In an Iyengar Yoga class, the last week of the month is typically a restorative practice. I find it interesting that more so than any other week (standing pose, forward bends, or back bends) restorative week garners the strongest response from the students. And while the response is generally strong, it’s by no means predictable. In fact, it’s often extremely varied. I have students who absolutely love restorative week and students who (conveniently?) never show up. What is it about the restorative practice that garners such extreme responses?

This fantastic photo of BKS Iyengar in a weighted Savasana is one of the production stills from a movie currently in development - Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar Yoga.

This fantastic photo of BKS Iyengar in a weighted Savasana is one of the production stills from a movie currently in development – Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar.

But First, a Confession…

When I started practicing yoga, I did not enjoy restorative week. It was a struggle. I struggled settling into the asanas. My back was often bothered by the positions. This caused me pain and was a major distraction from turning my focus inward. Also, my mind was all over the place. Somehow, focusing only on my breath was more challenging than a class full of standing poses. Despite this, I did the practice anyway. Because I was receiving so much benefit from yoga in general, I inherently trusted the practice. I believed that the restorative practice had much to offer and felt that I needed to endure my discomfort in an effort to reap the benefits. In the early days, this served me well. Despite being challenging and somewhat agitating, I learned. I had glimpses of what the practice was really supposed to be about and these glimpses served to motivate me to practice further.

Interestingly though, as I made clear progress in my asana practice, my restorative practice remained a struggle. It came to the point where a restorative practice would make me physically and mentally unwell. Obviously, that is not okay. It’s not Yoga. So, I met with my Senior Teacher (Marlene Mawhinney from Yoga Centre Toronto) and we discussed the issues I was having.

Marlene explained that as you do more and more yoga, often, you become more sensitive. I remember thinking that it was a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand you are becoming more conscious, but on the other hand it’s that same consciousness that makes you sensitive to aches, pains, or disturbances that otherwise you may not have noticed. This seemed to encapsulate what was happening for me during these restorative practices and I needed to address it.

A very supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana with weight on thighs.

A very supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana with weight on thighs.

She suggested I modify my restorative practice to consist of supported backbends and supported inversions. The first time I did this modified practice, I was amazed. Using the backbender, I stayed in a supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana for 10 minutes. I had never been able to endure that pose for so long. In fact, I don’t think I had been able to stay in any pose for that long. I had never had the experience of being able to let go, in a pose, for an extended amount of time. With the support, I was able to do so and as a result I experienced the asanas in an entirely new way. The impact of this practice on my nervous system was profound. I experienced a restorative practice like never before.

What *is* a Restorative Practice?

Even before discussing my restorative practice with my teacher, I knew that the typical restorative poses would not ‘still the fluctuations of my mind’. In class I would do as I was told, but at home I practiced differently. If I needed to steady myself, I’d do Sirsasana. When I needed to calm myself, I’d do Ardha Halasana. I wouldn’t say I had a full restorative practice, but I definitely had ways of restoring myself with a practice. That practice though, didn’t involve the typical supine poses you might expect. This brings me to my point…what does restorative yoga mean? Isn’t all yoga meant to restore? Granted, all poses are not restorative at all times, but if you are in tune with your body, mind and practice, surely you will find ways to restore. In my opinion, the key is being receptive enough to understand the impact of the asanas.

In Spite of Myself, I Learned…

Despite the ups and downs I’ve had with my restorative practice in the early days and more recently with my pranayama practice, I’m learning some very important lessons:

  1. Just like an active practice, restorative practice is a practice. While it may not come easily at first, with dedicated practice the mind can be trained to focus and the body can be trained to surrender.
  2. Whether I struggle or adore a particular practice, it’s always fruitful to explore the why — What is the nature of my personality? How might this practice be pacifying or agitating that nature? Am I engaging with the practice in a healthy, honest, and meaningful way?
  3. Restorative practice is not an isolated practice. All aspects of my practice will improve if I understand this. How can I take the quality of mind and breath from my restorative practice and bring it to the poses I struggle with in an active practice? Similarly, how can I bring that element of vibrancy that comes more easily for me in the active poses to my restorative practice?
  4. What is restorative for one, may not be restorative for others. This was certainly my experience and thankfully, I had access to a Senior Teacher who could provide me with guidance. I learned that at this stage of my practice, I must trust myself. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. (I also learned that being in a position to take those types of questions and concerns to a teacher who knows more than I do is a precious gift!)

If you’ve made it to this point of this long winded post (!), I thank-you for indulging me 🙂 I leave you with the same question I posed at the beginning – what is it about the restorative practice that garners such extreme responses? What does ‘restorative yoga’ mean to you?