4 Steps to Down-Regulate the Nervous System with Restorative Yoga

Restorative Savasana with a bolster to support the legs

The relaxation response is a magical moment in the body’s nervous system when we make the switch from our sympathetic response to a parasympathetic one.

While that doesn’t sound like much, the implications of this can be truly profound and far-reaching through our bodies and our minds.

The Basic Anatomy of the Nervous System

Anatomy Illustration- The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our “fight-or-flight” response. Among other things, it is responsible for keeping us safe in dangerous situations. During the sympathetic response, our heart rates accelerate, pupils dilate so we can see better, and blood rushes toward our skeletal muscles so that we have the ability to either fight for our lives or run for our lives and so much more.

Contrarily, the parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our “rest-and-digest” response. This side of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating activities such as digestion, restorative relaxation, sexual functioning, and more. This side of the nervous system is often analogous to the brakes on a car because it helps to slow down everything that the sympathetic nervous system revs up.

Both the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are crucial for our survival and daily functioning. One is not “better” than the other. They simply serve different purposes in the complex web of systems that make up the human body.

But in our modern go-go-go world, most people have a tendency to be sympathetic-dominant and lose the ability to effectively transition between these different branches of the autonomic nervous system.

This is where Restorative Yoga can help immensely because it can help to initiate what is known as the relaxation response.

What Is the Relaxation Response?

Meditattion and what happens to the relaxation response and yoga restorative practices.

The relaxation response is a term that was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1980s. Dr. Benson was a cardiologist who was one of the first medical doctors to recognize a clear link between body and mind.

Dr. Benson studied Transcendental meditators who believed that they could slow their heart rates by sheer mind power through their practice of meditation. Originally, he didn’t believe this was possible. But when he dove into the research, he was shocked by what he found.

Not only could these meditators consciously slow their heart rates, but they could intentionally shift their bodies into a parasympathetic state. This was groundbreaking research at the time.

Dr. Benson eventually credited what happened physiologically in their bodies to what he called the relaxation response, which is an autonomic physiological reaction that can be elicited in the body through mental practice. This response can counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system and move the body into a parasympathetic state.

How to Initiate the Relaxation Response: 4 Steps to Deep Relaxation

Dr. Benson laid out four basic components that are necessary to elicit the relaxation response.

1. A Quiet, Restorative Environment

To start, you need to find a quiet, comfortable space where you feel safe. So that might mean your bed or the corner where you practice yoga in your house or yoga studio.

2. A Mental Device

You need to focus your mind on one unchanging thing—a drishti or dharana of sorts. For many, this might be a mantra or a visualization, or a breathing technique. It can really be anything that allows you to hone in on one thing and release excess thoughts.

3. A Passive Attitude

Just as in any meditation practice, having a passive attitude is crucial. If you focus too strongly on your end goal, then it will likely never come. If, instead, you allow what arises to arise without judgment or resistance, then your body and mind can soften to allow and accept what is.

4. A Comfortable Position

In order to effectively elicit the relaxation response, your body needs to be comfortable and relaxed. If you’re holding excessive tension in any muscles, then your nervous system will likely stay on “edge.” So, you need to find a truly comfortable shape for your body to relax into.

How Does Restorative Yoga Help to Initiate the Relaxation Response?

The four steps needed to initiate the relaxation response perfectly align with the Restorative Yoga practice. This makes Restorative Yoga a wonderful way to surrender to the relaxation response.

Ideally, you’ll be in a quiet, safe environment whenever you practice Restorative Yoga.

You may not consciously recognize it, but you likely always have a mental device in your Restorative Yoga practice. Perhaps there is a clear focus on the breath, and you unconsciously deepen and follow its rhythm. Perhaps you use a mantra like om to focus your mind. Or perhaps you visualize yourself melting into the props beneath you. Whatever you choose to focus on in your practice undoubtedly helps to initiate the relaxation response.

Also, Restorative Yoga is all about acceptance and passivity. The body is placed in specific ways to be receptive to the downward force of gravity. You use lots of props to support your positioning so you can become physically passive. And all of this passivity inevitably makes its way into your mind as well. The more you can surrender to what is, the more likely you are to initiate the relaxation response in your practice.

Finally, Restorative Yoga is all about finding comfortable positions. Whether you’re lying on your back in a supported savasana or relaxing over a bolster in a prone twist, all Restorative Yoga postures are designed to be comfortable and relaxing. It’s the perfect way to surrender to the relaxation response.

Restorative Yoga—The Ultimate Rest-and-Digest Practice

Restorative Yoga Twist ilicits the relaxation response with support of props.

Restorative Yoga perfectly sets up your body and your mind to elicit the relaxation response in your practice and move you into a parasympathetic state.

It’s a beautiful practice that helps you unwind, destress, and let go, so it is one of the best practices for initiating the highly coveted relaxation response.

The next time you find yourself stressed out and wound up, try to initiate the relaxation response through a Restorative Yoga practice. Your body and mind will very likely thank you for it.

Restorative version of Savasana with support head and legs for relaxation


Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice. She 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.

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