Yoga can be used to help muscles relax after exercise and stress

Restorative Yoga: A Muscle Recovery Guide

By: Mallory Hope

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

While regular exercise is a foundation of good health, workouts can take a lot out of you, especially over time. Some experts agree that certain types of yoga can help.

Clinical research has shown that yoga may reduce stress and fatigue and improve muscle strength, balance, mobility and flexibility. In addition, when combining the practice of yoga into daily training and exercise sessions of athletes, it may enhance muscular functioning, support recovery and improve performance, physical fitness and posture. 

Yoga’s recovery benefits may be as much mind as muscle. After all, workouts aren’t the only things that can stress us out. In today’s busy world, our bodies are constantly focused on the sympathetic nervous system—those “fight or flight” feelings that make us eager and hungry to thrive (and sometimes just survive). This feeling can be exhausting and can lead to more stress and fatigue, especially if your schedule doesn’t include enough recovery time.

Accepting and allowing yourself to be at rest is an important self-care tool—no matter what exercise program you are on. So is the practice of active recovery, such as restorative yoga.

What is recovery yoga?

Recovery, or restorative, yoga is a great way to incorporate gentle, mind- and muscle-soothing exercise and stretching into your workout routine or recovery day. Restorative yoga helps to ignite your parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest and recovery” elements) and support healing—both physically and emotionally.

Restorative yoga focuses on holding and relaxing into poses, or asanas. This activity also helps to lower stress. Both the physical and emotional elements of this yoga routine help with recovery from overexertion.

5 benefits of restorative yoga

A recovery yoga class can turn a day of passive recovery into gentle boost for your mind and muscles. The combination of mindful activity, stretching and deep breathing should leave you feeling calm and loose.

An active recovery day like this is associated with many wellness benefits:

  1. It may help reduce muscle soreness after a workout or prolonged exercise.
  2. It benefits the mind, promoting relaxation, cognition and focus. It also helps lower stress and cortisol levels and may improve mood.
  3. It helps manage chronic pain such as lower back pain (similar to the effects of physical therapy). It may also help to manage hypertension when combined with pharmacological treatment.
  4. It promotes flexibility and range of motion and contributes to longevity.
  5. It supports bone health and helps builds balance, strength and coordination through low-intensity exercise.

Can yoga help muscle recovery?

Research has studied how yoga may help relieve muscle soreness, prevent injury among athletes and increase their flexibility, range of motion, balance and relaxation. Some learn recovery yoga exercises to help deal with the stress of competition as well as to minimize muscle soreness. But you don't have to be an athlete to benefit from a downward dog. Active recovery workouts can benefit people at every activity level and contribute to a long, healthy life.

Best type of yoga for muscle recovery

There are many types of yoga practice, each with a different focus. The activity level varies, and some use props such as resistance bands, foam rollers or blocks. For example:

  • Yin yoga is a meditative, slow-paced style of holding poses that is good for those just learning. This practice can be easily adapted into chair yoga.
  • Vinyasa or flow yoga ties yoga poses with breath in a continuous flow. It involves more movement than other types.
  • Bikram is a form of hot yoga, and the practice sticks to a set routine with strict rules.
  • Hatha describes any more-traditional style that includes a balance of movement, breathing and meditation. It is typically a gentler practice that is appropriate for those who are more experienced, as well as those just learning.  

While these types of yoga all have their mind and body benefits, when your goal is healing, turn to restorative yoga, which promotes stillness and stress relief. It is ideal for muscle recovery because it is designed to use props to support the body and encourage complete relaxation.

Top 5 restorative yoga poses

Ready to give your muscles some active recovery? Here are five restorative movements to help get you started:

1. Child’s Pose (Balasana) is a foundational pose, or asana. It is a perfect post-exercise movement to find space to rest. Sit on your knees, connect your toes together, knees as wide as your mat, and fold forward. Allow your ribs to relax on your thighs and lengthen your arms to the top of your mat. Settle your forehead (at the point between your eyebrows) onto your mat. This position can assist with blood flow and allow your hips to open.

2. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhāsana) opens the front line of your body. Bridge Pose enables your heart chakra to open while your spine, back of neck, quads and hip flexors feel movement. Lie flat on your back. Plant your feet on the ground about hip distance apart. Hands begin by your side. Tilt your hips up to the sky. Feel free to stop here or roll your shoulders underneath your body, clasping your hands beneath your lifted hips and reaching your hands toward your heels. Keep your gaze lifted to the sky. You can prop a block under your hips for a less intense stretch.

3. Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) is another foundational asana. It can be altered or adjusted for any level and flexibility. Sit on your bottom and extend your legs straight in front of you. You can sit on a yoga blanket or roll the blanket under your knees for a slight bend. Fold your upper body over your lower body. Prop a bolster or yoga block under your head for more support if this forward fold is less accessible. This posture assists with stretching your hips and hamstrings as well as creating a little movement to your digestive system.

4. Legs Up the Wall (Viparita karani) is one of my favorite asanas. This pose physically relaxes the legs, hamstrings and lower back, but more importantly, it can help calm the mind and that pesky “inner voice of worry.” Head over to the wall or tall counter. Situate your gluteus maximus (butt) as close to the wall as you can. Slowly lower your upper body down and lift your legs along the wall (as straight as you can). You can prop your head on a yoga blanket if you’d like.

5. Breathing (Pranayama) is the key ingredient to finding calm, peace and rest within your body. There are several types of breathwork you can consider, such as alternating nostril breathing, lion’s breath and Ujjayi breathing. Before you jump in, my suggestion is to begin by sitting quietly still to find your own natural breathing rhythm. Counting a slow inhale for 4 counts and a relaxing exhale for 4 counts can help. Once you are comfortable with your breathing, you can add a few counts or holds to your breathwork.

Other popular recovery asanas include the Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) and Corpse Pose (Savasana). You can learn other movements in restorative yoga classes that may suit your needs even better.

How often should I do restorative yoga?

You can practice active recovery exercises daily as part of the relaxation phase of a workout. You can also use these mindful recovery exercises to turn a day without a workout (passive recovery) into an active recovery day. This restorative yoga sequence will help prevent overtraining and help sore muscles recover from overexertion.

However you begin your recovery, remember to thank your body for being able to move today and every day. Create your own words of acceptance and gratitude and focus on them to help heal and relax your physical body and emotional state.

About the Author: Based in South Florida, Mallory Hope is a certified practitioner of yoga therapy, which enables yoga postures and yoga logic, breathing and meditation to create a unified mind/body connection and to facilitate the internal and external healing of the body. She is 200 Hour RYT, Yin Certified, Meditation Certified and Barre Certified. You can find her on Instagram at @malloryhopes.