My knee situation* continues to make some of my favourite yoga positions less than awesome (I’m looking at you, child’s pose), but thankfully there are plenty of ways to modify — and lots of alternatives.
My current favourite is a restorative version of crocodile, with plenty of support and no scary teeth!
One of my favourite restorative yoga positions also happens to be one of the easiest to set up. It’s also one of the few restorative poses that’s easier to do at home—and no, it’s not just laying on the couch.
Restorative yoga is, by nature, prop-intensive. We want to provide enough support for our bodies to fully relax and a lot of the shapes call for multiple bolsters, blocks, blankets, straps, and whatnot, stuff most of us don’t have in inventory.
But the pile of bolsters and blocks pictured (not to mention all the blankets we used!) created by doing ‘Instant Mallorca’ (aka ‘Stonehenge’) pose at a yoga studio is totally avoidable at home—using couch cushions!
I sometimes reference the princess and the pea when I get into the final relaxation posture of a yoga class — and it’s no joke! Getting this posture perfect helps me soak up all its benefits. When my body is supported and at ease, blissful relaxation follows.
I love savasana. Practicing it. Teaching it. Evangelising about it.
And after more than two decades practicing yoga and loving corpse pose, I’ve discovered a new way to lie flat on my back. Pressing the soles of my feet against a wall has brought a new twist to this old practice—and given me a newfound appreciation for the possibilities of the pose.
I’m co-hosting a Restorative Yoga workshop next weekend (21 May) with my friend and fellow yoga teacher, Constanza. As part of my preparation, I’ve been re-reading Your Body, Your Yoga (yin yoga teacher Bernie Clark’s latest book) in which he talks a lot about physical differences in yoga students and how important it is to practice for your own body.
I love Bernie’s philosophy because he’s clear about the why behind doing yoga: “to use the pose to get into the body.”1
And he’s a huge advocate of using props to support the pose – as am I. Props can make all the difference in a pose and I encourage their use extensively in my yin yoga classes. They’re even more necessary in restorative yoga!
Restorative yoga is a practice of being, rather than doing. Opening and softening, rather than stretching. Deliberating resting, rather than sleeping. It’s all about comfort and it’s much easier to be comfortable when we’re supported and the body is at ease.
I know that there are many yogis who feel like props are cheating. For me, it’s just plain stupid not to use all of the tools available to make your yoga practice (or your life) the best it can be. It’s like eschewing technological advances in because they make life too easy and too comfortable.
Just like technology creates the opportunity for better living, props create the opportunity for better yoga!
Yangsters hate props – are you a yangster? The use of a prop is unconsciously equated to cheating. The inner dialogues goes something like this, “I can do this pose! I don’t need no stinking prop!” But yinsters know something that yangsters haven’t quite grasped yet – the intention of their yoga practice is not to look any particular way; it is not to get into a pose: the intention is to feel a particular way; to use the pose to get into the body. Yinsters don’t care if a little extra help is needed to get sensation into the targeted area: if props can help – let’s use props!
There’s a spot in my mid-back that sometimes feels as though it holds all the tension in my body. Like every keyboard stroke, knife cut, sponge scrub, page flip, steering wheel turn, and slouch collects between my shoulder blades and knots together.
The best method I’ve found to release that tension is a long-held standing forward fold. The yin version of the pose is different than an active standing fold (called uttanasana) as the focus is on holding for a minute or more, relaxing the back body and releasing the shoulders. Bent knees, supportive arms, and resting against a wall are all welcome!
A yin standing forward fold is known as a dangle and that’s exactly the hope: that your upper body hangs and allows the muscles and fascia loosen.
Because your head is below your heart, this pose isn’t great for people with high blood pressure and anyone with low blood pressure should come out of it really slowly. Be cautious and slowly release the posture if you feel any pain.
Why it’s good
Releases tension from the shoulder blades, mid-back, and neck
Helps decompress the lower spine and sacroiliac region
Stretches the backs of the legs – if you straighten them
Promotes good balance
Compresses the digestive organs, which can improve digestion and alleviate menstrual cramps
Encourages relaxation and can reduce anxiety and stress
How to do it
Start by standing tall with your feet parallel and hip width apart
let your spine stretch upwards and your shoulders drop away from your ears
feel sturdy and balanced – your hips stacked atop your feet, your shoulders square above your hips, and your head floating above your shoulders
With an exhale, bend your knees and allow your torso to drop towards the fronts of your thighs
don’t feel any pressure to have your chest rest on your legs; most people will have significant space between upper and lower body
Straighten your legs to intensify the stretch along the backs of your legs or keep your knees bent to encourage the stretch in your back
do not lock your knees
try leaning against a wall for additional support
Experiment with arm positioning to find what works best for you
clasping each elbow with the opposite hand draws more of a stretch into the upper back and shoulders and can make your torso feel heavier
resting your hands on your thighs lessens pressure through your lower back
allowing your hands dangle freely or rest softly on the floor helps open the mid-back
Let you head release and encourage the muscles in your back, shoulders, arms, and neck to be heavy
Soften your gaze or, it’s comfortable and doesn’t mess with your balance, close your eyes
Stay dangling for at least a minute and up to five minutes
mindfully move your arms and bend or straighten your knees to find the best version of the pose for you, but try not to fidget
if it helps, visualize your spine flowing out of your pelvis like water flowing out of a pitcher, allowing tension to ebb away
if the pose doesn’t feel right, you can get a similar stretch in a seated forward fold with a rolled blanket or bolster under your bent knees
To come out of dangle:
If you’ve held the pose for several minutes, be cautious! Slowly come out of it using any of the methods below, then take a few deep breaths to regain your balance before moving to your next pose
Engage your abdominal muscles, bend your knees, and take several breaths to roll up to standing
Bend your knees and lower your hips downwards to come into a squat. Rest in a squat for at least a few breaths before lowering onto your seat or slowly moving to standing
Rest your hands on your shins and straighten your back; strengthen your abdominal muscles and inhale to come halfway up with your back parallel to the floor; exhale and let your upper body and hands release down again. Repeat this halfway raise a couple times before inhaling up to standing with your back straight.
It’s normal to feel some dizziness after your head has been down for a while. Take a few moments to regain your composure and allow the blood to flow throughout your body before progressing with your practice or continuing with your day.
As dangling is a strong forward bend, it can be nice to follow it with a back bend. Even standing and simply drawing your shoulders back as you lift your face and chest to the sky can be enough to release any tension in your front body that may have built up as you dangled.
Repeat whenever that congested mid-back feeling arises. This is a great pose for airports and offices because it requires no mat and no props!
Our flat in Munich is a ways out of the city and U-Bahn construction at the closest station means that cycling is the most efficient method for getting around. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any pedalling and my leg muscles are struggling with this newfound exertion.
Thankfully, our flat has a lovely open wall that’s perfect for my favourite restorative yoga pose – legs up the wall. Pair the leg-relaxing posture with a glass of wine and the strain in my lower body disappears!
The pose itself is super-easy (see my how-to in a previous post) – the most difficult part is managing the glass! I’m careful to make sure the wine is safe coming into and out of legs up the wall and set the glass within easy reach for the 10-15 minutes I’m laying on the floor.
Sipping while supine is challenging, but the relaxation is well worth it!