It was Friday night after a long week. I was exhausted, but I had recently signed up for a trial yoga membership in an effort to practice more "self-care," so I looked up the schedule and found a late-night restorative yoga class that promised to leave me feeling "balanced, rested, and elevated." Yes, please, I thought as I grabbed my mat and hurried through the cold to the warehouse-like studio.
Once inside, I was instructed to grab what felt like a large carry-on of props: two blocks, a firm pillow-like thing called a bolster, and two blankets. I dragged this load into the dark room, laid everything out, and was prepared to be restored. I couldn't wait to feel balanced, rested, and elevated—look at me and my Friday night self-care!
As the class started, we moved through a few stretch-like positions slowly, then set up for our first restorative pose. I followed instructions and positioned the bolster-pillow-thing under my stomach while in child's pose. The teacher instructed us to turn our head to the right and lay it on the bolster. Great. Done.
Then I waited. And waited. And waited. After what seemed like an eternity, we were instructed to turn our head to the left and... lay it on the bolster.
My mind erupted. Are you kidding me?
If I knew I was going to walk in the cold just to lie on a pillow and turn my head every 10 minutes, I would have just gone to bed early instead! After the 75-minute class ended, I stormed home and that's exactly what I did (... and slept like a baby).
At the time, I didn't put together that my childlike slumber could have been a positive side effect of the class, but I was curious as to why anyone would pay money for what seemed like a 75-minute group-snooze. So I decided to do some research and talk to people who are fans of the practice.
Restorative yoga was first developed to help people heal from injury, illness, or burnout by holding certain poses for longer stretches of time (5-20 minutes) compared to a traditional yoga class. Some claim that it is the most advanced practice of yoga due to the difficulty of achieving conscious relaxation—it's all about moving past the "Um, now what?" I was fixated on in that first class and learning to achieve a state of active relaxation.
OK, great. But couldn't I just take an hour-long nap instead?
Elian Zach, yoga instructor and founder of the Woom Center in New York, believes that naps and yoga are both useful self-care tools, but they're not interchangeable. "When restorative yoga is done right, it can facilitate a deeper rest than sleep. What happens is almost the equivalent to REM sleep, but when we sleep, we dream and can experience anxiety. It's not necessarily always a quality time of rest."
Eileen Goddard, a restorative yoga teacher at Yoga Vida in NYC, shed some light on all the added equipment. "In order to fully relax, we need to feel supported, both physically and mentally. We prop up in restorative yoga, particularly at the joints, to give the body this experience of full support." Goddard adds that another important prop is the presence of the teacher, which offers another level of support.
And the studio atmosphere itself can make or break a good restorative yoga class. "The environment needs to exude a personality that is soothing and calming," Zach says, adding that at the Woom Center, they have everything from a 3D sound system and overtone-emitting instruments to three unique aromatic combinations that alchemist Michelle Gagnon developed to help students unwind. (Which, whoa.)
This is all starting to sound a little better than a nap—but what are the real benefits of this type of self-care?
"The biggest benefit of practicing restorative yoga is the opportunity for your nervous system to switch over from the 'fight or flight' stress response to the 'rest and digest' relaxation response," Goddard says. Other reported benefits include improved management of pain, anxiety, and depression as well as lower blood sugar and even weight loss.
A study from the American Diabetes Association observed a focus group of obese women who practiced restorative yoga over a 48-week period and a group who engaged in a stretching program over the same time period. They found that those who practiced restorative yoga lost a significant amount of subcutaneous fat over the six-month program compared to those in the stretch group, and those same women continued to lose during the maintenance period once the program was over. The study credits this to the practice's focus on relaxation and stress reduction, which led to a decrease in cortisol (the hormone we blame for abdominal fat).
Sign me up! Restorative yoga for life! I have self-care figured out now!
I won't be removing Pilates and cycling classes from my schedule any time soon—you can't just replace regular exercise with restorative yoga. Instead, even the study noted that restorative yoga is a "complementary, ancient practice" that should be used in addition to regular exercise.
So, intense workout, restorative yoga class, or just a nap? Why not all three. "There is room for high-intensity classes," Zach says. "There is a time for sharing space with others and another to sit alone and veg in front of the TV. Sometimes that's OK, but sometimes you want to find self-care in a bigger way. Restorative yoga isn't lazy—it's a proactive act of self-care."
E.J. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based comedy writer and performance artist. If you like pictures of pink sparkly things, you can follow her @ej.sunshine on Instagram.