A Cozy Restorative Yoga Sequence for the Holidays
To deepen your relaxation this holiday, here’s a restorative practice that pairs familiar postures with gentle TLC. Such a practice has the potential to connect us to our own resourcefulness, as winter itself does. Throughout the dark, cold months, we don’t wait helplessly for the sun. We make our own light—entwining trees with blinking strands and putting candles in the windows. We make our own warmth by throwing logs in the fire and turning on our ovens to bake breads and pies. Similarly, amid the fray of the holidays, rather than waiting for peace to descend, we can create our own with a bolster, a block, and our own two hands.
In every pose throughout this practice, you can imagine that you’re delivering the energy and warmth of your hands back to yourself, replenishing yourself after the time you’ve spent directing your energy outward in service of others. Alternatively, you could combine this practice with meditations on the chakras (since we work our way up from the feet to the head), and visualize each chakra color glowing from within—each as bright as a Christmas bulb. Or you could simply bring your awareness to every place you touch, encouraging relaxation and noticing the sensations inside. Can you perceive your own pulse? How about the movements that attend your breath? More subtle still, can you detect a current of joy somewhere inside?
While in each pose, a gentle touch is suggested (each is inspired by the light touches of a craniosacral therapy session and can be safely practiced by lay practitioners). If you wish, you can precede each touch with a more active self-massage before then relaxing into the pose. In fact, you might precede the entire practice by massaging your feet, hands, and neck with your favorite and most soothing essential oils.
Grab a bolster and a block, and make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothes. Feel free to keep your socks on, and even consider wearing your favorite stocking cap. Though the practice that follows involves minimal props, you are welcome to cozy it up by draping a blanket over yourself and adding pillows as suggested, or simply improvising as you’d like. Sip hot tea beforehand, or even between these mellow poses. Put on your favorite soothing music or simply keep things quiet. And do not rush. Allowing forty-five minutes for the practice would give you about five minutes in each restorative pose.
Hero Pose (Virasana) with Palm Rubbing and Anjali Mudra
Note: If practicing hero pose on one bolster isn’t comfortable for your knees, you can reduce the stress by placing a block on its lowest setting between your shins/feet and a bolster horizontally on top of it (as pictured below). Alternatively, assume a comfortable cross-legged seat.
Come to a high kneeling position, with your knees a little wider than hip-distance apart and your toes pointed, and place a bolster lengthwise between your shins (even if you don’t need it). Sit on the bolster with an upright spine.
Begin to rub your palms together in front of you as if you’re starting a fire. Then rub them even faster for a few breath cycles, until your hands are warm.
Press your palms together in offering seal (anjali mudra) with your thumbs at your breastbone. Feel the warmth of your right palm infusing your left palm, and the warmth of your left palm infusing your right palm. Remain in the pose for several deep breaths.
Supported Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana) With Hands on Feet
Note: If your knees are high off the ground in this pose, support your thighs with pillows or blankets. Naturally, you can lower your bolster if your flexibility allows.
Straighten your legs out in front of you, then bend your knees and let them fall away from each other. Bring the soles of your feet to touch, with heels as close to you as is comfortable.
Place your bolster vertically in front of your feet, and then tip forward to rest your forehead on the top edge of the bolster. Bring the palms of your hands to rest gently on the tops of your feet, thumbs on the arches.
Stay here, resting your hands on your feet for several minutes, taking deep, easy breaths. Then slowly return to upright position.
Supported Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana or Upavista Konasana) With Hands on Legs
Note: As in the previous pose, those with more flexibility should feel free to adjust the bolster accordingly.
Lengthen your legs out in front of you, bringing them as wide apart as you’d like, and placing your bolster vertically between your shins. Lean forward slightly so that your forehead can rest on the bolster. Place your hands on your shins or thighs, encouraging your legs to relax. (If your forward fold is very deep, and your forearms come to the mat, feel free to take hold of your calves from behind.)
Stay here for several minutes, releasing any tension in your legs, before returning to an upright seated position.
Legs up the Bolster (Viparita Karani Variation) With Hands on Belly
Note: To keep your legs on the bolster effortlessly, feel free to swaddle your legs in a blanket, or loop a yoga strap around your calves or ankles.
Place a block at the top of your yoga mat on its lowest setting. Place the top of the bolster on the block, creating an incline. Sit facing the bolster, then swing both legs up onto it and lie down. Place your hands on your stomach (tucking your fingertips into the waistband of your pants might help to keep your hands in place). Encourage your belly to expand with every inhale, and to soften in with every exhale.
Stay here for several minutes, softening into your stomach, before returning to a seated position.
Supported Twist With Palms Touching
Come to a seated position, with your left hip just in front of the inclined bolster and your hands on either side of it, knees pointing to the right. As much as possible, turn your chest to face the bolster. Slowly ease your way onto the bolster, aiming to bring as much of your belly and chest onto it as you can. Turn your head in whichever direction feels good to you.
Embrace the bolster, sliding your hands underneath it. Turn one palm up, and place your other palm down on top of it.
Relax here for several minutes, feeling the warmth of your hands. Then, gently lift yourself up, and switch sides; reverse your hands, so that the hand that was below is now on top of the other.
Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) With Hands on Lower Ribs
Note: If you’d like to use more props, you can elevate your calves on a single horizontal block for this pose, looping your ankles or calves together with a strap (as shown); or you can even place another bolster below this one so that you are supported from your heels to your mid-back. If your elbows dig into the mat or floor uncomfortably, place blankets or pillows under them.
Place a bolster lengthwise in the middle of your mat. Lie back over the bolster so that your head and shoulders are resting on the floor. Stretch your legs out in front of you, allowing your heels to be heavy. Bend your elbows, placing your hands on your lower rib cage.
Stay here for several minutes, feeling the gentle weight of your hands on your lowest ribs as you breathe. To come out of the pose, bend your knees to bring your feet to the ground, lift your hips, move the bolster to one side, then lower your hips back down to the ground.
Supported Crocodile (Makarasana) With Hands on Neck
Note: You can place a folded blanket under your forehead if the block is uncomfortable.
Keep the bolster as it was for supported bridge (vertical), and place your block at the top of your mat, on its lowest setting. Come to all fours, facing the block, with your hands on either side of the bolster. Ease your way down onto the bolster, which ideally will support most of your torso, and bring your forehead to rest on the block. Extend your legs behind you, letting your feet turn out slightly. Bend your elbows out to the sides, and bring your hands to rest gently on the back of your neck (wherever they can easily touch).
Stay here for several minutes, releasing tension in your neck and shoulders, before bringing your hands to the mat alongside the bolster and pressing yourself back up.
Savasana Variation With Hands Over Eyes
Lie on your back, placing the bolster horizontally across your chest. Bring your palms to your eyes, resting your elbows against the bolster.
Stay here for several minutes, encouraging your eyes—and the mind behind them—to relax.
Hero Pose With Palm Rubbing and Hands Out
Come to hero pose on your bolster, or to whichever seated position you assumed at the beginning of this practice. Bring your hands together at your heart once again. Notice any differences that have occurred in your body, in your breathing, or in your mood since the beginning of class.
Rub your hands together once again.
Widen your arms out into a V-shape from your shoulders, palms facing forward. Imagine the energy you cultivated during this replenishing practice sparkling like tinsel, and then emanating outward—brightening the world and lengthening these winter days.
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>