Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose)
I fall into my yoga practice with relish akin to getting into bed at the end of a long day. Many people start their practice with a series of asanas such as Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) to warm the body up, but I usually start by lying over a bolster that I've placed under my back.
At first glance, this may seem like a strange way to prepare for active asanas. Bolsters are more commonly used in restorative practices or, occasionally, to prepare for backbends. But work with bolsters can provide deeper gifts.
I discovered these gifts some years ago when I went through a long series of discouraging injuries. For several months, my yoga practice consisted entirely of lying over bolsters. I especially liked using a bolster to support a fairly deep backbend. To my delight, this position enforced an introspection that revealed sensations and feelings I had never experienced in all my years of yoga. More than ever before, I found myself aware of my breath and of how its rhythm created subtle internal currents.
Over time, I overcame my injuries. But as I returned to more active asanas, I was determined to maintain my newfound internal awareness. Years later, I still rely on bolster work to set the tone for my practice and to help me understand challenging asanas.
Bolstering Your Practice
To practice this supported backbend, you'll need a bolster. You can buy a prefabricated bolster, but I prefer to use blankets because they are adaptable. You will need to experiment a bit to find the right bolster for you.
If your back is stiff, start modestly by rolling a single blanket into a firm cylinder. If you are more experienced or flexible, try a bolster rolled from two blankets. Sit on the floor in front of the bolster and lie back over it, positioning it under your middle and lower back. Relax your legs and melt backward over the bolster, lowering your upper shoulders and resting your head on the floor. Relax your arms on the floor at about the level of your shoulders.
As you begin, your body will probably grab your attention first. Your sensations may range from complete ease to significant discomfort. Seek an experience that is difficult enough to make you aware of places where you are tight, but which allows you to coax those tense areas into the state of alert relaxation that is essential in a hatha yoga practice.
If your lower back is in pain, your breathing strained, your neck crunched, or your head doesn't reach the floor, your position needs to be modified. Reposition the bolster by moving it slightly higher or lower. If that adjustment does not help, place a smaller blanket roll under your shoulders and neck or reduce the size of your roll. If your back totally rebels, remove the bolster and consider trying it again later in your practice. (When you first try this approach, you may find it easier to warm up by practicing more active asanas first.)
Once you have found a position that feels right, challenging but not too uncomfortable, begin to turn your attention inward. Though you have already made some adjustments to become more comfortable, the sheer physical challenge of adapting to this unfamiliar position may still overshadow the more subtle inner landscape of the pose. Now your real work begins as you seek a way to dive beneath the strong sensations on the surface to an inner place where there is room for you to breathe smoothly and be both mentally and physically calm. The support of your bolster may allow you to create more ease and spaciousness than you can when you have to support all your weight with your muscles.