Maybe you love reading, or you enjoy restorative yoga—but not both. Or maybe, while a fan of both, you prefer to enjoy each activity on its own (being the kind of person who likes to keep your mashed potatoes from touching your peas). But if you find the idea of reading while in a restorative yoga pose intriguing, then please read on.
In fact, reading while practicing restorative yoga could be twice as beneficial for you. We know that yoga can reduce stress and potentially enhance longevity. Interestingly, so can reading. According to a study by the University of Sussex, reading for just six minutes reduces stress by almost 70 percent, more than having a cup of tea, listening to music, or taking a walk. Reading—books in particular, as opposed to magazines and newspapers—even correlates with longevity.
What happens, then, if we combine yoga and reading? Could we end up even more relaxed, and live even longer? There are no studies that look at the effects of engaging in both activities simultaneously, so we are left to hypothesize…and experiment.
Those of us who are both yogis and readers may have already begun to interweave these pursuits. It seems counterintuitive, after all, to pour over the Yoga Sutra while hunched at a desk, so we may naturally have arranged ourselves in a quasi restorative pose that allows us to be more comfortable as we read. We may have even reached for a book while holding a pose that is slightly challenging for us; for instance, we may have discovered that we can sustain single pigeon (#2 below) for a few more breaths (or paragraphs!), thanks to such a change of focus. (Not that I am not recommending reading while doing poses that require continual awareness of alignment or balance. Please don’t read while holding crow!)
Those of us who are both yogis and readers may have already begun to interweave these pursuits. It seems counterintuitive, after all, to pour over the Yoga Sutra while hunched at a desk.
Perhaps it is because I have a hard time clearing my mind that I’ve always relied on a focal point for meditation: a candle flame, mantra, or chant. Reading a novel or a poem seems like another such point of focus; I may not be clearing my mind of every thought, but at least, while I’m focused on an author’s thoughts, my mind is free of my own worries and plans. I like to think Patanjali would say that reading counts as meditation; there’s a lovely openness that runs through the sutras. After encouraging us to find steadiness of mind by focusing on the breath, on what we perceive through our senses, on divine light, on the mind of someone we consider to be enlightened, on dreams, Patanjali suggests “or by meditating on anything one chooses that is elevating” (1.39).
And the way Patanjali speaks of samyama—a combination of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (3.1-3.3.) by which the meditator moves from concentration to complete absorption, dissolving into that which they’re meditating upon—has always seemed to me a description of the act of reading. To be engrossed in a story is to no longer be aware of yourself as you read or the physicality of the book being read.
The reading-friendly poses below are meant to assist such absorption by removing any interruptive discomfort; if any of these poses are not perfectly comfortable, please modify them in the ways suggested (or in ways you improvise for yourself), or just skip them altogether. Don’t worry if you feel so content after a few minutes that you put your book aside, or, conversely, are enjoying your book to the extent that you stay in one pose instead of doing them all; use the poses suggested in any way that suits you. However, a few of the poses are double-sided, so you may want to set a number of pages to read on each side, so that you spend an equal amount of time in both. (You could also set a timer for yourself.)
If you are a teacher, you could even lead this practice for a group of your students who happen to be voracious readers. Or, if you are part of a yoga book club, why not come into one of these poses while reading a passage you’re focusing on? Perhaps your discussion could even include a mention of how the pose in which you read affected your reading experience.
For this practice, you’ll need two blocks, one blanket, and two bolsters. (Though I’m usually a restorative minimalist, for the sequence below, I find that the extra bolster is the perfect podium for a book.) Throw another blanket over your mat for some extra padding if you’d like, and consider a book weight or book clip to help your pages stay open. And of course, grab a book—anything elevating!
1. Supported Head to Knee Pose
• Sit—on a blanket, if you like—facing the long side of your yoga mat, knees bent, feet on the floor.
• Bring your bent left knee down to the left, drawing your left heel in toward the root of your left thigh. (If your knee does not comfortably reach the floor, support it with a blanket or block.)
• Drape your right leg over a bolster that's standing on its side, giving the weight of your leg over to it.
• Place your book on the floor (or on a block) in front of your left shin. Rest your right elbow on the bolster, and support the right side of your head with your hand, gazing down at your book, while you rest your left hand on your left leg (or alongside your book).
Or, for a deeper fold, turn your chest toward the bolster a bit more, crisscross your arms atop the bolster, and lean forward to rest your forehead on your forearms.
Stay here for several minutes, or several pages, and then switch sides.
2. Supported Pigeon Pose
• Place one bolster horizontally across the top of your mat, with your book on top of it; place your second bolster horizontally across the middle of your mat. Set yourself up on hands and knees with your hands on the mat just below the first bolster, and knees just below the other bolster.
• Bring your right knee in front of the second bolster, and lower your right shin to the mat, bringing it as close to parallel to the front edge of the mat as is comfortable for you. In the process, your pelvis will sink: The bolster is there to support your right buttock and the top of your left thigh.
• Lower your upper body, bringing your forearms—and your book—to the front bolster, and read there.
Or, if you are very comfortable in this version of pigeon, you can bring your book to the floor in front of your right knee, crisscross your forearms on the bolster, and lower your forehead to your forearms.
Hold here for several minutes, or several pages, and then come back to all fours and switch sides.
3. Supported Stretch of the West
• Straighten both legs out on the mat in front of you. If straightening your legs is uncomfortable, you may want to sit on a blanket and/or roll up a blanket and place it under your knees.
• Place one bolster horizontally across your thighs, and set your book on it.
• Stand one bolster up on your shins. Lean forward slightly, and tip it toward you as needed so that it supports your forehead while you read. Rest your forearms on either side of the book on the horizontal bolster, and read here.
Or, for a deeper fold, place both bolsters horizontally across your shins and your book on your thighs. Hinge at your hips to bring your forehead to rest on the bolsters. Relax your hands on your thighs, or bring your arms to the floor alongside you while you read.
Stay here for several minutes—or several pages.
4. Supported Seated Wide-Legged Forward Fold
• Open your legs wide. As in the previous poses, feel free to place a blanket under your sitting bones and/or a blanket roll under each knee.
• Place one bolster horizontally between your knees and set your book on it. Arrange your other bolster vertically (as in the previous posture), on the far side of the horizontal bolster.
• Lean forward and tilt the vertical bolster toward you until you can rest your forehead on it. Relax your forearms on the horizontal bolster, and read here.
Or, for a deeper fold, stack both bolsters horizontally between your ankles, and fold forward to bring your forehead to the edge of the bolsters, with your book on the floor between your knees. Rest your elbows on your thighs, or place your hands on your shins.
Stay here for several minutes or pages.
5. Supported Cow Face Pose
• With both bolsters nearby, and still sitting on a blanket if you’d like, lengthen your legs out in front of you. Cross your right leg over your left, bending your right knee to bring your right heel toward your left hip. Bend your left knee to bring your left heel toward your right hip.
• Place your book on a horizontal bolster just in front of your knees. Arrange the other bolster vertically just behind that bolster, then lean forward and tilt the vertical bolster toward you so you can rest your forehead against the top of it. Read here, resting your forearms on the horizontal bolster. If the horizontal bolster feels “in the way” because your leg position gives you less room, skip it; you may be perfectly comfortable with the book on the floor.)
Alternatively, stack the bolsters horizontally several inches away from your knees and lean forward to bring your forehead to rest on them—placing the book on the floor just in front of your knees, and resting your hands wherever it’s comfortable.
Stay here for several minutes, or several pages, and then return to an upright seat and switch sides.
6. Supported Supine Reclining Pose
• Place one block on its highest setting at the very back of your mat, and another block on its lowest setting a few inches away from that one (closer to the middle of the mat). Place your bolster over the blocks so that it’s on a steep incline.
• Roll both of your blankets together to make a chubby blanket roll. Sit just in front of the inclined bolster, facing away from it, and place the blanket roll under your knees. (Or, in lieu of the blanket roll, you can place another bolster under your knees as pictured.) Lower down, bringing your back and head to the bolster behind you. (You can place another blanket under your head, if needed.)
• Place another bolster horizontally across your thighs. Grab your book; rest your forearms against the bolster, and the edge of your book on top of the bolster. Remain here for several minutes or several pages.
Then put your book aside. Close your eyes for several minutes to give them a rest and to give your mind a chance to absorb everything you’ve just read.