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Easing into Supta Virasana

Supported Supta Virasana
The cushy version

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.

Contraindications

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?)

Prep

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Sit down into Virasana.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Stay in the pose for a few minutes, and then come up and switch legs.

To come out of the reclining pose

  1. 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.
  2. Come up using your chest first, head last. This will help prevent neck strain.
  3. If your neck needs extra support, put one hand on the back of your head as you push up with the other hand.
  4. Extend your legs out in front of you.

Setup variations

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.

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Make your own sandbags

Are you practicing at home and wishing you had access to that nice pile of sandbags at the studio? It’s not hard to make your own if you have access to a sewing machine.

What you need for each sandbag:

  • 10 lbs of aquarium gravel (or sand, but the gravel is easier to work with)
  • Two pieces of denim 19″x9″ OR one pants leg off an old pair of jeans cut to size. You can use the inseam as one of the seams.
  • A 9″ length of webbing OR you can just cut off a strip of the hem from the jeans.
  1. Pin the webbing into a loop across one short end of the denim so that the loop is against the right side and the cut ends of the loop line up with the cut end of the denim.
  2. Sew across the ends of the webbing using a 3/8″ seam allowance.
  3. With right sides of both denim pieces together, sew around three sides, using a 1/2″ seam allowance, leaving the short side without the loop open.
  4. Sew another seam 1/8″ from the first seam, towards the seam allowance. This is reinforcement to prevent leaking sand. Trim the corners and turn the bag right side out.
  5. Fill with the aquarium sand. Suggestion: Put the bag in a large saucepan in the kitchen, open end of the bag up. If you have a canning funnel, it will help keep the bag open as you fill it with sand.
  6. Pin the end of the bag closed, seam allowance folded in, and topstitch twice along the end.

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Zoom and home yoga

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.

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Knee ideas

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.

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Go upside down!

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.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog)

Prasarita Padottanasana (wide angle standing forward bend)

Viparita Karani (legs up the wall)

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.
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What’s the source of this?

At the end of my practice, and also at the end of my class, I like to close with something short, not a prayer, exactly, or a sermon, I hope. Just a thought.

Sometimes I say this.

I take refuge in the breath. Breath is all this, whatever there is, and all that ever will be. I take refuge in the breath.

Chandogya Upanishad

I don’t know where that is in the Chandogya Upanishad. I took it from one of Richard Rosen’s Pranayama books, either The Yoga of Breath or Beyond Pranayama. I can’t even find it in either book.

I’d like to know both the citations. Anyone? Anyone?

By the way, both books are beautiful, clearly written and inspiring. Because I don’t have access to a regular Pranayama teacher, I’m not sure I would have gotten anywhere in my practice without these.

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Seated Pranayama

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.

I am pretty tightly woven, so I tend to sit on a high support. Using a belt in this way gives you a very steady seat. The belt is just below your waist at the back, across the top of your pelvis. Position the buckle to be easy to adjust, with the strap end coming toward you. And oh, please, don’t let that hard buckle be right on your knee!
Virasana is a very stable pose.
Sit between your feet, and keep them pointing straight back.
Sitting against the wall is a good transition when you are learning. The wall gives you helpful feedback – where IS your back? When you first sit down at the wall, put your hands beside you, lift your buttocks and lean forward to push them back a bit close to the wall.
Cranky knees? Practice sitting on a chair. Keep your knees over your ankles and your pelvis upright.
I learned this way of sitting from my teacher Kim, who learned it from Geeta Iyengar. Heels on the outside of the chair and hands pulling outwards on the back help to keep your chest and hips open. Why do we want open chest and hips? Better breathing, of course.
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Reclining Pranayama setups

When you are starting a pranayama practice, it’s best to do it reclining. Then you can focus on your breath instead of your breath and your posture.

If you are not feeling well or you are tired, reclining is a good option.

The bottom folded edge of the tan blanket goes just above your waist. The pink blanket goes just above your shoulders so that your neck is fully supported. Notice that the pink blanket is folded so that the fringe is on the side to give you maximum head real estate.
This is my favorite reclining pose because of the way it stairsteps the lift of your torso. The bottom folded edge of the tan blanket goes just above your waist. The bottom edge of the pink blanket goes to the bottom of your shoulder blades so that they are fully supported. The green blanket goes to the tops of your shoulders. Notice that all three blankets are folded the same way with the fringe to the side. The block is there to keep the supports from falling backwards.
This setup gives you a bit more lift to your chest. To get into this, sit a fist width away from the end of the bolster and extend your back as you roll back on your forearms. The bolster should not be jammed into your low back.
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Nine years later . . .

I got too busy to keep up the old Practice Notes blog, but now I’m reviving it. It’s not just about home practice this time, because I want to use it to post extra information to my Pranayama and Restorative students.

Or maybe I will just be a slug and do nothing more with it. We are in the middle of sheltering in place for the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything could change in a moment.