Bolsters are so useful. Here is a list of 9 compelling ways they will improve the quality of your practice…and your life.
We all have different body proportions, strengths, levels of physical capacity, and flexibility. These differences need not detract from the quality and benefits of our practice. For instance, I for one am about three eons away from making significant progress in my forward bend from Upavista Konasana.
That’s okay, though. I simply grab a chair, place a bolster on the seat, and it’s business time – I have a resting place for my head as my body opens to the pose. For others who are far more flexible, the pose might simply use a bolster on a yoga bench, or even directly on the floor.
Many aspire for that ideal feeling and appearance of grace that we see on the cover of yoga magazines.
Because those magazine yogis aren’t usually using props, I’ve seen people – myself included – fall into the trap of believing the rest of us don’t need them either.
You might think that going without props when you need them makes you look like a yogi spokesmodel, but chances are you don’t. More likely, you’re doing something wrong to outside observers. The sense of grace that comes from proper alignment is difficult to fake.
The solution is to use the props that actually allow you to get into the pose so you are working in it properly instead of trying to fight the negative stigma we might associate with using supports.
Over the years, I’ve slowly given my ego more of a back seat and become more honest with myself about the help I need to do asanas correctly, instead of worrying about what I look like.
Ironically, I’ve found that by using the props when I need them instead of pretending to be a superhero, I have earned more respect from my teachers and fellow students for being able to assess my specific needs and know how to adapt the props to the corrections I need in each pose.
Some poses can cause strain or even damage without the use of props.
In an asana like Prasarita Padottanasana, if you lack the flexibility to place your head on the floor without force, just place your head on a bolster or a wooden block with a bolster on top. It’s a styling way to go about it.
You get the support you need with a little comfort to boot.
Your trusty bolsters come in quite handy in this department. Unless you are very flexible, when practising asanas like Janu Sirsasana or Baddha Konasana, the outward-splaying knees find themselves hovering in the air, making it difficult for them to root down. This tends to result in a sagging pose.
Placing a bolster under the knees (see the photo below) gives them something to press down into. This helps your pelvis and upper body rise with up-down opposition that characterizes almost every properly executed yoga posture.
This point of contact also helps focus your awareness on that area, reminding you to engage your hips as well as your outer and inner thighs.
If you’re practising Baddha Konasana as a passive pose, the bolsters can either stay under the knees or be brought in closer to the hips under the upper leg.
Here, instead of encouraging active engagement, the bolsters serve as a comfortable place to rest your legs while doing some of that rejuvenating passive opening I mentioned in the series opener, pardon the pun.
5. & 6. Multi-functionality and Space efficiency
These two sci-fi sounding pluses are so interconnected, I just had to discuss them together. Yoga bolsters aren’t just useful for your practice – they’re also handy around the house. Living in Vancouver, recently ranked as the second most expensive major city on the planet, square footage is at a premium. People are living in smaller and smaller spaces, so whatever we buy has got to have as many uses as possible and store well.
I have a little corner of my living room where I store most of my yoga props. My bolsters, have become part of the furnishings. The pranas on each end of my sofa provide attractive and comfy arm rests, and my cylindrical and rectangular bolsters garnish the top.
I use them as seats and back rests for myself and guests. They’re out of the way, and are always within easy reach when I need them. And they’re easy to put away – I just toss them back onto the couch and voilà!
Bolsters can help alleviate pain caused by immobile or overworked parts of the body. For instance, they work wonders for people like me who get lower back pain caused by muscular strain.
I occasionally get this from my swayback, meaning that the upper rim of my pelvis tips forward, creating an exaggerated concave shape in my lower back. This concentrates a lot of weight there that would otherwise be more evenly distributed across my abdominals, upper back, upper front thighs and buttocks.
When this causes me pain, lying in Savasana with a bolster laying cross-wise under my upper legs feels great, taking the weight off the area and restoring the natural curve in my lower back.
8. Straighten up
Anyone who has taken a yoga class knows just how hard it can be to get the proper alignment in a yoga pose: your knee buckles here, your back arches too much there, your thoracic isn’t doing the work it needs to…the list is nearly endless.
One essential purpose of the props is to target these challenges and correct them, bringing your pose closer to the ideal. In essence, props give you all the benefits of the pose years before you might otherwise be able to realize them.
Bolsters can help you isolate action to specific areas. This means other parts of your body won’t overcompensate and take on some of the work that the focus area should be doing.
One of the most notorious places this happens is in the thoracic spine.
An incorrect approach to a chest opening position can lead to undue pressure on the middle back. You can address this by lying over a bolster (as shown) for extra support.
9. Let your bolster do the work
One of the best uses for bolsters is for gentle, passive opening of the body. The bolsters can do the work for you while you just relax and let the opening happen on its own. How sweet is that?
One way you can do this is to lie over a bolster – rectangular, prana or cylindrical depending on the intensity of opening you desire – placed perpendicular under your lower shoulder blades, making a “t”” shape with your body and the bolster. You can find your perfect working place by moving the bolster a little higher up or lower down your back and feeling the effects when you lay back down – ahhh!
Che Nolan is a propologist with a major in bolsterology and an Iyengar yoga practitioner with a daily meditation practice. He is also a writer and a regular Halfmoon contributor.