Props are an important aspect of a yoga practice. They make some poses more available, some poses more challenging, and many poses kinder for our bodies. In my previous posts on props, we’ve looked at the uses for straps and blocks. This week we look at the sweetest of props: yoga bolsters. Bolsters are versatile, but all of their uses come back to their name: they bolster you. You can sit on them, use them as padding, and relax onto them in supported and restorative poses.
Try sitting on a bolster with your legs in a sweet criss-cross position or try using the bolster as a saddle. Either way, you’ll probably notice that sitting on the ground is a lot more comfortable. You can use a bolster to lift your hips a little higher in any seated yoga pose.
Padding or Propping
Bolsters can be used to pad knees in poses like low lunge. They can serve as props for your hips in poses like pigeon. In a sweet resting pose like child’s pose, they can be used under your head. Any time the ground feels too far away from your body, use a bolster to fill the gap.
My favorite use for the bolster is as a prop for restorative yoga and supported poses. Bolsters can give your upper body a lift in supported fish and can elevate your hips in supported bridge. They can also be used in a traditional savasana pose, slid under the knees for a sweeter experience for the low back.
In order to adapt and grow, we need to have the right balance of consistency and variety—the consistency helps us get into a groove, and the variety prevents that groove from becoming a rut. This is true both in our sports training and in our yoga practice.
In order to get stronger, faster, or able to go longer, you’ve got to have consistent application of the right amount of stress. Too little stress means no growth; too much means breakdown and injury. This is why you might do weights two or three nonconsecutive days a week, and play tennis on another two or three days. It balances the consistency and variety of your training stressors to give your body time to adapt without breaking down. Too much consistency makes you stale; too much variety never lets your body figure out the most efficient path of movement.
The same applies to your yoga practice. Doing a little bit of yoga several times a week will yield better benefits than making it to a ninety-minute class once every six weeks. The key is to establish consistent frequency of the practice. Once that’s in place, variety matters. Your body adapts to the familiar, then plateaus, and it can be easy to check out mentally while going through routines you know inside and out.
You’ve probably got consistency down. As we age, we grow more set in our ways, preferring the familiarity of our regular routines: doing the same workouts, attending the same yoga classes, sitting on the same spot on the couch, eating the same meals. But variety is what challenges us to continue to grow and adapt. Here are some ways to add variety to your practice.
Try a new teacher. Even when class content is the same, you’ll find huge variety among teachers. A different teacher might turn a phrase in such a way that things click into place for you. (My regular sub, Sara, reported that when she filled in for me last month, students loved doing “new and different” things—even though she taught the very same sequences I do! The cueing, not the content, changed.)
Set up in a different spot in the room. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always being in the right corner, say, or in the center of the back row. Move around and see what shifts.
Venture outside your usual routine by streaming classes. Between the two of us, Alexandra and I have dozens and dozens of classes at YogaVibes.com. (Hers are here; mine are here.) Streaming classes lets you try something with no etiquette around stopping if you don’t like it!
Change the setting of your practice. If you’re used to unrolling your mat in your guest room, change it up. Set up in the living room, or on the porch. Spread a beach towel at the edge of a practice field. A change of venue—particularly if it includes a move to an unstable surface like carpet or grass—will add variety and challenge to your yoga routine.
Swap sides. If you’re used to always starting on the right side, start on the left. If you usually set up facing the short side of your mat, try facing the long edge and building your practice around wide-stance poses.
Experiment. Try different arm positions, use different props, close your eyes, switch up the coordination of your breath and your movement. Such experimentation can lead to wonderful revelations.
Last week Tracey, a regular student in my Yoga for Aging Athletes class, asked about different types of yoga classes. If you’re heading to a yoga studio or gym, you may feel (as she did) a little stumped while perusing the yoga schedule. What do all the different names and styles mean?
Let’s start with a quick primer.
Types of Yoga Classes
Flow is yoga that moves quickly—often at a rate of one breath per movement. In addition, the poses are linked together, so you move seamlessly from one to the other. Other terms that denote a similar style of yoga include Power Flow, Ashtanga, Baptiste, or Vinyasa. These classes often include a focus on plank pose and other poses that require weight-bearing for the upper body.
Hatha is an umbrella term for all styles of yoga. Classes labeled “Hatha” will move a little slower. The poses won’t necessarily link together.
A class labeled gentle, healthy aging, or senior yoga will be mellow and mindful, with a focus on seated poses or modified versions of standing poses. If you’re a cyclist or runner, this is a great type of class to take when you’re recovering from a race.
Restorative yoga is even mellower: you use props like blankets and bolsters to deeply rest and relax. (You can learn about my favorite restorative yoga pose in my post about supported fish.)
Yin yoga involves holding low-to-the-ground and seated poses for several minutes at a time. While you don’t move quickly, long holds offer a different type of challenge.
Anything labeled Iyengar or alignment-based will include clear, detailed anatomical instruction and the use of props.
Heated yoga refers to yoga in a room heated from 75 up to 105 degrees. If it’s Bikram, a specific style of heated yoga, a set series of 26 poses will always be practiced.
Yoga for athletes will be taught by an instructor who is also an athlete. You can expect a focus on release, strength, stamina, and injury prevention.
This is certainly not comprehensive. New styles of yoga are constantly being created, and different teachers and studios may have varying interpretations of these terms. If in doubt, ask the instructor to explain the tempo and focus of the class.
Which Yoga Class is Right for You?
Your yoga practice should complement the other movement practices in your life, not compete with them.
Recovering from a race? Try gentle, Yin, or restorative.
Looking to build your cardio or upper-body strength? Check out flow.
Feeling the chill of winter cold? A heated yoga class could be fun.
Brand new to yoga? Hatha or alignment classes often cover the basics.
And of course, if you’re an active, aging adult, a class labeled yoga for athletes or yoga for healthy aging (or a hybrid of those) is always going to be the perfect fit.
My post Basics: Build Better Balance explains how to progressively challenge your balance by standing on one leg on increasingly unstable surfaces. Once you’ve built that strength, you can find a new challenge in reducing the amount of surface area in contact with the floor.
Standing in bare feet on a hard surface, find the good lines of mountain pose: a neutral pelvis, a long spine, a broad chest without a big backbend. Step your legs together, creating as much contiguous surface area as you can—this will make things easier. Lift your arms and your heels. You’ll probably wobble back and forth; tighten in toward the midline with both your legs and your core muscles, and use your gaze to help you balance.
If this is tough, sweeten the experience by:
Keeping your heels quite low to the ground
Resting one or both hands on a wall or counter
Keeping your arms straight off to the sides, rather than overhead
Looking down at the floor, as you’ll see me (in blue, on platform) doing in the photo above
If this is quite easy, intensify the experience by:
Separating your heels to hip distance, instead of having your legs tough
Lifting your gaze to eye level or closing your eyes
Bending your knees and lowering your hips down and back, as if sitting into an invisible chair while wearing invisible high heels
Either way, keep your core engaged and your breath flowing. Slotting a few rounds of this balance pose into your week will keep you steadier as you move through space in your sport.