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How to Choose the Best Yoga Bolsters for Your Practice

yoga bolsters

Do you ever feel the need to just lie down and do nothing? It’s no wonder. Most of us spend most of our time working, running from one scheduled commitment to the next—either at work or at home—until we fall into bed to sleep. Or course, sleep is essential, but so is rest. And there is a difference.

According to Judith Hanson Lasater, rest differs from sleep, at least partially because in deep sleep our brains are still being stimulated by dreaming. Dreaming, especially stressful dreaming, can create tension in our bodies. When we consciously rest, the aspects of our physiology that contribute to suppression of our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system—breath, brain, nervous system and physical body—are all supported to let go of tension.

Here’s what Judith says about rest: “During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited, and a few of the measurable results of deep relaxation are the reduction of blood pressure, serum triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood, the increase of the ‘good cholesterol’ levels, as well as improvement in digestion, fertility, elimination, the reduction of muscle tension, insomnia and generalized fatigue.”

This is where Restorative Yoga practice comes in. In Restorative Yoga, the focus is on opening and relaxing rather than on stretching and stimulating. In Restorative practice, the less sensation the better because stretching sensation stimulates the nervous system.

In Restorative practice, our bodies are completely supported. It’s essential that our joints be relaxed and open and that we don’t have to use muscular energy to hold ourselves up. Because of this, the tools for Restorative Yoga are essential. These include blankets, eyebags, straps, blocks and Yoga Bolsters. While any of Hugger Mugger’s blankets, eyebags, straps and blocks will serve the purposes of Restorative practice, knowing which bolsters to use in which situations can be a little trickier.

What follows is a rundown of which bolsters can serve various needs. All of Hugger Mugger’s bolsters are handmade in our Salt Lake City facility. Hugger Mugger uses high-quality, durable upholstery fabrics and fills them with cotton batting. You can read about Abraham, Hugger Mugger’s veteran bolster maker of the past 10 years, here.

Standard Yoga Bolsters

yoga bolsters Seated Forward Bend on Standard Bolster with Storm Block

Standard Yoga Bolsters are a Restorative Yoga essential. They are by far the most commonly used type of bolster. This bolster’s flat top and wide profile is suitable for most uses in Restorative practice. It’s stable and comfortable and will last many, many years. I have a couple bolsters at home from the original batch Hugger Mugger made more than 25 years ago, and I still use them frequently.

Firmness is essential when it comes to yoga bolsters, especially the Standard Yoga Bolsters. While they are often laid flat on the floor, there are a number of poses in which they are propped up at a slant. If your bolster sags when it’s propped up on a block, your body will not be properly supported. Hugger Mugger’s Standard Bolsters are known for being both firm and durable. These bolsters are well worth the investment.

Round Yoga Bolsters

If you look in Judith Lasater’s classic book, Relax and Renew, you’ll see that

yoga bolsters Supported Savasana with Round Bolster and Pranayama Pillow

many of the photos show Round Bolsters. Round Yoga Bolsters can be substituted for Standard Bolsters in many poses—not so much the slanted bolster poses—but they can be more comfortable for some people in certain poses.

For example, the edge of a Standard Bolsters is more precipitous. So in poses where your body is hanging off the edge, such as Legs Up the Wall, the edge of a Standard Bolster may press into the back in a way that’s uncomfortable for some people. In this case, a Round Bolster might be a better choice.

The same holds true for placing a Bolster under your legs in Savasana. The Standard Bolster may be too wide for some people. A Round Bolster provides a gentler support.

Junior Bolsters

yoga bolsters Supported Side Bend with Junior Bolster

Junior Bolsters can substitute for Standard or Round bolsters in some poses. While Junior Bolsters are the same length and firmness as Standard and Round bolsters, they have a narrower profile. This can make them much more comfortable for people with shorter spines in poses such as Legs Up the Wall.

Because of their narrower profile, Junior Bolsters are great for passive chest opening. While the wider Standard Bolsters will support the entire torso, the narrower width of the Junior Bolsters allows your arms and shoulders to relax off the edges of the bolster, creating greater width-wise opening.

I also find the Junior Bolsters to be a great choice for under-the-knees support in Savasana.

Pranayama Pillows

yoga bolsters Supine Pranayama with Wool Blanket for Head Support

When I went to the Iyengar Institute (RIMYI) in 1989, we practiced pranayama every afternoon. We lay on Pranayama Pillows with our heads supported by a folded blanket on top of the pillow. The pillow created width-wise opening of the chest, while the blanket slightly closed the throat for Jalandhara Bandha.

Pranayama Pillows are made to RIMYI specifications for firmness, length and width. Lying down to practice pranayama in many cases allows for deeper inhalations. And long, deep, slow inhalations and exhalations are what calm the mind and replenish prana.

In addition to their traditional use in pranayama practice, Pranayama Pillows can be used as support under the knees in forward bends. Here’s a post that gives suggestions for ways to enjoy your Pranayama Pillow.

Restorative Practice

I’d highly recommend seeking out a competent Restorative Yoga teacher. Restorative Yoga is a very individualized practice. A teacher who knows what to look for in your poses and how to modify your setup to suit your individual situation can make a huge difference. A knowledgeable teacher can help you decide which bolsters you might want to have in your Restorative Yoga collection.

And, you can always call Hugger Mugger’s all-yogi customer service team at 1-800-473-4888.

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About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

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