During a deep stay of relaxation, restorative poses can be very powerful. They are a big part of my practice. These poses accelerate muscle recovery cycles, help to regulate your sleep, and are a great gateway to meditation.
After ground poses, your body is relaxed, and your mind calmed. At this stage, I like to include some Restorative poses to the practice to take advantage of the deep relaxing state. However, I love to do Restorative poses out of my regular practice too. If my day was filled with physical activities like hiking, rock climbing or just walking around the city, I like to close the day with some of these poses. They usually help me get a good sleep and encourage a quick recovery of my muscles.
Restorative vs. Yin Poses
A Restorative pose is the one where you hold a gentle posture for several minutes while supporting areas of your body with different props such as blocks, bolsters, straps, blankets, a chair or a wall. Yin poses also require you to hold the pose for several minutes, but they usually include little or no props assistance. The last ones need some contraction of several muscles to sustain the pose, and I believe both types of poses are beneficial. Usually, I do Yin poses when props are not available or when I don't have enough time to set props adequately.
The physical benefits of restorative poses come after you have moved away from the pose. While in position, the targeted muscles are fully stretched and relaxed. At this point, there is little blood circulation in the area. When you come out of the pose, the muscle goes back to its normal shape, creating a change in local blood pressure, stimulating circulation to deep vessels in tendons and ligaments. Because the muscle is relaxed, it offers even less resistance to blood flow.
I will use the image of a sponge in a bucket as an illustrative example. When you squeeze the sponge, the liquid moves out of it into the bucket. Similarly, when you stretch the muscle, the blood is pushed out of it, carrying with it carbon dioxide and waste product from metabolic processes. When you let go of the sponge, it absorbs back the fluid from the bucket. Likewise, when the muscle contracts back to its normal resting position, blood is absorbed, carrying oxygen and synthesized nutrients required by local cells to self-repair, to multiply or for fuel storage.
We can categorize Restorative poses in Forward bends, Back Bends and Twist. These poses are similar to Seated and Ground poses, but they are incredibly soft as duration has main priority over intensity. As a general rule, if the pose feels uncomfortable after 30 seconds, adjust the position of your props. You should feel entirely comfortable at all times.
Restorative and meditation
Restorative poses can be considered as a gateway to meditation. The two most common challenges when you meditate are pain or discomfort from sitting and lack of mental focus. Restorative poses are painless, but not comfortable enough to allow you to fall asleep. This setting encourages mental calmness that is necessary to focus your mind.
If you are already interested in meditation, you will find out that yoga will help you. I like to combine my meditation with my yoga practice. Most times, I do it after seated poses, but depending on how I feel, I can move it earlier or later in practice. Follow your gut feeling, if your hip muscles are warmed and flexible, and if your mind is calmed and focused, you are ready to sit still.
There is a massive amount of evidence showing the many benefits of meditation. It is used as a complementary treatment for depression and anxiety. It helps to improve digestion, cardiovascular and immune system performance. It enhances decision-making processes and sleeps. I want to point out a few other gains I found in my meditation practice that applies to simple daily activities:
I perform a task with little questioning of my abilities
On a group performance, I become more empathic, and self-criticism disappears
I enjoy tasks more because the experience is rewarding on its own, rather than the results
I feel in control of a situation, feeling that destiny and freewill merge
I concentrate on a task, managing fewer pieces of information and finding a sense of timelessness
Similar benefits can be found on activities that induce a flow state. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
describing a mental state of concentration and complete absorption on the task. Common examples of such activities are sports, games, painting or playing a musical instrument. During such activities, as when meditating, the Default Mode Network (DMN) level of activity decreases significantly. DMN is a group of brain regions responsible for functions like self-reflection, forecasting, memory recollection and more. It becomes active when we are neither sleeping nor performing a task. A state of mind some people call wandering or daydreaming. These areas of the brain are also linked to anxiety and depression behaviors.
Similarly, during the yoga flow and the standing poses stages of the practice, the DMN levels of activity diminish. I find it easier to develop a meditative state during the end of the practice when I already have earlier experienced a flow state. That is why it is important to leverage on different stages of the practice to achieve overall results. A routine practice will lead you to balance the time you will need to spend on each section of the practice.
By the end of the restorative poses, you would have entirely stimulated your body and your mind. You would have contracted, relaxed, and stretched all your muscles. You would have increased and decreased oxygen intake and heartbeat rate to max and min. You would have stimulated your autonomic nervous system to calm your mind and create a mental focus. Now you are ready for the last pose: Savasana.