9th August 2023
In this extract from a recent Yoga Space members’ discussion, Iyengar yoga teachers Gerda Bayliss (Leeds), Helen Clay (Sheffield), and Alaric Newcombe (London) talk about what restorative yoga means to them, and offer insights into practice.
Yoga Space is a regular Iyengar Yoga (UK) members’ meet-up on Zoom where we share yoga ideas and information.
This event was hosted by Joan Abrams.
Do you want to attend live Yoga Space sessions? Join as a member here to be invited.
What is the definition of restorative yoga?
AN: In Iyengar yoga, we have certain postures and sequences which are recognised as recuperative or restorative: chair shoulderstand; chair back arch, head supported; rope Śīrṣāsana… There are clearly postures which can be used restoratively. In an active class you could include one restorative posture. If the teacher feels they’ve got a whole group of really stressed out people, you might want to teach them how to manage that.
Self-care is more of an issue since Covid. Does anybody feel it’s hard to make enough time for self-care?
AN: The restorative sequences, ideally, are learnt when you’re fit and well. You might have seen the emotional stability sequence which is tremendously restorative. That’s a difficult sequence – Intermediate and above. You don’t want to be ill or emotonally upset when you’re starting to practise it. Self-care begins when you don’t need self-care! Also, if you’re teaching beginners, that means you’re doing a lot of standing postures yourself in your teaching, so it’s really important that in your practice you do a lot of inversions, otherwise you’re just doing lots of standing which stimulates the ‘fight or flight’ active nervous system, whereas the inversions stimulate the relaxation nervous system.
GB: There’s a quote from Mr Iyengar along the lines of “if you practise, it will give you time”.
If you make that opportunity to practise, even just to put yourself on the mat for five or ten minutes, that may lead to more and it will give you more time.
HC: We’re constantly bombarded with stimulaton and things to do and if yoga’s about connecton and connectng the mind, body, breath and connecting to a larger sense of self, then we need to have time for that. What is our yoga for and what is self-care about? Is it just about me, or is it about connecting with something bigger than ourselves – whatever that might be? Your sense of time expands, your sense of self expands, you have a bigger connection and take that then into the world.
AN: The beginning of restorative practice is really important. It needs to be something that you know how you’re going to start, and the easiest way is dog pose head on a bolster. And then Utānāsana head on a bolster or on a chair. Getng the head down is going to start introverting attention and energy, and time changes then, and also your relationship to the world changes – it’s literally a different relationship. Just because it’s called restorative or recuperative, just because you’re lying down, doesn’t mean it’s easy – it’s not. It’s a tremendous journey.
HC: Some people do find it easy, but some people really don’t – it can trigger panic in some people, they can’t tolerate it, so you’ve got to work out how you might respond to that. I can think of one student who really wanted to do them but she couldn’t tolerate them, so we got her doing really active poses first. There are things that can and need to be done to deal with that kind of panic or trauma that can come up.
AN: The definiton of these two words ‘recuperative’ and ‘restorative’ has come up. Sometimes we’re really ill, so you just have to get yourself as best you can into a recuperative posture and hope it does its work. It’s also really important that we do these practices in an energetic, contacted way as part of the pratyahara, dhāraṇā, dhyāna practice. So there’s a huge range of needs we’re addressing.
Image credit: Alaric Newcombe
What is the diference between restorative sequences and Prāņāyāma?
GB: Prāņāyāma is more than the breath, whereas in a restorative pose I’ll look at how to place my body in a position and stay in it. Restorative poses are more about placing the body and using the equipment to get a good shape for the body, and Prāņāyāma is more when we start to bring the breath and the focus of the breath into the practice.
AN: One of the key aspects of recuperative and restorative yoga postures is the positon of the diaphragm, the neck and the head, which are always given a lot of care and attention, and that’s crucial in Prāņāyāma. One is learning how to do Prāņāyāma during recuperative and restorative practice, although you might not be doing Prāņāyāma. One of the things I’ve seen happening in Iyengar yoga is that sometmes a class is called a Prāņāyāma class and then the teacher teaches a restorative sequence. The students are indirectly learning how to do Prāņāyāma but they’re not being taught how to do Prāņāyāma. As teachers, Prāņāyāma is part of Iyengar yoga and we need to make an efort to teach it.
HC: We need to have space to teach Prāņāyāma and these practices are linked. A restorative/ recuperative practice would be a much more passive approach to the body’s opening from the inside out – so the posture is doing you. Prāņāyāma takes a lot of concentraton and a lot of it is very demanding. It would be unsuitable for people with fatigue problems – you wouldn’t go here with them.
NICE [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] have recently recognised that what they had recommended for ME-graded exercise (GET) is absolutely the wrong thing. They’ve changed that very recently, under pressure from ME groups saying that graded exercise actually makes it worse. For some people you have to work passively because, although they might feel great at the tme and enjoy it, they would be wiped out for two weeks.
AN: The body does Prāņāyāma. There’s Ujjayi 5, which is observing your normal breathing, observing your body breathing, so we can defnitely do this in recuperative and restorative practice. We can introduce the most important Prāņāyāma, which is feeling your body breathing, feeling the air moving. And in Śavāsana too, at the end of every class, we can really make this part of Iyengar yoga in the UK.
Are restorative and recuperative the same?
AN: Positoning the body in certain ways and supporting it is healing for the body. I’d say that this is important in all three things, recuperative, restorative, relaxation. You’ll see people who have not been taught how to lie down in Śavāsana. They might say they’ve relaxed but the lungs have been compressed and they might be slightly crooked, so it’s not so restoratve or recuperatve. The positoning of the body needs to be there – there’s always the shape in Iyengar yoga.
GB: Is restorative yoga relaxing? Hopefully, we’d move towards that relaxing state. When I was recently putng on a restorative class, I was wondering how to describe it – as a ‘relaxing’ yoga class? Maybe someone wouldn’t find it relaxing, because it can be quite challenging.
Attendees at IY(UK)’s 2022 convention
What are your most useful poses?
AN: Sukhāsana – I spend a long time in it practising Prāņāyāma and it’s the most wonderful thing. I was doing a standard recuperative sequence taking over two hours when my second child was born. That’s all I did for two years. Afer that I went to Pune and worried thinking I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I was fine. Practising restorative sequences doesn’t debilitate you. There’s tremendous vigour, actually.
GB: One of the poses I’ve been doing quite a lot is Vīparita Daņḍāsana with my feet up in Vīparita Karaņi, to bring a sense of quietness. I find the sequence for emotional stability from Light on Life really supportive and helpful. Basic poses like Adho Mukha Vīrāsana supported, Vīparita Karaņi feet up the wall, done by themselves for ten minutes, I’ve found helpful to just quieten myself down and restore myself.
HC: I find Supta Baddha Koņāsana and experimentng with different props and heights with Vīparita Karaņi always really good. One of our teachers in Sheffield had serious problems and did only restorative for a really long time. When he came to doing other āsanas, he was amazed that he could do them well – he thought he’d lost them all. These restorative poses work in magical ways.
AN: Prāņāyāma practice is restorative. The main teaching I’m doing is Prāņāyāma for that very reason. It completely relies on what we’ve all been saying about how the posture is so crucial. It’s really helpful if every part of the body is really well-positoned.
Lois Steinberg – L shapes: htps://www.loissteinberg.com/l-shapes
Article by Alaric Newcombe, including Guruji’s emotonal stability sequence: htps://iymv.org/alaric-newcombe-on-bks-iyengars-asanas-for-emotonal-stability/
Covid-19 Recovery programme: htps://iyengaryoga.org.uk/covid-19-recovery-a-suggested-yoga-programme/
This article appeared in Issue 40 of Iyengar yoga News, our members’ magazine.