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Restorative yoga puts the calm back in holiday season

Poses are longer, more supported than other types of yoga

Staff Writer
Austin 360
1226FitCity_yoga_360_K_Held_1. Rahma Garrison relaxes during Everitt's restorative yoga class at Yoga Yoga 360 Sunday. 12/4/2011 Karla Held/For the Austin American-Statesman

It looks like nap time in a kindergarten classroom, only instead of children sprawled out on the floor, it's full-grown adults.

Roughly two dozen of them, bean-bag pillows covering their eyes, bolsters propping up their feet and blankets piled beneath their heads. Their breath comes slowly, and at the front of the room an instructor with a white goatee gently strikes a gong.

They're working hard to relax in this restorative yoga class.

While mainstream yoga consists of a flowing series of stretches and poses, restorative yoga, or the yoga of non-doing, consists of much less extreme reclining poses, held for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.

Yogis say it can relieve stress and calm people dealing with illness, injury or major life change — or, perhaps, the frenzies sparked by racing around town trying to create an unrealistically perfect holiday season.

"I like to call it supervised rest session," says Everitt Allen, a retired nurse from Oklahoma leading a restorative yoga class at Yoga Yoga 360 on a recent Sunday afternoon.

During the hour-and-15-minute session, students strike just three relaxing, supported poses while Allen plays Tibetan singing bowls and gongs.

Yoga practitioner B.K.S. Iyengar of India is credited with developing and introducing restorative yoga to America. The practice has grown increasingly popular in Austin in recent years, says Allen, 63.

"A lot of people have this concept of yoga where you have to be working and sweating and putting in effort," he says. "Restorative yoga is more meditative. It's an inward practice."

Say no more. I decide to check out a class. I even persuade my husband, Chris, to join me. He's never done yoga. He doesn't even know what it is, really.

As we settle in, Allen tells us that the hardest part of this class will be simply relaxing.

He rings a chime and we begin. He asks us to sit comfortably, eyes closed, crown of head toward heaven, and set an intention — or mental focus — for the class. The word that pops into my mind is "comfort."

Now it's time to clear the back scatter from our brains. I sneak a peek at Chris, to see if he's giggling. He is not. At least not yet.

"If thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them and set them aside," Allen says. "Come back to them after practice. During practice, just focus on your breath or have a mantra to say to yourself."

We start with a knee-supported shavasana, or corpse pose. We position our dollar bill-shaped eye pillows on our faces and dive into the difficult work of doing nothing. Barely a nanosecond has passed before Chris dozes off. I'm just thankful he's not snoring loudly. Sleeping isn't the goal in this class, but it does happen.

After 20 minutes, we move into the next pose, which involves rolling up blankets like burritos and placing them underneath our spines, lengthwise. That opens our chest and heart, Allen tells us as we flop like melted records over our blankets. The last pose is called "the Stonehenge," and we elevate our feet on little structures we've constructed out of foam blocks and bolsters.

I can practically see little clouds of stress rising from my body and floating up to the arched ceiling above. I sneak another peak from beneath my eye pillow, this time looking out the huge picture windows at the front of the room, which open onto a grove of trees. Allen is strolling around the room, saying soothing things to his charges.

"Relax the whole body," he chants, again and again.

Soon, the sounds of the gong and singing bowls wash over the room, sending us into an even deeper state of relaxation. The vibrations stimulate energy flow in the body, Allen says. I feel the tingle.

"People have described it as getting a massage internally," he says.

The time passes too quickly, though, and before I can really zone out, Allen wakes us from our reverie. I glance around. It's like a cave full of bears is coming out of hibernation.

Allen steps out of the room, then returns, a tray filled with small cups of warm chai-like tea in hand.

He passes them out. We sip serenely.

Allen tells me the story of one woman, a regular at more vigorous yoga classes, who showed up at restorative yoga while she was injured. She introduced herself to Allen, then said, "I've been demoted."

Allen disagreed. Restorative yoga isn't a demotion, he says, it's a promotion.

No kidding, I think. Who wouldn't want to do this?

Even Chris has enjoyed his first venture into something he's always considered a little too New Age-y for his taste. I think he just likes the permission to nap.

"I come in and my mind's just babbling away. This slows and breaks the patterns," says Joyce Wolf, 62, a regular in the class. "I think it's like stepping into an alternate reality."

Claudette Murphree, 41, agrees.

"I feel like someone's hitting the reset button," she says. "It feels good, and that's why I keep coming back."

Since class started, the sun has set. I feel recharged and ready, too.

Can I do this every day, please?

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994