You enter a room filled with people lying on their mats, their heads and hips propped by blankets, legs resting on the seats of folding chairs, eyes covered by soft cloths. The lights are low, the room is warm and quiet. You were expecting music, movement, a teacher calling out instructions, possibly in Sanskrit, not this slumber party! You have found a classic restorative yoga class.

Restorative yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar suffered chronic illness and weakness as a child. When his sister married yoga master Krishnamacharya, young Iyengar began to learn yoga, but he required support of various kinds, such as cushions and household furniture, to enter and sustain the poses which ultimately healed him. An innovative genius, Iyengar pioneered the use of props in his own classes and taught others how and when to use them. Today teachers and students from around the world flock to his center in Pune to study his techniques and attend  prop-intensive medical classes.

In the West, the restorative torch has been carried most notably by Iyengar’s student Judith Hanson Lasater. Lasater, who holds degrees in East-West psychology and physical therapy, developed restorative work through her classes in San Francisco, eventually publishing the first book on this subject: Relax and Renew, 1993. In her words, “Restorative yoga poses help us learn to rest deeply and completely.” The warm, softly-lighted environment helps to quiet the nervous system. The head is nearly always supported, and there may be gentle pressure on the forehead, which encourages deep relaxation through a complex physiological process that reduces adrenal fatigue and calms the mind. 

Restorative yoga is a deeply reflective, supported approach to asana that employs props to create and sustain positions of ease and comfort to facilitate relaxation and health. Restorative classes typically include fewer poses than active classes – perhaps only four or five in an hour’s time, but those poses are held for five, ten, or even twenty minutes. It is not an “alternative” for people too old, weak, or ill to do “real” yoga, but a complete practice in itself, appropriate for people of all ages, all levels of yoga experience, in all states of health. Since the 90’s, restorative yoga has become both increasingly popular and widely misunderstood in the West, where it is often conflated with easy (“gentle”) yoga and yoga for seniors. Restorative yoga, with its props and long holds, can be tremendously effective in treating some conditions of illness or imbalance, but it is not necessarily easy. Many people find it challenging to tolerate the mental and physical stillness of a true restorative class. Without the distractions of movement and music, the student must face his own thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations.

So the next time you feel stressed and want to seek comfort on your mat, consider substituting the quiet introspection of a restorative class for your favorite posture flow. You may be pleasantly surprised. 

Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.