fitness · yoga

When restorative yoga becomes face-plant yoga

Exactly 17 months to the day after I last did in-person restorative yoga, I returned to the mat inside my local yoga studio. There was live music– a guitarist playing quiet improvisational melodies– and the usual mood lighting of battery-operated candles, clustered around each of the columns on the pristine hardwood basement floor. I could hear the whoosh of the enhanced air filtration system, and see masks on the faces of many. We were all required to show proof of vaccination in order to be mask-free (note: from now on, when I do in-person yoga, I’ll wear a mask even though I’m fully vaccinated; seems like the thing to do).

My friend Norah was next to me, all set up for being lulled and transported to the land of yoga bliss. I dutifully configured my mat, bolster, blocks and blankets (restorative yogis don’t travel light) for gentle stretching.

Little did I expect what was to come: a series of poses designed to accentuate relaxation, but which– for me– resulted in face-down claustrophobia and uncomfortable body balancing attempts. Suffice it to say there was more gritting of teeth and thoughts of “are we done yet?” than moments of oneness with the totality of being.

What happened? Did restorative yoga get a lot less kinder and gentler? Did I accidentally stumble onto a Restorative Bootcamp 101 class by mistake?

No. Here’s the culprit: change happened! Changes in my body, changes in my yoga practice, changes in teacher, changes in poses. But I failed to change my expectations in concert with these changes. Let’s look at some of the poses and how things went wrong.

Woman doing a restorative side twist pose with her chest down on the mat and her head turned to the side.
Woman doing a restorative side twist pose with her chest down on the mat and her head turned to the side.

This pose– I have no idea what it’s called– has always been my restorative nemesis. You sit sideways against a bolster, then twist so that your chest is on the mat, and you turn your head to one side. Yeah, right. I’ve never EVER been able to do this pose with any degree of comfort. I have a large bust and it gets in the way, so that my face feels squashed. I try turning my head, but my neck is sometimes fussy, so that’s not a great option, either. So far I’m zero for two here.

Of course, this is a pose that we do on both sides. Great. I asked for a little help on the second side, and the teacher suggested I extend my top leg, which gives more stretch and stability. I did this, but then felt like a human tripod, balancing on my foot, elbow and head. No good, either.

The next pose was a variation on child’s pose. With the bolster. Uh oh.

A woman in child’s pose, chest down on a raised bolster, knees wide, arms by her sides.

Once again, I’m supposed to lower my chest to the bolster (by this time I’m actually sweating, both from the fidgeting and the dread), turn my head (but it doesn’t like to do that!), and basically sit on the tops of my feet. Doing this last thing is always torture for me. Hero pose is not a possible yoga pose for me (or Samantha, it turns out).

Of course, the teacher (who was really knowledgeable, attentive and helpful) planned ways to make the pose more comfortable for us. We had two blankets folded into nifty squares to place beneath our bums for more support. Whew, good!

But here’s the rub: With the blanket supports, my weight shifted forward into a full face-plant position. Without the blanket supports, I was in pain from the tops of my feet.

Honestly, at that point I should’ve just declared defeat, picked up Thai takeout, and turned on Netflix. But we were almost done, so I hung in there.

Thankfully, we moved to our backs, did some poses that were indeed restful, and then did savasana (corpse pose), so all’s well that ends well.

What did I learn here? That I cannot expect to drop back into all the pre-pandemic things I used to do and expect them to be the same. I’ve changed. They’ve changed. That calls for increased awareness, increased self-accommodation, and a little courage to make adjustments whenever they’re called for.

Because no one wants to do face-plant yoga.

4 thoughts on “When restorative yoga becomes face-plant yoga

  1. I’m so sorry to hear you had such a bad experience with a restorative yoga class. I too have a large bust, and I find that one, or two folded Mexican blankets laid across the bolster help with this in Child’s pose. Make sure they go under your bust, so your ribcage is resting on the blankets. Blanket(s) behind the knees help, but I also like a rolled one under the tops of my ankles, so there is less pressure on my insteps. To help your neck in this pose, try shifting your weight higher up the bolster, so that your head is almost off the bolster. For the side lying twist pose, don’t turn your head in the opposite direction. This reduces the twist, but will be much better for a cranky neck. Also, place two folded Mexican blankets between the knees to make the twist less aggressive on the lower spine. You can also use the folded blanket as a wedge between your breasts. A good restorative teacher will be able to help you modify your poses, especially if you let them know before class what areas you have trouble with. Oh, and yes, Hero’s pose is horrendous, or contraindicated, for anyone with artificial or cranky knees! I’ve never been able to do that pose, even with half the props in the studio and a chair. Honor your body. Raise your hand if you need help getting into a pose with extra props, or need an alternate pose. I hope your next restorative yoga class leaves you feeling refreshed, and not frazzled.

    1. Thank you so much for the detailed help! Another problem I had was that I was worried about asking the teacher for a lot of help (even though she was walking around and totally available) because I’m not sure what our current COVID-yoga adjustment practices are. It’s such uncharted territory! I’m definitely going back, armed with your tips, ALL the props, and a little more gentleness for me. Thanks again.

      1. I’m so glad you are willing to try again. Take a look at books on restorative yoga by Judith Hanson Lasater. She was a student of B.K.S. Iyengar, who was famous for “bringing the floor to the student” rather than the student to the floor. He introduced the use of props to make asanas doable for most people. I had the privilege of taking seminars with Judith. Her books and teachings can give you the tips I shared with you and so much more. You’ve inspired me to consider teaching restorative yoga again. I haven’t done so in around 8 years.

  2. Another tip! Sit up on the blankets in child’s pose, like you did, but then you can lean forward onto the seat of a folding chair (many yoga studios have them) and place your forehead on your folded arms. Some people like to prop the bolster against the chair to get that feeling of pressure on their front bodies, and others don’t because they find that suffocating. Restorative yoga should not be uncomfortable and you are very well within your rights to do a different pose if the one offered isn’t accessible to you, if you don’t want to ask the teacher to help–go rogue! Savasana! I wish you comfort and rest in your practice: you deserve comfort and rest.

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