The Bolster-An Invitation to Letting Go

All this month, I’ve been examining and experimenting with Yoga props both in my own practice and with my clients. The Bolster is a personal favorite! Sometimes just knowing it’s there to offer you support in a posture is enough to facilitate a sense of letting go. I recently had the pleasure of spending 3 days in a Restorative Yoga Workshop in Asheville, NC where the bolster was received as a tool for melting, a tool for making a posture doable because I was propped comfortably. The Bolster helped me to allow greater opening in almost all the Restorative Postures. Not everybody can “restore” in Shavasana. It can remind someone of going to sleep and if you’ve ever suffered with a prolonged bout of insomnia, you know that lying flat on your back can be anxiety provoking for some. Just having the bolster handy, helps me to experience different restorative postures and on any given day, give my body what it most needs.

Some of my favorite grounding uses of the bolster are included here:

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In Supported Child’s Pose (Salamba Balasana), the comfort and support allows an ease of breath to inflate the kidney space.

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In Supported Crawling Twist, the Bolster makes the posture accessible to most people and allows ease of breath into the bottom hip, Iliotibial band, Piriformis as well as quadratus lumborum (a major hip hiker and culprit in lower back pain), psoas as Lattisimus Dorsi on the right side of the body as pictured above.

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In supported Wide Leg Forward fold (left), the bolster again allows support and accessibility of the asana (posture) to someone with tighter hamstrings and adductors (inner thigh muscles). It also allows the energy line of the spine to be more elongated, helping to preserve the integrity of the Posterior Longitudinal Ligament. The importance of this ligament was discussed in my previous post entitled “Your PLL is Showing”.

Image  The supported forward fold at the left is achieved in simple cross-legged posture and for the practitioner with tight hips an unsupported forward fold like this can cause fear and anxiety rather than calming. Placing the bolster as shown allows again the accessibility of the posture in a supported, nurturing and grounding way. The breath can then focus on bringing aliveness and melting into the hip fascia.

Some of my favorite uses of the bolster for opening the body, especially after a day hunched over a desk or a bike or in the car are included for you here:

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In Back Bend over the Bolster or Supported Matsyasana (Fish) with the legs bent or straight, there is the option of supporting under the knees with another bolster or blanket roll, the shoulders are off the bolster, allowing the pectoral muscles to release, the scalenes in the neck are relaxed and the practitioner can focus on 3 part Dirgha breath, bringing the breath up from the belly into the ribcage and collarbones. Allow the breath to do the myofascial work on the pectorals (chest muscles) for you.

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Although this posture would require caution for any knee or ankle dysfunction, it would only be contraindicated after acute knee injury or surgery. Supported Virasana (hero) can be made quite accessible with the creative use of the bolster. The practitioner can stack 2 bolsters or elevate the end of the bolster by the head with a block or books to allow comfort in this asana. Heels face UP and knees are close together to protect the knees while opening the chest and quadriceps muscles on the front of the thighs. If stretching both legs is too much, try extending one leg in front taking one leg at a time. This is wonderful for asthma, digestive problems, flat feet, headache, congestion, high blood pressure, insomnia, sciatica and varicose veins.

You are opening what is called the Femoral Triangle, which gets compressed in our days of prolonged sitting, which can lead to swelling of the feet and varicose veins due to poor venous return from the legs.

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My super all time favorite Restorative posture is Supta Badda Konasana. This position can provide wonderful restorative benefits and is a great alternative to straight Shavasana. The client can breath into the chest opening and release of the groin (adductor) muscles rather than wondering when the next conference call is coming. The strap provides a means of self traction for the lower back or hips. You’ll want to ask your Yoga Therapist about the proper placement of the strap. The posture has wonderful benefits to stimulate the prostate gland, bladder and kidneys. It improves general circulation and helps to relieve symptoms of stress, mild depression, menstruation and menopause.

Be sure to prop the outer thighs as well as the head so the neck is in good alignment and so the hips don’t yell at you while you are trying to restore. The sensation is one of comfortable expansive breath, not intense sensation. If you work with your hands frequently, it’s nice to place a small sand bag or eye pillow in each hand.

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In Supported Side lying over the Bolster, above, you will also want to support the hand that is overhead on a block or bolster. The focus is on breathing into the top lung, ribcage and can be a lovely place to work on shoulder blade mechanics. The posture is beneficial for scoliosis, respiratory difficulty, almost all shoulder dysfunction and should always be done on both sides.

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Ahh! Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani). Both opening and grounding at the same time, especially with a sandbag at the feet, this posture is known as the anti-aging pose by the ancient Yogis. Viparita Karani benefits anxiety, arthritis, diestive problems, headache, both high and low blood pressure, insomnia, migraine, mild depression, respiratory difficulties, urinary dysfunction, varicose veins, PMS, menopausal symptoms and menstrual cramps. Calming to the mind and body, Viparita Karani relieves your tired legs and feet and your back as well as gently stretching the hamstrings, pectorals and the back of the neck.

**The posture is contraindicated for recent cataracts surgery, glaucoma and should be avoided for anyone that avoids inversions during menstruation.

There are too many wonderful Restorative postures to list which incorporate the bolster so keep one close or bring it to class with you. Pillows just don’t work as they are too squishy and the bolster is firm. You can obtain one quite reasonably from www.yogaaccessories.com.

Play with your bolster, make friends with it and discover the best ways that you restore. What’s delicious opening for your neighbor may be fear and anxiety provoking for you. It’s important to balance opening postures with more engaging postures. If you experience discomfort, give yourself permission to move to something more active and then return to something more opening.  The only way to know what works best is to work closely with your Yoga Therapist, who can customize the postures to meet your physical and emotional needs.

With an open heart, bolster love and the tools to keep you safe and well supported in your practice,

Jai Bhagwan!

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About No Boundaries Yoga Therapy

LISA Z. HUGHES, BS, PT, RYT500, Certified GYROTONIC Instructor, CPI Lisa Hughes is a licensed Physical Therapist, having received her degree from Northeastern University in Boston, MA. She is a Yoga Alliance 500 hour Yoga Therapist through the Pranakriya School of Yoga Healing Arts under the direction and tutelage of Yoganand Michael Carroll, E-RYT500, Dean of The Kripalu School of Yoga and Marlysa Sullivan, MPT, E-RYT500, Director of The Center for Integrative Yoga Studies in Atlanta. She is the owner of No Boundaries Yoga Therapy, LLC in Alpharetta, GA., where she sees private clients for Yoga Therapy. Lisa teaches "Adapting Yoga for Disability" available to Doctoral Physical Therapy students at Emory University. Lisa has thirty years of clinical experience as Licensed Physical Therapist, specializing in pain science, sports medicine, and rehabilitation medicine. While working with the head of the American College of Sports Medicine at the Sports Medicine Clinic in Children’s Hospital Boston, Lisa has rehabilitated professional football players from the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, dancers from the Boston Ballet Company, and many elite level gymnasts, runners and cyclists. She has worked with cancer survivors as well as organ transplant recipients and specializes in adapting Yoga for all disability and for the medically fragile. Lisa treats the whole client, integrating the traditional Physical Therapy modalities of neurophysiological manipulation and myofascial release with the ancient healing tools of Yoga Therapy for clients with chronic medical conditions, the medically fragile and the able-bodied new student. It is her vision to open Yoga to every body, regardless of age or medical condition. In 2015 Lisa founded an Adaptive Yoga for Disability group class at Next Step Paralysis Recovery in Alpharetta, GA., which has grown to over 10 students and more than 30 volunteers. Lisa is married and has three children. In her free time, she is a cyclist, an adventurist and practices Yoga and Meditation daily. She is a volunteer with the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (www.challengedathletes.org), whose mission it is to provide opportunities and support to people with disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.

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