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.

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.

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