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.
As you lie on the bolster, respond to areas that feel tight or uncomfortable by trying to stretch and move them. Use your hands to gently pull your head and lengthen your neck. To lengthen the lower back, tuck your tailbone and slide your hips farther away from the bolster. Enhance your fine tuning by turning your attention to your breathing. Initially, your breath may reflect the discomfort in your body by being slightly ragged. Consciously slow it down and slightly extend each exhalation. As your breathing steadies, notice how it develops a rhythm that expands beyond the chest to resonate through your whole body. Coaxing that pulse into your tightest areas is your goal.
Facing the Challenge
As you lie over the bolster, you may at first reflexively tighten in reaction to the strong back arch. However, it is critical that you consciously soften and make more room inside your body. Continue to modify your position (even reshape your bolster if necessary) until you are at your "edge"—that place where you feel yourself physically challenged, but still able to maintain a steady breathing rhythm.
Though you are letting go, your body should not collapse. Just flopping is not letting go. In fact, undoing resistance should be a highly conscious process with distinct and tangible sensations. Tension must be faced, dissolved, and finally recycled into true expansion. As your surface grows quiet, become acquainted with the inner movement that pulsates through your body on the beat of each breath. Observe this "undoing" process closely: You are learning to recognize resistance and transform it into renewal, a skill that will mature until it can support even the most challenging asanas.
When you feel ready to take on more challenge, cup your hands behind your head and bring your elbows in so they are shoulder-width apart. Pause for a moment to feel how broad your upper back becomes when you do this, and then, as you exhale, slowly begin to spread your elbows wider without narrowing your upper back. This will open your chest and thoracic spine even more. Keep your elbows wide for a few breaths before relaxing your arms out at your sides and on to the floor at shoulder level.
Letting yourself completely fall back into the bolster, close your eyes and allow the rhythm of your breathing to draw you inward. Depending on how comfortable and absorbed you are, the time you spend here may vary from several minutes to half an hour or more. At the end, in your clean slate of a body, you will be ready for the renewal that comes from practicing asanas.
When you are ready to leave the bolster, put your feet flat on the floor. Removing any props you've placed under your neck, lift your hips and slowly push yourself over the bolster onto your shoulders. Move the bolster under your hips and hug your knees into your chest for a minute or so. You may feel mild discomfort in your lower back that should subside quickly, to be replaced by heat that spreads throughout your back.
You are now ready to progress to a more active yoga practice informed by the skills you have developed over the bolster—a practice more likely to find the balance of physical action, internal focus, and conscious breathing that form the core of hatha yoga. Your time spent over the bolster can help your asanas reach the ideal described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra: "alert without tension and relaxed without dullness" (translation by T.K.V. Desikachar, from The Heart of Yoga, Inner Traditions, 1995).
Stepping It Up
If you know your practice will include backbends, you can save your bolster work until you come to the point where backbends loom. If you find the bolster work already described easy, consider adding this even deeper version. It is wonderful at the beginning of your practice, but is especially effective when preparing for backbending.
Place a double blanket roll on top of a stool or milk crate. Sit on the bolster and slide your hips down just enough so that you can lie back and position the bolster in the small of your back. Lie back, letting your back melt into the bolster, and allowing your arms, legs, and head to hang. You may be tall enough or flexible enough so that your head reaches the floor. In that case, try folding one or two blankets between the crate and bolster for more height.
Hanging in this position may not be easy at first because your spine must be flexible enough to tolerate the weight of your hips and shoulders. You may reduce any strain by placing a block under your head and resting your hands on your chest—or you may even have to bail out for now. Don't be discouraged. This does not mean you won't ever go further, only that there is enough of an obstacle that you must temporarily retreat. The work on the lower bolster is plenty of challenge and will eventually prepare you to go deeper.
If this deeper position is within your capacity, take several minutes to relax into the pose just as you did with the lower bolster. Letting yourself trust the support of the bolster, slow your breath and extend your exhalation as you adjust, lengthening and broadening your back into a deep, even, comfortable arch—a prelude to the malleable spine that is desirable in all backbends. You can deepen the arching action further by either stretching your arms overhead or bending them and sliding your hands past your ears to hold the stool. In either case keep your elbows shoulder-width apart: With this alignment, you'll properly direct the bending action to your thoracic spine, instead of arching by hyperextending your shoulders. To open your chest even more, roll your top shoulder blades back toward the stool.
Approach this higher bolster with the mindfulness you have honed by working with the lesser bolster. Do not sacrifice the pumping rhythm of your breath, as it will help you stay over the bolster longer and in more comfort. Stay as long as you feel you can continue to replace tension with relaxation and expansion. To come off the bolster, slide your hips to the floor and lie back against your props. At this point, your spine should feel warm, your breath steady, and your focus sharp. You're prepared to respond with sureness to the challenges that will arise in the upcoming backbends.
Our destination in this article is Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), a daunting asana that requires suppleness in the spine as well as open shoulders. It is not a pose for beginners, and you may think, "That's too advanced for me!" Even if you are right, let's see how far you can go. When I'm working toward an asana I know is near my limits, I approach it in stages. Hatha yoga is, after all, a journey that places unavoidable obstacles in your path. So what if you are only able to go partway toward your goal at first? Facing obstacles in your practice is not only inescapable, it is a crucial part of practice and reveals lessons and insights even more important than the completed pose. If you practice with this attitude, you'll reap the most valuable benefits of practice—and your asanas will probably change, too.
Beginning the Journey
The first stage in your journey toward Dwi Pada is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose). Begin by lying on your back. Place your feet flat on the floor with your heels under your knees, then step your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Relax your arms at your sides. Pause for a moment to reconnect with the inner rhythm of your breath and the movement that ripples outward from it. Exhale strongly as you lengthen the backs of your thighs and extend your calves from knee to foot to raise your hips and bring you onto your shoulders. This movement is powerful and requires a strong enough breath to generate sufficient action to lift your hips. You may need several breaths to create your maximum height. If your lower back is testy, extend the backs of your thighs even more and, ever so slightly, tuck your tailbone in. Ground your heels by extending your calves down toward the floor. This action will lift your hips, take some of the weight off your shoulders, and allow you to extend your spine up and open your chest. If this lift eludes you, step your feet an inch or so farther away from your shoulders and try again.
Next, join your hands under your back, straightening your arms and bringing them to the floor. If you can't achieve the stretch in the arms and shoulders needed for these two actions, try rolling your outer arms toward the floor. This may help you to straighten and lengthen your arms more. Conversely, if you tend to hyperextend your elbows, bend them slightly and plant your elbow points on the floor, using this leverage to slide your shoulders toward your feet. Try not to squeeze your shoulders closer together than they already are. At the same time, roll your top shoulder blades toward your tailbone. Ideally, this action will open your chest and make your shoulders feel lighter. Practice this movement repeatedly, since it is a real help in backbends, but make sure it doesn't weaken your leg action: The backs of your shins should remain perpendicular over your heels. Hold the pose as long as you are comfortable and then come down on an exhalation by gently tucking your tailbone in as you release your handclasp and roll your spine down onto the floor, tailbone last.
Repeat Bridge Pose several times. With each repetition your body should warm up and adapt more. Using the insights you've gleaned from working over the bolsters, support yourself more and more by breath-initiated inner expansion, instead of relying only on your external muscles. You'll find yourself no longer struggling to stay up, but instead answering an urge that propels you into an ever deeper backbend.
The second part of your backbending adventure is Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose). Many of us have great difficulty achieving the extension in the arms and shoulders necessary for lifting into this pose. This accomplishment may elude you for some time, but persistent practice will yield results.
Lie on your back as you did earlier, with your feet flat on the floor, heels under your knees, and then step your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Place your palms shoulder-width apart on the floor by your ears, with fingertips pointing toward your shoulders. Think like an engineer for a moment. To hold your weight efficiently, your arm position needs to be structurally sound, with forearms perpendicular to the floor and elbows over wrists. This alignment will reduce the amount of sheer grunt work needed in Urdhva Dhanurasana and help you avoid the common mistake of muscling yourself into the pose simply by pushing really hard with your arms. Remember, you have a pair of strong legs; make sure you use them.
Again, close your eyes for a moment to engage your inner focus. With a steady exhalation, extend your back thighs and calves to root the feet and raise your hips until you are once again on your shoulders. Pause. With your next exhalation, use your legs to pull your hips, shoulders, and head off the floor while rotating your upper shoulder blades toward your tailbone and extending your arms straight. If all goes well, you'll be in Urdhva Dhanurasana. Congratulations!
Refine the asana over several repetitions. Most asanas benefit from less effort, and this one is no exception. For greater efficiency, use the extension of your calves and rotation of your shoulder blades to bring your arms as perpendicular to the floor as possible. Maintain steady breathing while you coax your back into a fluid bend, like the opening you experienced over the bolsters. You'll be amazed at how much longer and more comfortably you can stay in the pose when you support it as much by inner expansion as by external action.
To come out of the pose, bend your arms, tuck your chin and tailbone in as you return your shoulders to the floor, and roll the spine out, vertebra by vertebra, to lie down.
Unfortunately, sometimes even our most sincere efforts go unrewarded. If you simply cannot lift off the floor into Urdhva Dhanurasana, continue preparing yourself with more bolster work and with asanas such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Full Arm Balance, or Handstand), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose).
Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana
Before going further toward Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, you should be able to practice Urdhva Dhanurasana with straight arms and Sirsasana I (Headstand) without strain. If you meet these prerequisites, you're ready. Here we go!
Prepare as for Urdhva Dhanurasana: Lie on your back, feet on the floor, heels under the knees, and step your feet a little wider than your hips. Bend your arms and place your palms on the floor by your ears, fingertips facing the shoulders, shoulder-width apart. Pause for a moment to focus and tune in to your breathing. As you exhale, extend your calves and back thighs to pull your hips, shoulders, and head from the floor as you straighten your arms. As before, rotate your upper shoulder blades toward your tailbone to lift your shoulders and lighten the load on your arms.
Since you probably won't be able to hold this asana for very long, corrective actions need to be done quickly and decisively. Bend your arms and place the crown of your head on the floor between your hands and feet, keeping your elbows shoulder-width apart and directly over your wrists. To ensure that your neck does not become compressed, exhale, press your hands into the floor, and again rotate your top shoulder blades toward your tailbone. Keep your chest open and lifted. On your next exhalation, slide one hand past your ear to cup the back of your head, bringing your weight onto your forearm. Repeat the same action with the other arm, interlacing your fingers behind your head. (You may be more successful in these arm movements if you lift onto your tiptoes.)
With a powerful exhalation, press down through your elbows and lift your chest to raise your head off the floor. As your head lifts, bring your heels down. Of course, your head may seem glued to the floor; if that's the case, continue to hold the pose where you are. If you do manage to lift your head, the pose may actually become easier, since this movement allows your upper arms to directly support your weight, easing the demand on your muscles. But be careful not to strain the shoulder joints by pushing them beyond your elbows. Avoid this overextension by keeping your weight evenly distributed between your elbows and wrists, and by not allowing your elbows to drift more than shoulder-width apart. It is absolutely fine to remain in this position, with your head raised and your feet directly below your knees. In the full pose, however, you walk the feet away from your hands until your legs are nearly straight; then you plant your feet and exhale as you stretch down through your calves and push to straighten the legs completely. Place the crown of your head back on the floor inside the cup of your hands, extend your elbows into the floor, and rotate your top shoulder blades toward your tailbone to help your shoulders stay lifted. Your middle back will be asked to bend more deeply.
Now is the time to fully incorporate the inner quality you found during your time over the bolster. Don't lose your internal focus in the challenge of the moment. Do your best to maintain a steady breath rate. Use your breath, like a heart, to pump movement that reverberates through you, extending on your inhalation, opening on your exhalation, and softening hard edges to create a pose that is strong and peaceful.
Come out of this asana with great attention. First, walk your feet back under your knees. Continuing to balance on your head and to lift your shoulders, return your palms to the floor next to your ears. Again check to make sure your hands are directly under your elbows. Push with your hands to lift the head and tuck your chin and tailbone in as you roll your spine back down to the floor, tailbone touching last. Consciously slow your breathing down until you are once again at rest and can feel the powerful calm that is the product of balanced backbends.
Of course, such a dynamic pose as this will make you aware—perhaps painfully so—that asking the body to be flexible and strong simultaneously is a tall order. Difficult as these demands may be, they present an opportunity to maintain an asana using the skills of introspection, breathing, and surrender—skills that eventually transform a pose from an impossibility or an exercise in brute strength into a lucid, precise, poised asana. Practicing with this focus leads to sthira sukha ("steady comfort," Patanjali's definition of asana), a state in which the fluctuations of the mind have stilled and one finds a state of immense clarity that shines forth from within.
Barbara Benagh has been practicing yoga since 1974. She is grateful to her first teacher, Elizabeth Keeble, in Birmingham, England. Barbara teaches seminars throughout the United States and has a particular fondness for her small school, The Yoga Studio, in downtown Boston, and for the devoted students there.