I’m one of those Type-A New Yorkers whose life is always scheduled to the max. I teach yoga; run my own business; serve as the primary caregiver for a sick parent; and, of course, pay the bills, walk the dog, do the laundry, and a million other things. It’s challenging for me to find a moment to relax, yet as a yoga teacher, I’ve learned firsthand the irreplaceable value of quieting the body and mind. The question is, how can I fit relaxation into my hurried, harried everyday life?
Recently, when I was reading Plan B, by Anne Lamott, I stumbled on an appealing idea: She says that during particularly stressful times, when life feels like it’s moving too fast, you have to make a conscious choice to step back and relax. Her solution is to go on a cruise. But her “cruise” doesn’t happen on a ship. It happens on the couch! She simply takes her favorite comforter, pillows, and books to the living room; lies down on the sofa; and sinks in for a while. “It’s unbelievably healing,” she says. “It resets me.”
As I reflected on Lamott’s suggestion, I realized that going on a regular couch cruise is exactly what restorative yoga does, too—except that the relaxation is more conscious and, therefore, more rejuvenating. It renews your energy by creating openness in your body and calming your nervous system. Yoga teaches that the practice of relaxation is one of the best things you can do for your health—and your peace of mind.
One of the best ways to experience this is with Supta Baddha Konasana, a magical, vacation-like yoga pose that lets you achieve a deep state of rest in 5 to 20 minutes. This pose provides a stretch for the inner thighs and opens the hips, enhancing circulation to the vital organs of elimination and reproduction in the lower belly. It also creates a quiet chest opening, like that of Savasana (Corpse Pose), especially broadening through the collarbones and the front of the shoulders when the upper back is supported.
- Increases blood circulation in the lower abdomen
- Can improve digestion
- Stretches the inner thighs
- Increases range of external rotation in the hips
- Calms the nervous system
- Knee injury (for unsupported version)
- Low-back pain
Supta Baddha Konasana can be practiced without props, or with minimal support from blocks or the wall. But when practiced with a full array of blankets, bolsters, and other props, it is the queen of all restorative yoga poses. By supporting your body from every side and angle, it creates the conditions for true relaxation to happen. It is a powerful antidote to the state of stress that many of us live with on a daily basis. Like all restorative yoga, it dials down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response (the hyperalert state we go into when stressed) and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the “rest and digest” response, which supports digestion, relaxes muscles, lowers the heart rate, and promotes a good night’s sleep.
You may find Supta Baddha Konasana to be a good stretch, especially through the hips. But in the end, this pose is not about stretching or doing anything; it’s about letting go of craving—for achieving a deeper stretch, or your busy life’s goals—and finding contentment.
You want to do it right now, don’t you? Before taking the luxury cruise—the propped, restorative version of this pose—start by exploring it unadorned. All you need is some open floor space and a rug or a blanket to practice on.
First, sit on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with your back upright and your legs stretched straight out in front of you. Place your hands in the inner creases of your knees and use your fingers to bend your legs, pulling your knees toward your body. Gently let your thighs fall open and keep your feet together, as you carefully draw your heels toward your pelvis. From here, lie down as if you were moving into Savasana, with your arms alongside your body, palms up. Release your shoulders, tucking your shoulder blades onto your back. Take several deep breaths and relax.
There is a lot of opening going on in your hips, groins, and inner thighs, and for some people the sensations quickly become intense. Don’t overstay your welcome; three to five minutes is plenty. (Even if you are superflexible, your inner thighs can get overstretched.) If you feel any strain in your inner thighs or knees, it’s time to come out of the pose. Support your outer thighs with your hands as you draw your legs together. Roll onto your right side and slowly sit up.
If you want to stay longer in the pose, go for the middle-path version. Slip blocks or pillows under your thighs so you experience some opening without straining your thigh muscles, hips, or knees. The props allow you to soften your inner groins, letting the stretch come more gradually.
Take an interest in your experience as you come into the setup. Listen to your body and find the sweet spot that allows you to open naturally. You can stay in this supported variation for up to 20 minutes.
Now, try the full-on supported version of the pose, for a delicious instant vacation. You will need one or two bolsters, two blocks, three or four blankets, one yoga strap, and three eye pillows. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s worth it! Because once you are on your cruise, you don’t want to worry about a thing.
To start, fold the blankets in quarters, and then in thirds. Place a bolster on the floor and put a folded blanket at one end, to pillow your head when you lie down. Put one block and one folded blanket on each side of your setup. (For more chest opening, place a second bolster on the floor under the first, crosswise, so that the top bolster is at an angle like a ramp.)
Now snuggle right up to the bolster until the end touches your sacrum. Sit up tall in Dandasana and place your legs in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Make a big loop with your yoga strap. Drop it over your head, reaching your arms through, as if you were putting on a T-shirt. Run the belt low across your sacrum and over your inner thighs. Make sure the tail of the strap is on the same side as your dominant hand (so if you are right-handed, the tail should be on your right). Now loop the strap over your ankles and then around your feet. With your dominant hand, pull the belt snug, but not tight, bringing your feet closer to your pelvis. The strap holds your feet and legs in position, so you don’t have to exert any muscular effort. There’s no need to pull the feet as far in as possible. Go just to the point where you feel a gentle stretch in the inner thighs, but no strain.
Put one block under each thigh so that your legs are well supported. Adjust the block placement to soften the intensity of the stretch in your inner thighs. Again, you do not want to go to your maximum point of stretch, but just shy of that. The sweet spot is different for different people, depending on how tight their hips are, but you are looking for a gentle sensation of opening, not a strong stretch. Lie back on the bolster. Arrange the blanket so that it feels comfortable under your neck and supports your head.
Slide your hands down to the top of your buttocks and smooth the flesh down in the direction of your feet. This will help create a sense of length and space in your low back and sacrum. If your low back feels uncomfortable, sit up and place another folded blanket on the floor just in front of the bolster to create a stairstep effect. Sit on the folded blanket, carefully lie back down, and see how this feels. The extra height provided by the blanket should lessen the curve in your back, and eliminate any strain. Take time to get the setup just right until you are comfortable.
Now position the other two folded blankets so that they are angled in the natural direction of your arms when they are relaxed by your sides. Take two eye pillows in one hand and one in the other hand. Place one of the two over your eyes (or get a friend to help), and then lower your forearms and elbows onto the folded blankets. You should still have one soft eye pillow in each hand; turn your palms face-up and let the weight of the eye pillows encourage the release of any tension you are holding in your fingers, wrists, shoulders, and even your chest. For extra comfort and warmth, ask a friend to gently lay another blanket over your torso.
Ahhhh…you’re now on the cruise. Give yourself some time to settle in and make any adjustments you need. Nudge a block or wiggle from side to side. Your setup should allow you to feel completely comfortable and supported, as if you were being cradled or held.
In this open and receptive position, take a few deep, conscious breaths. Notice the breath in your back as your lungs expand against the bolster. Feel the breath through the right side of your body and through the left side. Feel it in the front of your body, flowing from the bottom of your lungs all the way up to your collarbones. Now, taking one more breath, inhale equally into all those places, and exhale evenly out of all those places, noticing how you feel. Now let go, and stop trying to do anything.
Another way to explore this pose is with the legs supported by a wall, or even by the headboard of your bed. This variation is a delicious combination of Supta Baddha Konasana and Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). To try it, sit on the floor 6 to 10 inches from the wall, turn sideways, and then swing your feet up the wall while lying down on your back. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the wall and then bring the feet close to your pelvis. On your bed, it’s even nicer. Take two bed pillows, and place one under your hips before you come into the pose, and the other under your head, once you’re in position. This extra cushioning may help you drop into a restful state while you experience the hip-opening benefits of Supta Baddha Konasana as well as the heart-strengthening benefits of Viparita Karani. Heaven!
By practicing Supta Baddha Konasana, you begin to understand, in an embodied way, the true value of self-care. I think that’s what Anne Lamott really meant when she recommended the couch cruise. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to stop overextending, to stop being goal oriented, and to stop thinking we have to take care of everything right now. Why not let the laundry and the dog wait, commit to one less engagement, and instead schedule time to take care of yourself? If you do that by practicing Supta Baddha Konasana, I guarantee that, when you reengage with your active agenda, you will be more efficient, and happier, too.
Yoga (even the rigorous, athletic kind) is never about attaining goals. In fact, one of the prerequisites for yoga as taught in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is santosha, or contentment. Contentment doesn’t mean being passive. It means approaching whatever life hands us without resistance, with an attitude of ease; it means being receptive to what life offers. You can plant these contentment seeds when you’re lying still in Supta Baddha Konasana. Then after your yoga cruise has ended, don’t forget what you experienced. You can always flash back to that feeling and relaunch your relaxed state of mind. That’s how yoga shows up for you in your life.