Well-balanced yoga classes always provide opportunities to rest and re-set so that we, the practitioners, can assimilate the more challenging aspects of practice. But what if the poses that are intended to be relaxing aren’t, well, all that relaxing?
Despite how “gentle” an asana might seem, it can still be uncomfortable. When “grin and bear it” replaces “relax and breathe,” it’s easy to question our abilities, even our capacity to relax. But asanas, in and of themselves, are not inherently relaxing, simple, or easy—asanas are not inherently anything; how we approach them, what we bring to them, is what makes them whatever they are.
Everyone is different and has distinct needs. Thankfully, poses can be adjusted to suit our individuality.
Below are three variations on one of the most common rest and re-set poses: child’s pose (balasana). Each variation addresses common student concerns. Hopefully, they will help you or your students come closer to finding sweet relief.
Neck and Shoulder Discomfort
Tension in the neck and shoulders in balasana often occurs when the hips are floating high in the air and the upper body tilts forward and becomes compressed. To alleviate this tension, first begin by placing a thickly rolled blanket between your buttocks and heels, then bend your elbows and stack your forearms so you can rest your forehead on them. See if this does the trick.
If not, try placing a bolster lengthwise on the mat under your torso and drape yourself over it. Your knees will be wide, your pelvis will be off the bolster, but you’ll be supported from collarbones to low belly. Let your forearms rest on the floor beside the bolster, or hug the top of the bolster. For additional support, you can place a thickly rolled blanket on top of the bolster. Keep adjusting your setup until you find the sweet spot that allows you to relax along the length of your spine and breathe easy.
I learned this variation from Yoga for All founder Dianne Bondy. If you’re working with abundance at the center of your body (abundant breasts and belly), bring your big toes to touch and separate your thighs wide, then place one or even two blocks (stacked at their lower setting) under your forehead. Relax your forearms on the earth next to the blocks to alleviate pressure on the neck. If desired, place a blanket between your buttocks and heels.
Balasana on Your Back
If practicing balasana face down doesn’t feel comfortable to you, no matter how wide or propped up you make it, then reverse this versatile asana by coming onto your back. Simply lie down and hug your knees toward your chest, with your hands resting on your shins or the backs of your thighs. Then widen your knees apart, drawing your knees toward your armpits (although they likely won't reach).
You can get the same gentle opening through the hips here, the same level of rest, and with that, the same connection to and cultivation of the breath. You can also get a similar lower back stretch! Plus, in this variation, you can also find more movement; try rocking from right to left and see how it feels. I find this adds a touch of play to my practice that I quite enjoy!
Perhaps you will discover that these three simple variations make this “gentle” pose actually feel far more gentle. And although they won’t work for all bodies, they can be sources of inspiration as you explore and discover what works best for you.
I hope that the next time your teacher says, “Take child’s pose, rest, and breathe,” you’ll have a clearer idea of how you create a sustainable state of effortless ease in balasana.