woman practicing restorative yoga, reclined modification with bolster

Restorative Yoga: A 75-Minute Sequence to Soothe the Nervous System and Initiate the Relaxation Response

By: 
Leah Sugerman, E-RYT 500, YACEP

Restorative yoga is magical. It’s a simple practice of self-care that stimulates the relaxation response within the brain and the body. 

 

The relaxation response activates the parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest-and-digest” functions of the body—the exact opposite of the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. As the name implies, the relaxation response triggers the release of the soothing, calming, and relaxing hormone acetylcholine to slow the heart rate and the breath to restore, relax, and rejuvenate. 

Because the parasympathetic nervous system is used to create relaxation in the body, the reverse is also true. Relaxing the body can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating even more profound relaxation effects. 

The following sequence is intended to do just that: calm and relax the body and mind to initiate the relaxation response and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. 

A 75-Minute Restorative Yoga Sequence to Initiate the Relaxation Response:

Grab your yoga mat, a strap (or belt), and a bolster (or firm pillow or couch cushion) and get ready to let your body surrender and melt into relaxation.

Seated Meditation (5 minutes)      Seated Meditation, Chair Yoga, Restorative yoga, beginner's yoga, yoga for restoration and relaxation

  1. Begin in any comfortable seated position with one of the short edges of your mat against a wall. 

  2. You can sit cross-legged on the floor, on a blanket or bolster, or in a chair. Simply find a place where you can soften your body and bring your awareness to your mind. 

  3. Close your eyes and start to focus on your breath. Deepen its rhythm and find a slow, steady pace. 

  4. Take a full breath in and a full breath out. With each complete breath cycle, silently repeat to yourself “one.”

  5. Do not count your breaths. Continuously repeat “one” to yourself after every full breath.

  6. Stay, focusing on your breath like this for five minutes.

  7. Maintain this simple pattern and the mantra “one” throughout the 

 

Bound Baddha Konasana (Captured Butterfly Pose) (10 minutes)       Baddha Konasana, bound baddha konasana, butterfly pose, gentle yoga, beginner's yoga, yoga for relaxation and restoration

  1. Once you’ve created a space of relaxation within, slowly flutter open your eyes.

  2. Place your bolster lengthwise behind you so that it is parallel to the long edge of your mat. Let it touch your tailbone.

  3. Make a wide loop in your strap and hold the loop with the “tail” of your strap facing toward you for easy adjustments. Place the loop over your head and let it land around your pelvis.

  4. Draw the soles of your feet to touch and open your knees out wide toward the sides of your mat. You may wish to place blocks or blankets or pillows underneath your knees for added support.

  5. Take the same loop of your strap and swing it around your feet. 

  6. Tighten your strap until it’s taut and holds you in this shape. 

  7. Lie back lengthwise over your bolster and place your arms in any position of comfort. They can relax down by your sides, open out into a T-shape, or reach up over your head. You may want to place a folded blanket under your head and neck, especially if you find that your head is tilting back.

  8. Completely surrender muscular control and allow your body to be fully supported by your props.

  9. Close your eyes. Return to your breath and continuously repeat the word “one” silently to yourself after each full breath cycle.

  10. After 10 minutes, move your arms so that they’re next to your sides, if they’re not already there. Gently press into your forearms to slowly lift yourself back up to a seat. 

  11. Lean forward slightly to release the strap from around you. Stretch your legs forward in front of you and softly bend one knee at a time. 

 

Mermaid Pose (10 minutes on each side)       Mermaid Pose, gentle twist, supported twist, twist with bolster, beginner's yoga, yoga for restoration and relaxtion

  1. Keep your bolster as it is and move your strap to the side (but keep the loop in it). 

  2. From a sitting position, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, roughly hips-distance apart. 

  3. Gently release both knees toward the right and turn your torso toward the right as well. 

  4. Slowly lower the front of your trunk onto your bolster. You have the option to rest on top of your right shoulder or to deepen the twist by releasing your right arm over the opposite side of your bolster.

  5. Turn your head in any direction that feels comfortable for your neck and relax your arms into any position of comfort. You may wish to create a pillow with your hands to rest your head on.

  6. Close your eyes. Return to your breath and continuously repeat the word “one” silently to yourself after each full breath cycle.

  7. After 10 minutes, slowly and mindfully press yourself back up to a sitting position and repeat the same actions on the other side. Hold for 10 minutes as well.

  8. After practicing both sides equally, return to sitting. Move your bolster to the side and take your looped strap again. Turn to face toward the wall if you aren’t already facing it.

 

Constructive Rest Pose (15 minutes)       Constructive Rest Pose, Supine pose, relaxation pose, beginner's yoga, yoga for restoration

  1. Loop your legs through your strap and slide it up to your thighs (just above your knees).

  2. Place your feet flat on the floor, roughly as wide as your mat.

  3. Tighten your strap until it is taut and will hold your legs in place exactly as they are even when you release muscular control. 

  4. Once you have your legs set up, slowly lower down onto your back.

  5. Give yourself a hug by crossing your right arm underneath your left. Soften your shoulders and turn your palms to face toward the outer edges of your mat (so that you are not gripping anything but can completely soften and release your muscles).

  6. Close your eyes. Return to your breath and continuously repeat the word “one” silently to yourself after each full breath cycle.

  7. After about seven and a half minutes, switch the cross of your arms.

  8. After spending 15 minutes in the shape, slowly unwind your arms. Draw your knees toward your chest and slide the strap off your legs.

 

Inverted Action Pose (15 minutes)       Inverted Action Pose, legs up the wall pose, gentle inversion, beginner''s yoga, yoga for restoration and relaxation

  1. Slide your body toward the wall and walk your feet up it. 

  2. You can choose to keep your body farther away from the wall or scoot your seat closer toward it until your tailbone touches the wall.

  3. Soften your legs and release your arms wherever feels comfortable.

  4. If you’d like, you can slide your bolster crosswise underneath your seat for extra comfort. If you do this, make sure that your abdomen, the oval from the bottom tip of your sternum to the top of your pubic bones, is horizontal, and your low to mid-back is completely supported by the bolster. You may need to slide your buttocks slightly off the bolster, toward the wall, to accomplish this. If you feel your torso collapsing down into your shoulders, move your buttocks closer to the wall.

  5. Close your eyes. Return to your breath and continuously repeat the word “one” silently to yourself after each full breath cycle.

  6. After 15 minutes, slowly bend your knees and press your feet into the wall to slide your body away from it until you’re lying flat on your mat.

 

Supported Savasana (10 minutes)        Supported Savasana, supported corpse pose, beginner's yoga, yoga with props, yoga for restoration and relaxation

  1. Place your bolster underneath your knees. You may want to add a rolled-up blanket under your ankles as well so that the entire lower legs are supported.

  2. Relax your arms by your sides. You may wish to turn your palms up toward the sky as a symbol of surrender.

  3. Fully soften the weight of your body into the floor. Relax the muscles of your face.

  4. Close your eyes. Return to your breath and continuously repeat the word “one” silently to yourself after each full breath cycle.

  5. Stay for at least 10 minutes.

Restorative Yoga and the Relaxation Response: A Match Made in Heaven

Restorative yoga is a powerfully soothing and rejuvenating practice. The relaxation response powerfully soothes and rejuvenates your body. The two together create what is quite possibly the most perfect match. 

Practicing this restorative yoga sequence will not only initiate the relaxation response within you but will also reset your body and your mind so that you’ll be able to take on whatever comes your way next. 

Happy relaxing!

 

Study with YogaUOnline and Christine Wushke - Fascia Awareness in Yoga & Movement: Keys to Enhancing Soft Tissue Resilience and Releasing Chronic Tension.

Christine Wushke, YogaU presenter, Yoga and Fascia

Interested in more anatomy and yoga practice tips? Read Leah Sugerman's article Yoga Anatomy 101: Stop Relaxing Your Glutes in Backbends. 

Leah Sugerman

Leah Sugerman, E-RYT 500, YACEP, is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice and teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on breath, alignment, and anatomical integrity. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings, both internationally and online. For more information, visit www.leahsugerman.com.

 

 

Resources:

  1. https://www.massgeneral.org/News/pressrelease.aspx?id=2238 

  2. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/10/relaxation.aspx 

  3. http://www.wisebrain.org/ParasympatheticNS.pdf 

  4. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/sportsmedicine/resources/heart_rate_description.html

  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/parasympathetic-nervous-system

  6. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/using-the-relaxation-response-to-reduce-stress-20101110780 

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