We learn Pranayama practices first while reclining and then later, maybe even years later, practice while sitting. This is one reason asana practice is key to pranayama – it makes you strong enough to be able to keep a steady seat for pranayama and the subsequent meditative yoga practices. (Asana means ‘seat’.)
The stairstep arrangement is one of the best reclining setups. I’ve written about it before, but not in quite so much fussy detail as here.
You need a block and three blankets (and a fourth underneath you if you like, and a fifth over you if you get chilly). This post assumes you use thunderbird yoga blankets but, of course, use whatever you have.
All three blankets are folded the same way, into a narrow rectangle. Note that in the case of thunderbird blankets, the fringe is on the long side.
Notice the difference between the folded ends and the woven ends. The folded ends give a firmer edge, so they will be placed where your body meets them.
Place the block at the top of your mat. It’s just used to prevent the setup from collapsing on the head end. Your head will not be on the block at all.
Now place a blanket with the woven edge up against the block. The bottom folded edge will go just above your waist at the bottom of your ribcage.
The folded edge of the second blanket is for your shoulder blades.
The third blanket gets an additional fold. This one supports your head. Be sure to pull it right down to the tops of your shoulders so that your neck is fully supported.
Start by sitting about a hand’s width away from the bottom blanket. Put your forearms on the floor beside you and roll yourself down. Keep your knees bent until you are lying down.
Once you are lying down, check to make sure that the bottom blanket is not below your waist and is supporting your bottom ribs.
Check to make sure the second blanket is fully supporting your shoulder blades, all the way down to the tips. If it isn’t comfortable, sit all the way up and readjust the blanket.
Lift your hips and push with your feet a bit to pull down the skin of your shoulders.
Lift each shoulder, one by one, and roll your shoulder and upper arm out and under to make more room in the upper chest.
Adjust the head blanket down to your shoulders.
Extend first one leg down the mat, then the other.
Have your hands out to the sides in an A shape with palms up.
Your elbows and wrists should be touching the floor. If not, support them with blankets.
I was surprised to discover that I have written many times about Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose). Recently I’ve been thinking about what a key prep pose it is for pranayama. This older post has some good details, though, and I’ll try not to repeat them.
I always thought of it as largely a quad stretch, and yes, the quads are the muscles that are screaming the loudest, at least for me. But it’s a wonderful way to open up the psoas muscles, which run down the inside of your spine from the middle of your back and then connect to your femurs. The diaphragm and the psoas muscles attach in the same place, at the 12th thoracic vertebra, and these muscles interdigitate. I love that word. It means they connect like fingers holding hands. So when you stretch the psoas, you’re also stretching the roots of the diaphragm. Then your upper chest also opens, and your breathing becomes easy and free.
When to put on the brakes
In any yoga pose, if you have pain, STOP. Back off. Learn to distinguish between danger pain and the sensation of stretching. Most of the troubles people have with Virasana have to do with inflexible quads and ankles. Approach the pose slowly, using props as needed. If your knees are in pain, either stop or find a way to prop yourself to remove the pain. If your quads are screaming at you, see if you can back off a bit so that your body is not defending itself against pain.
If you have injuries to your ankles or knees, avoid this pose except in the presence of an experienced teacher (i.e., don’t try to do it a Zoom class, or from an article like this one).
Here’s a useful link to a terrific yoga blog post describing the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”.
Key alignment points
These points hold for both Virasana (seated) and Supta Virasana (reclining). You might not be able to achieve them all, but you can work in these directions.
Knees are drawn together so that inner thighs touch; feet are apart so that they are on the outside of your hips.
Feet are pointing straight back, not out to the side or curved in towards each other.
Body is equally balanced on both sides. In Supta Virasana you can look down and see that you are straight. Also look at your chest – is one side more lifted than the other?
Your head is in line with your spine. In Supta Virasana, make sure you have sufficient head support that your chin is not pointing toward the ceiling but not so much that it’s jammed down toward your chest.
As you stretch back over your support for Supta Virasana, extend your tailbone down and in, and your upper spine up and back. (We never just lie down in yoga, do we?)
There are loads of good prep poses for Supta Virasana, such as Setubandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose), upright lunge, Bharadhvajasana (seated twist), and more. I’m not going to go into those here. However, if you can’t do plain old Virasana (hero pose), then you won’t be able to do the supta (reclining) version.
Start high, learn to relax
Unless you know you are very flexible, start higher than you need to, and gradually work your way down.
The high-knee problem
If I’m not properly warmed up, when I get into my final pose, my down-leg knee is often off the floor. I remind myself to relax, don’t freak out about the quad stretch, and after a minute or so my thigh settles down and my knee comes to the floor. It always amazes me! Once it’s on the floor, I really can relax and stay for a while in the pose.
To get into the reclining pose:
Create your support, and then be up on your knees in front of it. When you sit down, you should be about a fist width away from the back support.
Sit down into Virasana.
Bring one leg out of Virasana so that your foot is on the floor in front of you. I’m calling this the up leg. The folded leg is the down leg.
Put a support under that hip. This could be a block or a folded blanket. The idea is to even out your hips. You may need support under both hips, with a little extra under the up leg hip. Your goal is to be balanced side to side so that you are not tipping in the direction of the down leg.
Extend back, using your hands and then forearms to support you. Keep extending your tailbone down and in, and your upper spine and head away from your tailbone.
Depending on your support, you may need additional propping under your hands and arms. Your arms rest comfortably out to your sides, not across your abdomen or hanging loosely from your shoulders.
Stay in the pose for a few minutes, and then come up and switch legs.
To come out of the reclining pose
Put your forearms (or hands, if you’re really upright) on the mat as far back as you can beside you, and use them to push your torso up.
Come up using your chest first, head last. This will help prevent neck strain.
If your neck needs extra support, put one hand on the back of your head as you push up with the other hand.
Extend your legs out in front of you.
Chair and bolster(s) behind you, both legs in Virasana.
Bolsters and blankets against the wall, one-leg version
Upside-down chair setup
Two blocks against the wall, two ways
The blocks are used in three possible orientations, Papa Bear (tallest), Mama Bear (middle height), and Baby Bear (lowest). Place the higher one against the wall, and the lower one just a few inches away. When you lean the bolster up against the blocks, it will be just barely touching the higher block. Resist the temptation to take the bolster all the way on top of that block.
One-leg with block and bolster support
One-leg with bolster support
Want to see the real deal final pose? This blog post, written by certified Iyengar yoga teacher Nicole Schroeter, may inspire you. Her posts are absolutely worth reading, too.
It’s not always possible to have a dedicated yoga space. If you can do it, though, great! It might be a hallway, or a corner of your bedroom. Even in a limited space, try to keep your mat visible as a reminder that you’re trying for daily practice.
I usually practice in our family room where I can keep a mat unrolled with a little stack of blankets. When I see it, I remember what I am supposed to do. It’s just a bit tricky to keep the dogs from taking it over.
Here are some ideas for props you can find around the house.
Blankets – If you have a firm wool blanket, you can use that. It’s likely to be bigger than the normal yoga blankets, but you can fold it in numerous different ways to meet your needs. Modern (non-wool) blankets tend to be too squishy for yoga. Big towels work very nicely, because they can create a firm base for, say, shoulder stand.
Blocks – Well, bricks. Really. Do you have any bricks outside? Clean them off and wrap them in dishtowels to make them easier to handle. For poses where you need a block that you won’t be putting weight on, you can use tissue boxes, preferably full. Or take some books you know you’ll never read and wrap them in duct tape.
Straps – Bathrobe ties, dishtowels, single bed sheets folded lengthways, martial arts belts from when your kid took tae kwon do, and many other items will work nicely, depending on what you need them for. Generally, they should be 6-8 feet long. Don’t use men’s ties – they are cut on the bias and are too stretchy to use.
Bolsters – Got an old quilt? Roll it up into a bolster and tie it together. You can do the same with several bath towels. Sofa and chair cushions are good in some cases.
Chairs – Best case would be to get a folding chair that you don’t care about and beat the back of it out. But try using your dining room chairs, or a footstool.
Look around for big things or architectural features of your house. Can you use your countertops? Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (backbend over a chair) over the arm of your sofa? Uttanasana (standing forward bend) with your hands on the bottom step of the staircase? I have a half-wall that is a good place to do hip stretches. A hallway can be used for walking up the wall into a handstand.
I am on Zoom a LOT these days. I’m teaching two or three classes a week, and having breakfast and cocktails (not at the same time) with family and friends, and going to various meetings. It’s a huge boon for staying in touch with people. Sometimes, though, I just need to walk away and be in the 3D world.
Today I practiced with two of my three home yoga friends. We have been getting together on Friday mornings for years, and now we’re doing it on Zoom. It has been extremely satisfying to see each other. We are surprisingly much more focused than we are when we practice together in person.
It’s instructive to see yourself on screen, to see, “whoa, my back leg isn’t straight at all,” make the correction, and see the result. However, I realized that I was not exactly in my body. We were talking about the point of balance being in the front of the heel. When I brought my attention there, in my own actual foot, I experienced a jolt of switching from external attention to internal attention.
The practices I teach in my classes mostly involve closed eyes, so it’s not a problem, but worth mentioning to students.
I’ve been having knee trouble for a while. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it’s not. If I am good and do strengthening and stretching every day, it’s much better.
Leslie Howard is a yoga teacher in California who specializes in pelvic floor function. She said in a recent newsletter that if people have knee trouble, it’s often related to pelvic floor disfunction. This makes sense to me, because the muscles that go from the pelvis to the knee are connected to the pelvic floor.
So one of the things I’ve been doing is a pelvic floor balancing sequence I got out of Yoga Journal ages ago (“Build Supple Strength in the Pelvic Floor”, by Hillari Dowdle, Yoga Journal, May 2010). And who doesn’t want a balanced pelvic floor, anyway? The sequence consists of five exercises that are variations on classic yoga poses. I can’t recommend this highly enough!
Another thing that might seem a bit counterintuitive is to sit in Virasana (hero’s pose). Sure, it’s a bad idea if you sit it this too low with funky knees. Two variations can help. One is to sit on a high support, so high that it does not hurt your knees at all. I used to be able to sit on one folded blanket, and so it is galling to me to sit up on two fat blocks. I’m doing it, and it helps. The other variation is to put something behind your knees before you sit down into the pose to add some space into the joint. This could be a rolled-up sticky mat, a couple of rolled washcloths, or a doubled or tripled yoga belt.
The wonderful book Yoga for Arthritis by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall has a whole chapter on knees. You don’t have to have arthritis to benefit from this book.
I recently saw a graphic of a physical therapy technique called postural drainage that could be used on COVID-19 patients. It apparently used to be used often before ventilators became widely used. I don’t have enough information to recommend it or not. BUT! It’s all inversions!
Most people think of headstand and shoulderstand as the yoga inversions. And many people aren’t able or willing to do them at home without the help of a teacher. That’s OK. Here are a few that are more accessible.
These images are highly stylized, of course. Here are a few modifications. Think of these as restorative opening poses, not stretching active poses, if you are doing them for the benefit of your lungs.
In downward facing dog, you can put a support under your head and/or your hands. You could even put a pillow or bolster on a chair to support your hips (much as we do in the studio with ropes around our hips).
In wide angle forward bend, you can put a bolster, blanket, or blocks under your head.
In legs up the wall, you do not have to be smack up next to the wall. As long as your knees are straight, you can be away from the wall at an angle and still get the full benefit of the pose.
Once you get comfortable doing Pranayama, you will be sitting most of the time. Whatever seated position you choose, have your knees level with or lower than your hips. Keep your pelvis upright, not tipping back so that you are struggling to stay up, and not tilting forward so that your abdomen is falling out of the pelvic bowl.