new_health (2007-05)

Kinder, Gentler Yoga

Improve balance and flexibility with Restorative Yoga

by Wendy C. Smith

In case you haven't noticed by the numerous yoga columns I've written, I really like yoga. It's a great workout. It's calming and energizing at the same time. And it puts me in touch with my body in ways that other kinds of exercise don't seem to match.

When I first started writing these columns, I knew very little about yoga. I thought there might be a couple of styles or so, but I didn't know much about them or the differences between them. Now, a couple of years and many columns later, I know there are multiple kinds of yoga. There may actually be 562. O.K., maybe not that many, but there certainly seems to be a plethora of options out there. There is Power Yoga and Partner Yoga, Endurance Yoga and Yoga for Arthritis, and that's naming just a few of the classes I've run across. Although these different yoga classes have a variety of end goals, they all seem to be based in one of four styles of yoga: Vinyasa, Bikram, Hatha or Kundalini.

When I saw the listing for Restorative Yoga, I thought it sounded incredibly appealing. Especially since 2006 had just wound up, the holidays were over and 2007 seemed to already be in full swing. Who wouldn't want something "restorative"?  

I walked into the building to sign up for the class and the woman behind the desk said, "Get ready, girl. It's awesome." That certainly boded well for the experience. When I got to the classroom, it was toasty and the space heaters were on. (The warm room is another thing I like about yoga. It helps the muscles stretch, but also I think I was a cat in a previous life.) There were a couple students already in the classroom. They were regulars and had been coming to this class for some time. Most of the students were a bit older than me and spoke very highly of the class and the benefits they had received from it.

The teacher was Marianne Wilson. I had taken a private yoga lesson from her before and really liked the way she taught. I could tell she really enjoys teaching, and I also got a kick out of the mini anatomy classes that she handed out during our private session. Marianne is a certified Ashtanga Yoga instructor and a certified massage therapist who specializes in yoga, breathing meditation, core strengthening, flexibility training, myofascial release, trigger point therapy and deep tissue massage with an emphasis on the body's natural energy flow.  

Marianne welcomed me to class and then introduced me to her mother, who was one of the regulars. She had been taking restorative yoga for about eight months. Her mother has found the class to be very helpful for increasing her flexibility and balance, both things that can trouble older people.

Marianne explained that Restorative Yoga is based on Hatha Yoga, which is a slow and gentle style of yoga and is also the foundational style of yoga. Vinyasa Flow, or Power Yoga, is a real workout and is designed to be so. Practitioners go through a series of poses several times rather quickly. Restorative Yoga is still a workout, but is more about releasing physical, mental and emotional stress by getting in touch with the "true self."

Although Power Yoga is good for releasing stress as well, Hatha Yoga is designed to prepare and condition the body so that the mind can practice meditation with as few obstacles as possible. Hatha Yoga is supposed to remove these obstacles by stimulating the glands and endocrine system through the different postures to flush out toxins. A primary focus is on breathing. Good yoga practice requires deep breaths, which fill up the diaphragm on the inhale while the exhale is often used to deepen the stretches.

Each pose was generally held for a couple of breaths. The last breath or two was used to breathe into the stretch and deepen the pose. Each pose was done once or maybe twice. The separate poses were connected by breathing and there was a pause between each pose. Again, as has been my experience with Marianne, she was not afraid to touch her students and move them into the right position. It's amazing how much better the poses felt when one did them correctly.

We ended the class with the Savasana (corpse position). This pose consisted of lying on the back with the arms outstretched, palms up. Marianne explained that the purpose of this position is to allow the core energy generated during the practice to innervate the entire body to promote healing. That's one of the nice things about yoga. I felt energized and alert, yet still completely relaxed. I thoroughly enjoyed lying there. Yet when it was time to go, I was ready for a full day.   

Still, even with the pauses and gentle movements, restorative yoga is a nice bit of exercise. It's also a really good place to start for people who are inflexible, off balance, out of shape or who have never done yoga. It's the kind of class that I could take with my mother and both of us would reap benefits.

Marianne Wilson teaches restorative yoga as a drop-in class and as a series. She can be reached at (865)584-3864.