AIDS Ribbon

Restorative Asanas for a Healthy Immune System

By Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D.

As taught by B.K.S. Iyengar,
these calming poses are extremely effective
in promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

Regular practice of the classical yoga asanas can be quite helpful in creating a healthy immune system and the proper environment for its functioning. The following restorative asanas are taught by B. K. S. lyengar at the Ramamani lyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India. They are extremely effective in producing the "relaxation response" and in counteracting the negative effects of the "stress response" on the immune system. These asanas are useful for their calming, nurturing effects and are especially valuable when one is too sick or weak to perform the more vigorous, classical poses. The healthy yoga practitioner can also benefit from these poses during times of stress, fatigue, or low energy.

The restorative asanas differ from free-standing yoga poses, which are held in proper alignment by muscular action. In these modifications of classical poses, the muscles remain quiet; the shape and alignment of the pose is determined by props. If relaxation is to be attained, therefore, one must have proper support and alignment. One should give plenty of time to experimentation. Although a particular set of props may "feel okay," make sure the props are exactly right by increasing or decreasing their dimensions until the pose is totally comfortable. Be prepared to fine-tune the pose, even after you have found what seems to be the "perfect" arrangement. The body will continue to relax, and prop requirements may change.

Teachers are strongly advised to practice these postures on their own or with other teachers for several months before giving them to students. The subtleties and nuances of the restorative poses must be understood from one's own experience before they can be taught safely to others. As in other yoga asanas, harmful effects may result if these poses are performed incorrectly. After several minutes in the pose, one should feel a deepening calmness. If instead one feels irritated, uncomfortable, or agitated, recheck the alignment. Have another person look at the pose or take Polaroid photos, and compare them to the alignment in the photos accompanying this article. If one is unable to achieve comfort in a restorative pose, consult a teacher experienced in its use.

Relaxation should occur spontaneously, as soon as one releases into the pose. Breathing should be easy and unobstructed. A useful breathing technique while in the restorative poses is described in a companion piece, "A Simple Stress-Reducing Breathing Technique." One should not compress the throat, hyperextend the neck, or hold tension in the abdomen. An elastic bandage wrapped around the head will help block out light and sound. Looking downward with the eyes (as if one were looking at the lower eyelids) further intensifies relaxation. Dress warmly to avoid becoming chilled.

How long should one hold these poses? Begin with one or two minutes. As prop use becomes more refined, gradually increase the time, to a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes per posture. Come out of a pose if it becomes uncomfortable, or if relaxation becomes an effort.

For the most profound results, the restorative asanas should be practiced in the following sequence. Maintain the feeling of deep relaxation when moving from one pose to the next. Each pose should begin at a deeper level of relaxation than the preceding one. To facilitate quiet transitions, assemble props for all the poses before beginning. Using a timer with a pleasant bell will alleviate the necessity of watching the clock.

1. Supported Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero's Pose)
The modification of Supta Virasana for use as a restorative asana requires sufficient propping to support the trunk comfortably, while keeping the knees in contact with the floor and the thighs parallel. Even flexible yogis should take advantage of the deep relaxation the props afford in this pose (Figure 1). Sitting on a wooden block and increasing the height of the props supporting the back helps those who are less flexible to get comfortable. Note that the bolster is supporting the lumbar spine (Figure 2).

Proper head and neck support is crucial for relaxation. A folded towel is used to support the head and neck so that a normal cervical curve is maintained. Avoid neck padding so thick that it causes throat compression. On the other hand, insufficient padding may result in hyperextension of the neck in persons with limited shoulder flexibility. (Figure 3 shows the incorrect head position.)

Supta Virasana is best performed on a firm, non-compressible mat. One should not feel pain where the knees and tops of the feet come into contact with the floor.

Knee joint pain or lower back discomfort calls for an increase in the height of the trunk and/or buttock supports. If the elbows do not reach the floor, put folded towels under the forearms for support.

To come out of the pose, move the trunk into an upright position, using the hands to support the back. Then, still kneeling, separate the knees and lean the trunk forward. Rest the forehead on the floor or on a bolster. Lengthen, relax, and release the back.

2. Supported Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
The supported Bridge Pose requires a low bench, a wooden block, a belt, and a blanket (Figure 4). (If a bench is not available, use two low stools or two wooden blocks to support the sacrum and heels.) Joining the thighs with a belt eliminates the work of holding the legs together and allows for more complete relaxation of the hip girdle and greater elongation of the lumbar spine. Note that the lumbar spine is supported by a block and a rolled blanket. The height of the bench should be sufficient to create good chest expansion. The chest should look puffed out. If the chest appears flat or collapsed, try rolling the shoulders back and under, as in Shoulderstand. If this does not work, increase the height of the hip support by inserting a folded towel under the sacrum, or by using a higher bench.

Compression of the throat can be relieved with a folded towel under the shoulders. If the knees are uncomfortable, support them with a rolled blanket. This is especially helpful for those whose knees hyperextend when the legs are relaxed. If the lower back is uncomfortable, check the lumbar support for adequate thickness. Then try putting one or two blocks or blankets under the heels to raise the legs until the lumbar area is quiet (Figure 5).

To come out of the pose, slide off the props in the direction of the head. Roll to the side and sit up. Sit crosslegged, resting the head and arms on the bench (Figure 6).

3. Viparita Karani
This supported modification of the Shoulderstand is the most powerful of the restorative poses. The buttock support should be firm and sufficiently high to create good chest expansion - puffed out, as in supported Setu Bandhasana. For more opening, roll the shoulders back and under (as for Shoulderstand), or increase the height of the buttock support. The buttocks should be as close to the wall as possible. Joining the thighs with a belt allows for release of the leg, hip, and lower back muscles (Figure 7). The pose can be done against a pillar, with a snug belt holding the thighs to the pillar, which provides even greater stability and relaxation.

Getting into Viparita Karani takes some practice. Sit sideways on the bolsters with one side of the body as close to the wall as possible. Pivot on the buttocks, placing the legs up the wall and the shoulders on the floor. To move the buttocks closer to the wall, place the hands on either side of the shoulders, as for Backbend, and push yourself into the wall.

Alleviate throat compression by placing a folded towel under the shoulders. (Figure 8 shows incorrect throat alignment.) To come out of the pose, slide off the props in the direction of the head. Rest curled up on one side before proceeding.

NOTE: This is an inversion and should not be practiced during the active bleeding phase of menstruation, or by those with glaucoma, detached retina, or high blood pressure. Although B. K. S. lyengar uses this asana in patients with hypertension, teachers with little experience in therapeutic yoga are advised to use a modified Viparita Karani for hypertensive students. This modification consists of lying on the back with the legs up the wall, but without using props to raise the buttocks.

4. Savasana on a Chest-Opening Prop
In this modification of the Corpse Pose, the chest is opened and the lumbar spine supported by a firm bolster. First, sit in Dandasana with the bolster pulled into the sacrum (Figure 9). Using the arms for support, lean back onto the bolster. If necessary, raise the head and neck into proper alignment with a folded towel or blanket, as in Figure 10. (An incorrect head position is shown in Figure 11.)

If there is lower back discomfort, try one or more of the following maneuvers:

  • Bend the knees. Press the feet to the floor, and lift the buttocks off the floor. Lengthen the lumbar curve by tilting the pelvis up (the same action that would cause flattening of the lumbar curve when lying on the back or standing). Then set the hips back on the floor while keeping length in the lumbar spine.
  • Decrease the height of the trunk support.
  • Place a rolled blanket or bolster behind the knees.
As in the other restorative asanas, head and neck alignment is of utmost importance here. Avoid throat compression or neck hyperextension by using adequate support under the neck and head. Slightly thicker padding under the neck will give better support to the cervical arch, especially for people with neck pain or injury. To come out of the pose, roll off the bolster onto one side. Take the head and neck padding along for a pillow. Rest there for several minutes, enjoying the feelings of deep and nurturing relaxation.

Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D. is the author of Back Care Basics: A Doctor's Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief (Rodmell Press, Berkeley, Calif.; 800/841-3123).

(Copyright © 1987 by Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D. Photos by Clark Thomas/Nashville. This article first appeared in Yoga Journal, July/August, 1987. It is reproduced on The Yoga Group's Web site with permission from the author and from Yoga Journal (2054 University Ave., #600, Berkeley, CA 94704; 510/841-9200). All rights reserved.)

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