How (and Why) to Support the Trunk and Head in Savasana
If it's so perfect as it is, why do we so often prop our students up in Savasana, supporting the trunk and head on blankets, bolsters, blocks and other props? Why not leave well enough alone? Most of the time, we probably should leave well enough alone. More often than not, plain old flat Savasana is the preferred pose. But there are legitimate reasons to use support in Savasana—not just occasionally, but frequently. And luckily, the supported and classical versions of the pose are not mutually exclusive. You can teach them both, even in the same class, even one right after the other. To understand when you might want to elevate a student's trunk and head in Savasana, let's look at some effects that yoga teachers have observed when they prop the pose this way. Supported Savasana:
Note that every one of these effects can be helpful in the practice of pPranayama. That's why many teachers put students in Supported Savasana as part of their pranayama instruction. Other reasons to support Savasana include helping students rest when they have a cold or allergies, improving posture (by counteracting slumping of the chest), improving the left-right symmetry of the trunk, and treating shoulder injuries (by creating freedom in certain movements of the shoulder blades, upper ribs, and upper spine).
Perhaps the most familiar way to support Savasana is to place a bolster lengthwise under the back from the lumbar spine (the lower back) to the head, and to place a second bolster or a folded blanket under the head to lift it still higher (see top photo). However, there are many alternate ways to prop the pose, and each has its pros and cons. Knowing the anatomy and physiology of the effect you are trying to produce can help you choose the best setup for each student.
Let's consider alertness first. Although no one has ever proven it scientifically, Supported Savasana probably makes students more alert in two ways. One is by stimulating sensory nerves in the back, chest, abdomen and shoulders, either with the direct pressure of the prop on the back or the resulting stretch on the front of the body. The harder the prop is, the stronger this stimulation will be (for example, a wooden block will be more stimulating than a bolster). The second is by reducing blood pressure in sensors located in the neck and upper chest. The higher these sensors are lifted above the heart, the less pressure they feel, because gravity resists the heart's efforts to pump blood up to them. The fall in pressure at the sensors can be strong enough to trigger a reflex that speeds up the heartbeat and activates the brain. The higher the prop, the stronger this reflex will be, and the more the brain will be activated. So if you are trying to keep a student alert in Savasana, a tall, hard prop (such as a wooden block standing on end) will usually work best. Once you've chosen your chest prop, you'll need to choose a suitable head prop to go with it. We'll discuss how to do this later.
Now let's look at how Supported Savasana reduces nasal congestion. This effect is probably also produced by a fall in blood pressure, but this time in the nose. Raising the nose above the heart causes gravity to drain fluids away from it. Note, however, that if the tilt is too steep, the reflex that speeds up the heart may kick in so strongly that the heart actually pumps more fluids up to the nose than it would in a milder tilt, making the congestion worse. Also, if your goal is to help your student rest, too much tilt might activate her brain more than you want it to. So if you are trying to clear your student's nose and help her relax, find the minimal lift that produces the desired decongesting effect, and refrain from taking her any higher. You may be able to enhance this effect by putting a little extra support under her head but not her chest, to increase the lift of her nose without increasing the lift of her trunk. Another factor to consider for clearing the nose is the way you prop the chest. Opening the chest in this pose may help dry the nasal region by creating a big, low-pressure space for fluids to drain into. If the prop is too soft it won't open the chest enough to do this efficiently, but if it's too hard it may be too activating, so a firm but somewhat yielding prop (like a stack of long-folded, tightly woven blankets) may provide the optimal compromise for opening the nasal passages while promoting relaxation.
If you are using Supported Savasana to help a student open her chest, bend her spine back, feel the alignment of her back ribs, or roll her shoulder blades backward, a hard prop (one or more wooden blocks, half-blocks, wedges, or some other firm surface) under the back is usually more effective than a yielding prop like a bolster or a stack of blankets. You can focus a hard prop more accurately on a particular spot, it doesn't collapse under your student's weight, and it gives clearer tactile feedback. You have to choose the shape and placement of the prop carefully to achieve the effect you're after. If you want to broaden your student's back, tilt her shoulder blades backward, promote her awareness of her back ribcage, or open the lateral part of her ribcage, use a broad prop (try two blocks laid flat, side by side, in contact with one another and oriented lengthwise along her trunk). If you want to focus on backbending her spine back, puffing the center of her chest, or leaving space for the back of her ribcage to expand downward on inhalation, use a narrow prop (like a single block laid on its edge or standing on end, oriented lengthwise along her spine between her shoulder blades).
Students—and teachers—often ask how far up the back (toward the head) they should place the prop that supports the trunk. The answer depends on the purpose of the pose and varies from student to student, but here are some general guidelines. One common mistake is to place the prop too low on the back, so the front lower ribcage opens but the uppermost part of the ribcage, just below the collarbones, does not. This often occurs in the two-bolster setup mentioned earlier, especially if the floor bolster is tall and the student's sacrum is placed too near its end as she prepares to lie back into the pose. Sitting too close to a high bolster or other prop prevents the sacrum from tilting backward sufficiently in the pose and forces the lumbar spine to bend sharply around the end of the prop; this focuses the pose on the lower spine instead of the chest. It's usually best to leave at least a few inches of space (sometimes much more) between the sacrum and the end of the prop when your student prepares to recline, so her pelvis can tilt back and her lumbar can lengthen as she lies down. Another way to improve the two-bolster setup is to add a broad, firm prop, like a wooden half-brick or wedge, on top of the floor bolster to support the lower half of the shoulder blades (see bottom photo). If you do this, make sure that the prop pushes the lower half of the shoulder blades strongly upward (forward) into the rib cage but does not push the top half upward (forward). This will translate not only into an effective backward tilt of the shoulder blades, but also into a good opening of the front and side ribcage.
Whatever technique you use to support a student's trunk in Savasana, there are certain rules of thumb that almost always apply to supporting the head. First, unless you have a specific reason not to, tilt the head so the forehead is positioned higher than the chin. Assuming the shoulder blades stay depressed toward the waist, this tilt will put a gentle stretch on the upper trapezius muscles, which run from the base of the skull and the back of the neck to the upper-outer shoulder blades. Many yogis believe that the forehead-elevated position promotes inward mental focus, in contrast to a chin-lifted position, which they believe promotes daydreaming.
Note that whenever you increase the height of the support under the upper back (for example, by adding a half-brick to a bolster, as in the bottom photo), you lift the upper thoracic spine the part of the spine—that's attached to the upper ribcage—higher relative to the head and neck. This will tilt the head and neck backward relative to the upper chest, lifting the chin more than the forehead. So when you raise the prop under the upper back, you usually also have to raise the prop under the head to keep the forehead as far above the chin as it was before. The half-brick-supported pose shown in the bottom photo does not have extra head support, but it could benefit from it.
Second, students usually find the head support prop to be much more comfortable if it also supports the entire length of the neck, all the way to its base. The head/neck prop can brush the skin that overlies the upper trapezius muscles at the point where they angle off from the neck, but take care that the prop does not roll this skin, or any part of the shoulder, forward.
Finally, if you are using Supported Savasana to teach the early stages of Jalandhara Bandha, remember that this bandha ultimately presses the breastbone into the chin and vice-versa. So as you raise the support under the head and neck to bring the chin down, you should also raise the support under the spine between the shoulder blades to lift the breastbone up.
When all is said and done, in the gentle competition for your students' hearts and minds, Supported Savasana may still be unable to beat the sublime neutrality of classical Savasana. Nevertheless, a good Supported Savasana can do many things that a classical Savasana cannot. It's well worth learning how to get the most out of it.
Roger Cole, Ph.D. is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher (www.yogadelmar.com), and Stanford-trained scientist. He specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.