Making Gentle Yoga a Part of Your Practice

Photo by cascadeyogastudio

“The challenge of yoga is go beyond our limits—within reason. We continually expand the frame of the mind by using the canvas of the body. It is as if you were to stretch a canvas more and create a larger surface for painting. But we must respect the present form of the body. If we pull too fast or too much at once, we will rip the canvas. If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow, it is not correct practice.”  – B.K.S Iyengar, “Light on Life”

Like most yogis, I fell in love with yoga because of the way it made me feel.

It may sound odd, but for me, that radiant and relaxed feeling we often associate with yoga didn’t come from a gentle, meditative practice. It came after getting my butt kicked in a sweaty, strength-focused asana class. Not only did my ‘power yoga’ practice offer me a physical and mental release, but I assumed that the residual soreness in my hips and hamstrings the following day meant I was doing everything right.

It took a while, but I eventually realized there is more than one way to feel amazing after a yoga session. I used to think I had to push my body in order to release pent up energy and find relaxation. But the gentle-yogis have long known something I’ve only recently come to understand: Gentle yoga, which includes seated and floor postures, and an emphasis on breathing and quiet reflection, allows us to come away feeling flexible in our bodies, relaxed in our minds, and calmed in our nervous systems. Gentler practices often provide rewards: mental, physiological and spiritual rejuvenation, without having to endure the sweat and tears first.

For some people, the thought of a gentle yoga class seems boring or not physically/mentally advantageous. But I assure you, whether you choose a restorative, yin or a slow moving hatha yogaclass, your body will benefit in a myriad of ways. Gentler forms of yoga quiet the nervous system so that the parasympathetic nervous system can be engaged. This encourages better digestion, a decrease in stress levels and an enhanced ability to relax. These classes are perfect fits for people who have trouble falling asleep at night, are constantly running through their to-do lists on their lunch breaks, or whose bodies feel tight and restless.

If you are a power or hot yoga junky who is doubtful about trying a gentler practice, know that you don’t have to throw away your sweat sessions altogether. Incorporating a gentle, restorative or yin practice just once a week will help you to maintain balance in your body, avoid yoga burnout and get to know your body and mind in different ways. And think of it this way: if you’re really resistant to practicing slower forms of yoga, there may be some valuable lessons to be learned there. Like the Iyengar quote above states, “The challenge of yoga is go beyond our limits….” If you’ve limited yourself to one type of yoga, considering going beyond that limitation and opening up to a new, slower form of practice.

Some classes to try:

1. Yin Yoga: Contrary to how it sounds, yin yoga isn’t exactly “easy.” In this class, you will hold poses (mostly on the floor) for 3-5 minutes at a time to access deep layers of muscle and achieve deep physical release. For some, the length of time spent in a posture can be mentally challenging, contributing to improved focus and concentration. Yin yoga is especially good for yogis who frequently practice more athletic styles of yoga. Incorporate one yin yoga class or a few yin yoga poses throughout the week, and you’ll likely feel more balanced in your body.

2. Restorative Yoga: These classes might feel more like nap time than yoga for the uninitiated, but my advice? Just go with it. In restorative classes, you will hold poses for up to 10 minutes (or more), supported by props so that your body can fully relax. The goal of restorative yoga is not necessarily to stretch, but to give in to opening through support so that your muscles, nervous system and mind can truly let go and release into relaxation.

3. Gentle Yoga: Gentle yoga classes can take many forms, but typically, gentle classes use hatha yoga poses in a slow, low-impact way. You might find yourself flowing from pose to pose. Or you might find yourself staying with one pose for a longer amount of time. Without a doubt, you will be stretching, breathing and feeling rejuvenated when you walk out the door.