Restorative Yoga - The Output by Peloton

Tap Into the Calming Power of Restorative Yoga to Reboot Your Nervous System

Discover the poses that will help you lower stress and find balance.

By Team PelotonUpdated March 15, 2024


With a jam-packed agenda during the week and a workout routine that rivals it, you may need to carve out some time to slow things down just a bit. Restorative yoga can do that for you. Restorative yoga helps your body achieve a more restful state using certain postures and props to gently stretch and strengthen your muscles while calming your mind. Think of restorative yoga as the counter to more active, athletic styles of yoga, such as Vinyasa, Ashtanga, or power yoga

“The poses you’ll be in are not like those in active styles of yoga, such as Warrior 2,” says Peloton instructor Aditi Shah. “The restorative yoga poses are closer to Corpse Pose, called Savasana.” 

The growing popularity of restorative yoga speaks to how effective it is at helping you rest, reset, and reap the benefits of powering down. To learn more about restorative yoga, we talked with Aditi about the perks of this specific practice and how we can all work more restorative yoga into our weekly workout routines.

The Science Behind Restorative Yoga

As the name suggests, this type of yoga is your time to restore and recover, both physically and mentally.

“Restorative yoga aims to create the conditions for you to be able to truly rest,” says Aditi. “The goal is to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system—what is usually referred to as your ‘rest and digest’ state—where your body starts to conserve energy and slow your heart rate as opposed to when you are more active or, many times, even in a fight or flight mode.”

How exactly does the nervous system get involved, and what are the specific health benefits of restorative yoga? Let’s take a closer look.

Understanding the Nervous System in Restorative Yoga

Your body’s nervous system, which includes your brain, spinal cord, and nerves, is divided into multiple subcategories, according to the Cleveland Clinic. First, it splits into your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and your peripheral nervous system (a network of nerves). Your peripheral nervous system is then divided into the somatic nervous system (which controls voluntary movements like walking) and the autonomic nervous system (which controls involuntary responses like breathing).

Your autonomic nervous system splits once more into sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) responses. Restorative yoga activates your rest and digest response. Its relaxing movements stimulate a parasympathetic response by forcing your body to move at a slower pace. This leads to a lower heart rate and a drop in blood pressure, according to research in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, and increased feelings of well-being, other research shows. 

Research on Restorative Yoga’s Health Impact 

This slowing down of bodily systems has a measurable effect on your emotional and physical health. For instance, one study in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion found that six weeks of once-weekly restorative yoga classes improved feelings of relaxation and self-esteem among participants.

Restorative yoga may help you think more clearly, too: A recent study of cancer patients experiencing cognitive issues due to their treatment (commonly known as “chemo brain”), were able to significantly improve the clarity of their thinking after taking three restorative yoga classes a week for 12 weeks.

Benefits of Restorative Yoga

Because restorative yoga is a gentle, relaxing form of yoga, it can help you unwind, reduce stress, and improve your quality of life. Whether you're new to yoga or a seasoned practitioner, restorative yoga is a wonderful way to promote overall physical and mental wellness. These are just a few of its benefits:

Better Mental Clarity and Emotional Balance

As noted, research shows that people who regularly practice restorative yoga improve their cognitive thinking. The reason, according to a meta-analysis of 11 studies in the journal Brain Plasticity, is that restorative yoga alters the structure and function of certain parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—areas responsible for reasoning and emotions. The results: A slowing of the cognitive decline that naturally occurs with age.

In addition, multiple studies have shown that a regular yoga practice lowers stress levels in the body, leading to overall improvement in mood and less self-reported feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Physical Healing and Improved Flexibility 

While restorative yoga may not be as physically demanding as other forms of yoga, it can still improve your flexibility, range of motion, and overall strength. By holding gentle stretches for longer periods of time, you allow your muscles and joints to gradually release tension and become more supple. This translates into benefits like improving your posture, preventing injuries, and enhancing your physical performance in many realms. 

Restorative Yoga and Sleep Quality

One of the key benefits of restorative yoga is its ability to help you release tension and stress, which can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with anxiety, insomnia, or chronic pain. By holding supported poses for several minutes, you give your muscles and connective tissue time to fully and completely relax, which can help promote good quality, restful sleep. It’s no wonder, then, that 55 percent of people who do yoga say it improves their sleep, according to a national survey by the National Institutes of Health

Restorative yoga also focuses on deep breathing, which triggers the “rest and digest” function of your parasympathetic nervous system and helps you wind down before bedtime

Getting Started With Restorative Yoga

The beauty of restorative yoga is that it can be easily modified to suit your unique needs and current fitness level. Whether you're exercising for the first time, rediscovering exercise after an absence, recovering from an injury, or just looking to relax and unwind, restorative yoga is a gentle and effective way to improve your health and well-being. 

Environment matters with this type of yoga. You want to establish a space that is uncluttered and relaxing. This means different things to different people: Maybe you’ll use dim or warm lighting in your yoga room, or maybe you’ll place a few inspiring photos on the wall. The point is to create an environment that feels welcoming and soothing, so you can get in the right headspace for your yoga practice. 

Essential Restorative Yoga Poses

Options for restorative yoga poses are many, but there are a few key ones to integrate into your practice, including the Supported Fish Pose, Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana), and simply propping your calves onto a chair—a variation of what’s sometimes called “Stonehenge” in restorative yoga. 

There’s no limit to how long you can stay in these poses as long as you’re comfortable. “You can hold these postures anywhere from three to 15 minutes, depending on how much time you have,” says Aditi. “It wouldn't be crazy if someone fell asleep since that’s how relaxing this should feel!”

The five poses here provide a full body stretch while also emphasizing relaxation.

Supported Fish Pose

1. Supported Fish Pose

Sitting at a desk, using our phones, or even working out encourages us to round our shoulders forward a lot throughout our day. The supported fish pose can correct this by subverting our natural posture and gently opening the chest and shoulders. It is often felt as relief in the muscles of the back.

  1. Lie on your back, placing yoga blocks under your spine for support.

  2. One block should be beneath the shoulder blades (from the bottom of the shoulder blade up) and the other block should be under your head, or wherever is comfortable.

  3. Let your chest fall open over the blocks.

  4. Let your arms lay by your side.

  5. Relax and hold this pose for however long it feels comfortable for you.

2. Calves on a Chair

This pose is beneficial for releasing tension from your lower back, resting your legs, and aiding digestion. It is a less intense option than putting your legs up against a wall. 

  1. Lie on your back facing a chair or other supportive structure.

  2. Prop your calves onto the seat of the chair or the top of the structure.

  3. Move closer to it so each calf is entirely on top of it.

  4. Relax and hold this pose for however long it feels comfortable for you.

Reclining Bound Angle Pose

3. Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)

  1. Lie on your back.

  2. Let your knees fall open to each side creating a butterfly shape.

  3. Place blocks underneath the outside part of each knee at a height that feels comfortable for you.

  4. Relax and hold this pose for however long it feels comfortable.

Benefits: Running and cycling can leave our hips tight. This posture is a gentle hip opener and adductor stretch. 

4. Legs Up the Wall

A variation of an inversion pose, this Legs Up the Wall Pose helps improve circulation in the body, especially good if you have a desk job where you sit all day.

  1. Lie on your back, positioned so that your butt is close to a wall.

  2. Lift your legs in the air and place your feet against the nearby wall.

  3. Scoot your hips as close to the wall as you are comfortable while keeping your legs straight (don’t lock your knees).

  4. Relax your body and feel the stretch in the back of your legs.

Chelsea Jackson Roberts doing Child's Pose

5. Child’s Pose

This pose is the ultimate relaxation move, and it is a great one for gently stretching your hips and back—good for anyone dealing with back pain issues.

  1. Start by kneeling, sitting back so that your butt touches your heels.

  2. Lean forward so that your chest touches your thighs.

  3. Gently widen your knees so that your chest can reach the floor between your thighs.

  4. Extend your arms in front of you, palms facing the floor.

  5. Relax into the stretch.

Incorporating Restorative Yoga Into Your Routines

If this is your first time doing any type of yoga, there are some things you should know before taking your first restorative yoga class.

Restorative yoga is a gentle, slow-paced practice that focuses on deep relaxation, stress reduction, and rejuvenation. In a restorative yoga class, you can expect to spend most of your time in comfortable, supported poses, using props such as blankets, blocks, and blankets to help you release tension and let go of stress. There is no set sequencing of poses in restorative yoga. Unlike some other types of practices, restorative yoga pose sequences are determined by what feels best to you.

You can move through the poses at your own pace and make modifications as needed. Remember to listen to your body. Only do what feels comfortable for you. With restorative yoga, there is no need to push your body. 

Lastly, you should be prepared to let go of your worries and sink into a deep state of relaxation during yoga class. Restorative yoga is all about slowing down, quieting your mind, and getting in tune with your body and breathing. So, come with an open mind, a willingness to relax, and let your worries melt away during your restorative yoga class.

Enhancing Your Restorative Yoga Practice With Props 

Everyone could use an assist—and that’s where yoga props come in. Yes, there are props, even for restorative yoga. No matter which props you use, their goal is to make yoga classes more comfortable, enjoyable, and effective.

The following are the most common props used in this practice. While these props can be purchased online or at yoga stores, you can also DIY with whatever pillows, foam cushioning, and blankets you have at home. The goal is to make yourself comfortable, whatever that means for you. 

With these items and your yoga mat, you’ll be well on your way to a more relaxed, rejuvenated you. 

Meditation Pillow

A meditation pillow, also known as a zafu cushion, provides support and comfort for seated postures. In restorative yoga, you can use this pillow to elevate your hips, and support your spine, which may make it easier to sit comfortably on the floor. This is especially helpful for anyone with tight hips or lower back pain.

Yoga Block

A yoga block is a small foam or cork rectangle that is used to support your body in various poses. You can use it to support your spine, open the chest, and provide additional support for your arms or legs. When placed under your lower back during a supported bridge pose, for example, the blocks can help release tension in the area so you can get a really good stretch. 

Folded Blanket or Towel

A folded blanket or towel is another common prop used in restorative yoga. It can be used to provide support and comfort as you hold various poses. For example, placing a folded blanket or thick towel under the knees when in a corpse pose (savasana) can provide much-needed support to the lower back, allowing you to sink deeper into the pose and be more relaxed than ever. These props can also be used to cushion the knees or hips in seated postures. 

Embracing Restorative Yoga for Holistic Well-Being

Few other activities can calm your mind and relax your body while providing a therapeutic stretch the way restorative yoga can. You’ll learn to control your heart rate and blood pressure through slow, deep movements that give you a moment of rest in the busy world we all live in.

Ready to tap into some mind- and body-altering restorative yoga? Aditi's signature series, Flow and Let Go, is a great place to start. These classes mix active and restorative yoga postures to balance the flow of energy in your body and calm your nervous system.


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