Last night I was invited uptown for a little restorative yoga. I’ve returned to my strong vinyasa classes lately, so I was happy to head for a Sunday night slow-down.
New York Yoga is a well-established studio with two locations: a heated studio on 85th and Lex, and the main studio at 86th and York. The York space is beautiful: simple wood floors and stone columns anchor the two small classrooms, while a winding hallway leads back to spacious locker rooms. Drop-in classes are a top-of-the-line $23, plus $2 mat rental, but the comfort of the space made me feel like it was worth every penny.
As I waited in the hallway for the classroom to open up, I leafed through Judith Lasater’s restorative yoga bible: “Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.” One of the preeminent teachers of restorative yoga, Lasater turned to the style after a family member died. She lost the desire for her standard yoga practice, and decided to practice restorative poses for a year, in response to her grief. They helped her accept and recover from her pain and fatigue, and inspired her to teach the style for which she is now well-known. Putting the body in a comfortable position and focusing on the breath triggers the relaxation response (slower/lower heart rate, metabolism, breathing, blood pressure, and brain waves) in as little as five minutes. It’s “active relaxation” because the mind is gently focused, and the body is carefully stimulated as well as relaxed.
Mia Baer, the instructor of the evening, studied with Lasater (as well as Alan Finger and Seane Corn). She teaches both vinyasa and restorative yoga. This restorative class was highly recommended by the staff at the studio, and indeed had a good turnout (about 15 students) for a beautiful spring evening. Mia (pronounced MY-a) was friendly, articulate, and just radiant with good health. She got us quickly arranged against the walls around the room, prepared with our piles of props. A bit of Alternate Nostril Breathing slowed and balanced our minds, and then we moved to the restorative poses.
Starting off in Reclined Cobbler (Supta Baddha Konasana), we lay back on bolsters, blankets and blocks. Eye pillows (or just a tshirt as blindfold) were recommended, but I hadn’t brought anything into the studio with me. For ten, maybe fifteen minutes we lay listening to music — and the tension in our hips. Mia did a delicate massage of lavender oil around our necks and temples, bringing another sense into relaxation. To keep the mind focused, she suggested slowly counting up to four and back down; indeed, this helped check my daydreaming. The stretching sensations were moderate but steady, and at the end of the pose I was surprised how much my knees had opened out. I was also happy to spend a chunk of time in a pose recommended for my shoulders (the bolster beneath the back lets the shoulders relax outward, counteracting the Chaturanga tension yogis tend to build up).
Next, it was time to “stop, drop and roll” into Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani). A slight variation added a little backbend to this gentle inversion: placing the bolster a few inches from the wall let the tailbone arch downward. My lower back was very happy. We also rested the hands on blocks, out to the side, which let my carpal-tunnelled arm feel nice and comfortable. This pose is great for swollen feet or varicose veins; circulation trickles down the legs and back to the heart.
After that was Savasana! (I still can’t get used to just three or four poses in a 75-minute class. It flew by.) We lay two blankets down the length of the mat, providing a full-body cushion, and added a bolster under the knees. A beautiful direction to focus on the feeling “halfway between falling and floating” sent me deep into relaxation, and when we finally pulled the knees into the chest I felt quiet and calm. We released the knees to one side, and then the other, gently twisting the spine, and then slowly brought ourselves up to close.
The simplicity of the class was refreshing: each pose was just a few sentences of instruction, a gentle adjustment (or not), and then the whir of the AC clicking on to clear the air. We were left in peace and quiet for at least five minutes each pose. Eventually my mind started to absorb it. I could only wish for better soundproofing, as the teacher next door and students in the hall were a constant drone in my ear. But Mia led us ably past the distractions of late students and exiting classes, and I left with a big dopey grin. I don’t know which glands / muscles / organs are stimulated, squeezed, stretched, or comforted by these poses, but the practice of relaxation was golden.