When Jennifer Wesanko returns from a run, she gets down on the floor and swings her legs up the wall. She’ll hang there for 20 minutes or so, letting gravity give her heart a break and resting her lower back and legs.
Then she’ll swing down and lie on her back with a rolled blanket under her shoulders so her chest is elevated and expansive. She’ll lie there with her airways wide open for another 10-20 minutes.
It feels like rest, but all kinds of good stuff is going on behind the scenes. This is restorative yoga and athletes, marathoners and executives who want to recover from a stressful workout or business day are taking it up in droves.
“Classes are packed,” says Wesanko, a runner and yoga instructor with YogaLab who also teaches at Inner Space Yoga in Vancouver’s Gastown. “More than 70 people show up. It’s odd because they are all there to rest in public.”
Runners have been encouraged for several years now to take up yoga to counter the pounding they put their bodies through. It has been shown to lengthen and strengthen muscles. But when most westerners think of yoga, their minds go to yoga vinyasas, or flowing sequences of poses.
Wesanko teaches vinyasas. But she says restorative yoga is different. The purpose is rest. It is passive and totally supported with props. It was originally designed to heal injuries to both the body and the psyche, but Wesanko and others realized it has benefits for athletes too.
“It passively lengthens the muscles without stretching,” she says. “There is no tension. You are not calling on the connective ligaments and soft tissue to work. You are recuperating.”
A hard physical workout stresses the body and damages muscles, she explains. “Restorative yoga focuses on relaxation, renewal, effortlessness and ease. This is radical rest.”
It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which otherwise only happens in deep sleep or meditation. Heart rate, breath rate and the production of stress hormones all slow down.
“I work with people who run every day and they practise restorative yoga three times a week,” she says. “As they approach a race day, they may incorporate a few poses into their everyday routine.”
Mike Dennison, a former competitive runner who now teaches yoga specifically for runners, agrees restorative yoga would benefit both elite and beginner runners because they are all feeling the stresses of pushing their bodies beyond what they are used to. “It helps you deal with the fatigue of intense physical exercise,” he says. “Whatever level you are at, you are experiencing the extra stress and extra fatigue of running,” he says. “What this does is it helps you recuperate faster. I think it is really good.
“Running is very intense. Restorative yoga is very mellow.”
Older people who run for fitness or at the competitive level are embracing yoga in greater numbers, says Dennison. “They understand that the body needs that extra oomph.”
Younger elite runners, like the Kenyans, haven’t accepted it in large numbers yet, he says. But they do incorporate rest into their regime. And since these runners tend not to have jobs, they have time to nap.
“Most of us don’t have the luxury of taking a nap after a run,” he says. Putting our legs up the wall for 15 minutes is the next best thing.
Dennison’s yoga-for-runners program is much more vigorous than Wesanko’s. He uses challenging poses and trains people to breathing deeply through them.
“It teaches them to breathe through any challenge they may be facing,” he says.
“So if they are at the 5-K mark of the Sun Run or the 20-mile mark of a marathon, and feeling like hell and they don’t know if they can do it, I want them to think, ’Wow, I was in these postures in Mike’s class and damned if I didn’t breathe as deeply as I could and I am going to do the same thing here.’ It helps you to keep going.”
Dennison’s yoga classes also build strength, joint stability and flexibility. His website is mikedennisonyoga.com.
Bernie Clark, yoga instructor with Semperviva Yoga, says restorative yoga is good for healing.
“If you have hurt yourself running, then restorative yoga would be very good for you. But most forms of yoga can help you just power down your stress, your fight or flight system and re-energize your rest and digestive system.”
Clark teaches yin yoga, which is similar to restorative yoga in its long supported poses. But yin yoga deliberately works the joints, stressing them to make them healthier and more able to take the pounding that running entails.
“It also has deeper ways of stretching out the hamstrings and IT bands; the areas that get really contracted and short from running,” he says, adding a number of marathoners and runners come to that class.
With restorative yoga, Wesanko wants to introduce new runners to a way to speed up their recovery from training and prepare for race day.
“Runners training to compete in a race or long-distance marathon should incorporate 25-90 minutes of restorative yoga three or four times per week and at least 30 minutes the day before and after the event.”
Casual, fitness-oriented runners would benefit from practising two or three times a week.
Can you imagine a nicer way to prepare for a race? As Wesanko puts it: “It’s like a massage, but much cheaper and less intrusive.”
Find Wesanko at yogalab.com.
Three poses that are easy to do at home
Legs up on the wall
How to do it: Against a wall or a closed locked door, straddle the wall with space between your bottom and the corner where the floor and the wall meet. Lean your heels against the wall. If your hamstrings are tight, you may have to move away from the wall and have a slight bend in your knees. Your spine should be perpendicular to the wall; your torso should be lying on the floor supporting your spine. Arms can be by your side, lengthening out in a “T” shape or extended over your head for more of a chest and back stretch.
The weight of your legs will naturally settle your pelvis. Rest in the pose for 5, 10, even 20 minutes.
How to do it: Lie on back with knees bent and toes in front of chair legs. Draw knees into chest and place calves in seat of chair. (Optional: Lift pelvis and place block —_or folded blanket —_on lowest height under sacrum). Rest arms slightly away from sides, palms facing upwards. Rest in the pose for 5-10, even 20 minutes.
Supported back bend
How to do it: Place a pillow, blankets or rolled-up towel under scapula or upper back. Ensure that you have the natural curve in your neck; if it is pressing to the floor you will need to place a rolled hand towel under your neck. You may need a pillow to support your head if your chin is higher than your nose. Rest in the pose for 5-10, even 20 minutes.