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 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.
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!
Sukasana or easy pose is sometimes decidedly not easy. In fact, it’s name is often a misnomer and holding the pose can be very challenging for anyone who has troublesome ankles, knees, or hips.
Without a block or bolster under my seat, ‘easy pose’ becomes ‘incredibly-hard-and-uncomfortable pose’ for me within a couple minutes. Knee injuries, tight hips, and internal femoral rotation come together to make sitting cross-legged a hard pose to hold when I’m not propped. Which means I’m rarely in sukasana without something tucked under my butt – even if it’s only a folded mat or sweater.
Just about everyone who’s taken a yoga class has done easy pose. It’s often where a practice begins and ends and is the most common position for meditating. If you find sukasana decidedly uneasy, try adding height under your seat – props can make a huge difference!
Why it’s good
Stretches knee and ankle joints – and sometimes the hips as well
Help strengthen the muscles along your spine (erector spinae) and contributes to good posture
Helps calm your mind and manage stress when you hold the pose as part of meditation
How to do it
Sit on your mat or the floor, with your buttocks on the edge of a cushion, block, bolster, or folded blanket
Sitting on something tilts your pelvis forward and helps your knees come to the floor
The higher your seat, the easier it is to relax your hips and soften your knees
Bend your knees so they fall to the outside of your body and place one foot in front of the other
Avoid crossing your ankles, which puts pressure on the joints
Add padding under your ankles and/or feet if they are sensitive or if the floor is particularly hard
If your knees aren’t resting comfortably, support them with folded blankets or blocks
Find the centre of your seat by moving back and forth and from side to side
You should feel evenly balanced – right and left, front and back
Straighten your spine, roll your shoulders back and down, and lift through your collar bones
Rest your hands on your knees or thighs or in your lap; relax your hips and legs
Feel the crown of your head float up towards the ceiling, connecting you with the sky; feel your sitting bones grow heavy, rooting you into the earth
Bring balance to the pose by alternating sides
If you’re holding easy pose for a few minutes, switch your front leg halfway through
If you’re coming into easy pose multiple times in a practice, change which leg is in front each time
To come out of easy pose:
Uncross your legs (using your arms and hands to help if you’d like) and slowly unbend your knees
Gently bring movement back into your legs
Straighten and bounce your legs
Rest the soles of your feet on the mat/floor, bend your knees, and drop them side-to-side in windshield wipers
Carry on with the rest of your practice or the rest of your day
Easy pose externally rotates the hips, so you may wish to counter it with an internally rotated pose like deer (see how to do deer pose on YinYoga.com), although many people feel no need for any counter pose at all.
Back-bending sphinx pose can’t help bring to mind the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. I like using that enormous limestone statue as inspiration when holding the posture in a yin yoga practice: level gaze, long neck, relaxed shoulders, and unstrained stillness.
Dogs are also phenomenal models for sphinx. My dog, Sofie, often flops down into sphinx to wait for the next bit of excitement to cross her path.
In a yin yoga practice, the purpose of sphinx is not to bend your lower back as much as you possibly can, but to use your arms and belly to support the weight of your torso and let your back soften. It’s even better if you can convince your neck, shoulders, hips, and legs to relax as well.
Resist the temptation to come into your deepest back bend; instead, find a comfortable compression through your low back. You can always intensify the posture as you sink into it. Likewise, you can always reduce the intensity if you’re getting warning signs that it’s becoming too much.
The gentlest sphinx is simply resting flat on your stomach with your chin on your hands – although that’s certainly resembles the sphinx in Egypt a lot less!
Why it’s good
Compresses the lower back, which counters our strong forward-folding tendencies
we rarely bend backwards in the course of our daily lives, but often bend forwards (e.g. while driving, working at a computer, reading, lifting groceries/kids/dogs)
Helps to create a flexible spine and tone back muscles
Stretches stomach muscles and helps open the throat and upper chest
Can release tension from the shoulder blades/mid-back
Aids in detoxification
releasing the pose give the kidneys a fresh supply of blood, which that flushes out toxins
How to do it
Start by lying facedown
let your belly press into the mat as you breathe
Draw your forearms under your chest with elbows bent
keep your elbows ahead of your shoulders
Rest the weight of your torso onto your forearms and relax your shoulders
feel your shoulders drop away from your ears; allow your shoulder blades to soften
Keep your chest and collar bones open
feel your lungs expand in all directions with every inhale and let go of tension with every exhale
Experiment with the positioning of your arms, hands, legs, and head until you find the right balance of compression in your low back, stretch along your front, and ease through your shoulders
To decrease compression in your low back:
draw your elbows further away from your chest, letting your torso come closer to the floor
widen your legs and/or your elbows/forearms
To increase compression in your low back
bring your elbows closer to your chest (just as long as they’re still ahead of your shoulders)
narrow your legs
rest your forearms on a bolster or block to bring your chest further from the floor
bend your knees and let your heels come towards your buttocks
To reduce stress on your shoulders and release tension in your upper back
rest your torso on a folded blanket, block, or bolster
place a soft, small weight (like an eye pillow or bean bag) between your shoulder blades to encourage them to relax
To stretch the back of your neck and stimulate your throat
drop your chin towards your chest without compressing into your collar bones – don’t round your upper back
To stretch your throat and compress the back of your neck
turn your face towards the ceiling, being sure to keep your jaw and throat relaxed
Keep your head centred between your shoulders and your allow your eyes to close or your gaze to soften
Hold sphinx pose for up to six minutes
adjust your head/arm/leg positioning as necessary to intensify or lessen the compression in your low back, but resist fidgeting
To come out of sphinx:
For a little extra stretch, inhale and draw the crown of your head upwards, without letting your shoulders come towards your ears
As you exhale, gently slide your elbows outwards, slowly lowering your torso to the mat
Rest on your belly for a few moments, enjoying the flow of energy and fluid through your low back
Child’s pose is good counter to release the lower back, but some people find that simply lying on their stomachs and letting their breath move to the area that was compressed in sphinx is enough to relieve low-back tension.