For some, restorative yoga is heaven; but for others, being left alone with your thoughts in a still body is really challenging. Restorative yoga uses yoga props (blankets, bolster, blocks, etc) to support the body in different poses. Traditionally, classes last one hour to 90 minutes and comprise of roughly 5-8 poses held in stillness and in silence. For someone with acute anxiety, this can create more anxiety than it alleviates.
The physical benefits of restorative yoga include reductions in heart rate and respiratory rate, lowering of blood pressure, stretching of soft tissue and muscle fibres, and redirection of blood to the major organs. All of these can induce relaxation and offer much-needed respite from the effects of chronic nervous system arousal that is common with anxiety. These benefits are significant and achievable for many who try restorative yoga; but for those whose minds are alive with rumination, noise, worry and recurring or intrusive thoughts, this can be a significant challenge. So, how can we make this practice more accessible to anxious people?
Below are some ideas which you can bring in to your practice:
‘All Is Welcome’ Ethos
It’s really important to acknowledge differences. Don’t attach an expected outcome to any pose or practice. When all experiences are validated, people feel reassured and included. Make everything welcome; the bits we like, the bits we don’t like, the bits we’re not so sure about – all are valid and normal. Whatever thoughts or feelings people may have about the practice, they’re all normal and someone else is bound to have felt the same way.
Let individuals know that it is okay to move should they want to. You can guide them by asking, if they notice the desire to move, whether can they breathe through it before moving? If not, will a small movement (e.g. opening and closing of the hands, pointing or flexing of the feet) meet the sensation? If not, then go ahead and adjust the position, or come out and be comfortable until the next pose.
Invite people to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, gradually making the space between the lips smaller and smaller to elongate the exhale. People can stay with this breath, or return to it at any time, as a resource to help them meet any challenges arising in the body or mind.
Focus (Mini Yoga Nidra)
For anxious individuals, an invitation into body sensation can be overwhelming, so this mini-nidra keeps it light and simple. It is offered in each pose. The nidra gives focus to the mind and keeps it busy in the present moment. The voice acts as an anchor that can be tuned in or out of, as needed. In each pose people are invited to build body awareness by noticing the shape of the body on the mat, to ground themselves by following the breath out, to notice their body and contact with the supports and ground, to develop breath awareness and how it moves the body, and to invite a quality to be created in their imagination and to feel how incredible it would be to know that quality in the whole of their being.
These simple offerings can help transform the practice of restorative yoga for the anxious mind. Restorative yoga is to be enjoyed, not endured.
Helen Moss at Downward Dog Yoga, Brighton