Hello there yogis, from Bob and me! Here’s Bob, in a typical pose of rest: this time he’s embracing the teachings of the Buddha as well as the ornamental grass!
Inspired by this pose from our guru Bob (who is a buddhist par excellence when it comes to living in the present moment) as well as being conscious of owing my hatha classes a handout from last term’s work on yoga with a bolster, I’ve put together a simple relaxing sequence to open both the front and back of the body. Many of my students have bought a bolster now and are reporting back that it’s the best piece of kit they’ve had in a long time! Using a bolster to support your body and let gravity do the work is a great way to stretch whilst at the same time relaxing deeply.
In the sequence of photos below I’m using a buckwheat-filled bolster. I find this kind of bolster useful because you can mould the shape to fit the pose you’re doing, as well as making adjustments according to your individual physical requirements. You might also like to use a block and a brick, or if you don’t have these props you can improvise with a cushion or folded blanket. A timer of some sort is also useful as time can tend to melt away in a flash when you’re in these poses! Make sure you find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed to practice, unplug the phone and ditch the mobile. We’re working quite deeply in these poses so at all times move carefully working on “yoga speed” – s l o w l y – not frenetic real life speed! Always pay attention to what your body is saying when you’re trying out poses at home, and if you have any difficulties or doubts at all as to their suitability for you don’t force yourself into them. Always check with a qualified professional if you’re unsure.
So on with the yoga! Our first pose, reclined cobblers pose, is designed to allow you to open through the front of the body, with particular focus on the chest, shoulders and hips. You can use a brick (the lime green prop in the pic which is under the top of the bolster) to elevate the head end, but it’s not an essential, you can just lie with the bolster flat on the floor. You should shake the buckwheat more down to the head end of the bolster and ensure the end which goes under your lower back is patted down to come to a flattened slope so that you don’t have a harsh edge pushing into this part of your body. May not be suitable if you have a back, groin or knee injury.
To come into the pose sit with the back of your hips against the edge of the bolster and carefully lie yourself onto it. Your brick will be on its narrow edge and longways, as shown. Make sure your head and neck feel comfortable as you rest them back, and support with a folded blanket or small cushion at the back of the head if you feel any strain through the neck. Bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together. The further in towards your groins you draw your heels the more stretch you’ll get in the inner thighs and groins, so find a position for your feet either closer to or further away from your groins, depending on how flexible you are in this area. Once you’re in position and you’re certain you’re comfortable, release any effort or holding from your body and let the props do the work! Breathe evenly and deepen the breath (providing this feels comfortable for you). Hold for at least ten breaths, and if you feel comfortable work up over several sessions to five minutes or more, ensuring you’re comfortable and not experiencing pins or needles. To come out inhale and slowly draw the knees together, then exhale to half roll to your right, supporting with your right hand as you come up to sit with your focus on keeping any strain out of the neck.
Next we’re back bending to open up some more through the front of the body and to help maintain spinal flexibility. I have two options for you here, pick the one that feels most suitable for you and your back.
The first option (above) is to lie on your bolster with the top end of the bolster towards the middle of your upper back, so your lower shoulder blades are partially on it and your upper shoulders and head are off the end. Make sure you have a block (nb this is a flatter prop, different from a brick which as you’d expect is roughly the size and shape of a house brick), folded blanket or cushion in position to support the back of the head, but try to have the back of the head and tops of the shoulders lower than the bolster. I’ve taken this pose with my heels resting on a brick (again improvise if you don’t have one, with a cushion etc.) but if you want to take the feet onto the floor this will intensify the stretch in the front of the hips and maybe make the back bend deeper too.
The second option (above) is to lie with the top end of the bolster positioned further down the spine, towards the lower back, and let the rest of the torso drape off the bolster, again using the block to support under the back of your head. Brick under heels is also optional here but go carefully, you’re getting a much deeper back bend already as you can see from the different shapes my spine is making in this photo and the first option, so be very sure you want that big a back bend before you try it. To come out, bend the knees and place the feet on the floor, then CAREFULLY roll to the right supporting with your right hand and arm, and remembering you’re coming off a prop and there’s a bit of a drop to the floor so avoid crashing off!! For either of these variations start with maybe a five to ten breath or 30 seconds to one minute hold, and work up gradually to a few minutes as your spine becomes more flexible.
After back bending you should always counterpose, that is bend the spine in the opposite way to which you’ve been working. A lovely counterpose for back bends is child’s pose (note the beatific smile on my face!), which can be done either on the floor or on a bolster. The version below is a great restorative pose, which can be held for up to five minutes or more, just don’t forget to turn your head to the opposite side halfway through your stay so you work equally through both sides of the neck (set your timer to check this). To come into the pose, kneel with knees apart and slide the bolster longways towards your groins. Let the hips rest back towards your heels (don’t worry if they don’t get there, stick a block or a cushion under the sit bones to bridge the gap,ensuring you can rest down and release the hips) and lie down onto the length of the bolster, wrapping your arms around the end in a delicious hug, or just resting them to the sides. Release and be blissful! Work up from a few breaths to several minutes (and don’t forget to turn the neck halfway through!)
We’re working more into the upper back and neck in our next bolster pose. Please be very careful with your neck in this one and leave if out if you have any neck issues. It’s a restorative fish pose. Here’s the photo:
You’ll need to sit with the bolster behind you, with the length of it across the mat. Have your block, folded blanket or cushion positioned behind the bolster to support your head. Lie back over the bolster, so that you can bring your armpits above the top edge of it and rest your arms around the sides, the body of the bolster will be underneath your upper back. Ensure your shoulders are draping over the edge of it. Carefully extend your head back so that the crown of the head rests on the block. Ensure your neck feels comfortable. The legs are extended straight in front of you. Relax once you’ve found a comfortable, sustainable position and breathe deeply, as appropriate to your rhythm of breath. You will want to build this pose up gradually, and not over-stay: technically we’re in “inversion” territory here, which means your head is lower than your heart. Start with a few breaths, then build up to a suitable maximum of maybe three minutes, as long as this feels appropriate and doesn’t make you light headed. Fish is not recommended if you have neck, lower back or shoulder injuries, high or low blood pressure, or if you suffer from migraines or insomnia.
Now we’re coming to the wind-down poses in our sequence. First up is a prone twist on the bolster, which you’ll need to do on both sides. The following four photographs show the process of getting into the pose and a variation:
First, sit with your left hip next to the bolster and your legs and knees folded to the right side:
Then, you need to twist yourself to the left so that your torso is facing the bolster, without letting your hips move out of position, placing your hands either side of the bolster for support. This means your spine is following the direction of the bolster:
Next, drape the torso down onto the bolster and rest your cheek so your face is pointing the same way as your knees. This will give you a gentler twist than the final option (below). Rest here if this feels like enough of a twist:
Or alternatively if you turn your face to the opposite side to your knees you’ll get a deeper twist through the spine by turning the head:
You can rest here for a few breaths or several minutes. Twists are great for realigning the spine after backbending work, for massaging the internal organs and also for cleansing and helping digestive function. Once you’ve done this, repeat on the other side, beginning with sitting with your right hip against the end of the bolster.
Finally we have a restorative forward fold. If forward folding is challenging for you, prop it up as much as you like! You can use any number of extra cushions or folded blankets where I have the brick in the picture. I recommend making sure you’re not resting face down into the bolster as it’s kind of suffocating … instead rest onto the back of a hand, a fist, forearm or a brick so there’s a gap between your face and the bolster. Here’s the first option:
I’m sitting with my legs and feet together, and the bolster positioned a little away from my body to allow me space to fold. I’m wrapping my arms and hands around the end of the bolster but you dont’ have to do that, you can rest them folded onto the bolster or down by your sides if you prefer. Remember the extra props under the brick if you can’t fold this far forward!
In this second variation I’m making a fist and resting my forehead onto it. You can use this if you don’t have a brick. Make it two fists on top of one another if needs be! Rest here for a few breaths and work up to several minutes.
After you come out of your last pose remember that you’ve been working deeply and relaxing, so you need to give yourself time to drift back from yoga world back to reality (shame!). This is a great practice to do before bedtime. Add a warm bath with some bath salts and essential oils or your fave bubble bath and it’s utter deliciousness!
I’d like to thank Isaac Whitmore, age 12, my partner’s son, for his help in creating this post by taking the pictures. He was very patient and dilligent under technical stress. We must work out how to use the camera before we start the next one, Isaac!
Happy practising and Namaste Yogis!