number of other poses.
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