Power Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram – these are the terms we often hear when people talk about their weekly yoga routines.
In Australia, a lot of the yogis out there are practising strong, intense styles of yoga, like power yoga, and are boasting toned, lithe bodies to match. But is this type of yoga the answer to reducing stress?
With higher levels of stress than ever and more people reporting prolonged, high levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone), there’s never been a greater need for exercises and meditative techniques to help relax and restore the body and mind.
Cue in yoga and you’ve got an industry worth more than $960 million in revenue a year in Australia alone (together with Pilates). But while yoga has been touted as the elixir to our highly stressful lives, Australia’s focus has been more on the powerful, physically demanding styles of yoga like Bikram or power, rather than the more relaxing, calming styles such as restorative yoga.
“I came back [from studying yoga in the US] in 2001 and found that yoga was very physical in Australia. I call it gym yoga. Power, Ashtanga and Bikram – it’s very physical, the upbeat side of yoga. It’s where you’re giving a lot of energy into the body,” says Sydney-based yoga teacher, Sally Belmont of Sally Belmont Restorative Yoga.
“Restorative yoga is going the other way. It’s at the other end of the spectrum. It’s very calming and meditative. I teach it from a level of deep relaxation into meditation, so there’s a lot of mind-body connection as well.
“It’s about learning to rest our bodies, to restore our bodies, to renew our bodies.”
What exactly is restorative yoga?
Katrina Loop, owner of Honey Health.Nutrition.Yoga, describes restorative yoga as a passive form of yoga where poses are held for extended periods of time, sometimes up to 20 minutes. The body is completely supported with the aid of props such as bolsters, blankets, chairs, blocks, pillows and straps.
“The poses require no muscular effort at all, which means the body can completely relax into the pose,” says Loop.
“People practising restorative yoga are often injured, either in body or mind, and the poses are tailored for each individual to encourage healing.”
According to Belmont, restorative yoga, which is increasing in popularity, found its feet in the industry thanks to her mentor, San Francisco-based yoga teacher Judith Lasater, who studied under BKS Iyengar and released a book called Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.
“Restorative yoga is starting to become popular because we’re moving into an age where people are coming back to the understanding of how yoga was originally taught. It was taught one-on-one with the idea of helping you with health and wellness,” explains Belmont.
Restoring your mind: The benefits
While other more powerful forms of yoga provide a good way to reduce stress while also working the body, restorative yoga involves a deeper level of relaxation with a rehabilitative focus.
“Restorative yoga is extremely good for stress reduction and provides an opportunity for people to truly relax. This is really important for working women who often just need to learn to ‘switch off’ from their busy day,” Loop says.
“It provides healing for the mind and the body and is really useful for reducing fatigue, depression, anxiety and stress – and for recovery from injury or illness.”
The aim of restorative yoga, according to Loop, is to create a state of being where the body is completely relaxed so that the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) can switch off and the parasympathetic nervous system (where the body is in a relaxed state) is encouraged to dominate.
Similarly, Belmont emphasises the importance of developing and refining our skills to reduce stress and says restorative yoga is one of the best ways for us to learn how to slow down.
“Restorative yoga truly is a healing modality. It really helps you slow down. When you’re under too much stress and that stress is flooding into the body, you’ve got to stop it. No pill is going to do that,” says Belmont.
“You have to know techniques and strategies of how to work with your nervous system to calm it down or to rev it up and that’s where yoga is so wonderful.”