- relieve stiffness in the back
- settle a busy or stressed mind
- maintain mobility in the knees, hips and ankles
- facilitate deeper breathing by encouraging breath into the back of the body rather than just the front of the chest
- create rest for the eyes and front brain
- prepare us for other more complex Yoga asanas requiring the knees & hips to fold deeply
You won’t feel any of these benefits though if the pose is causing strong discomfort in your body, and most people find Balasana quite difficult at first. You should never allow your knees to feel pain in Yoga, but if you’ve mainly sat in chairs rather than on the floor and are not used to kneeling, then your knees, hips and ankles may take patience and time to work toward this position. Using some simple supported variations with awareness and sensitivity can help enormously, allowing you to relax properly into Balasana and reap the full benefits of the pose.
Many Yogis find that they need a bit more belly space in this pose. If that’s the case, you’re not alone! Just take the knees wider in all these versions until you’re comfortable and have enough space.
These variations are also great to try for experienced Yogis or for those who are very flexible, as each way of practising brings a different quality and a new depth of awareness to the pose. It’s easy to take Balasana for granted if you’ve been practising for many years as simply an “in-between” or “resting” pose, but it deserves special attention, as you’ll see in the Balasana Breath Meditation described below. As with most asanas there are also some special cautions, so make sure you read all the way to the end if you suffer from depression, high blood pressure, or spinal disc dysfunction.
1. Supporting the head
Placing one closed fist above the other and resting the forehead on the fists is a quick way of doing this in class, but even better is placing something firm and supportive under your head like a thickly folded blanket, a Yoga block, or even a couple of books if you’re at home. You can then allow your arms to completely relax.
This variation is absolutely essential if your hips are higher than your shoulders in Balasana because of stiffness in the hips, knees, or ankles. You’ll release your back more evenly and completely, your neck will feel more relaxed in the pose, and providing you’re comfortable, your lower body will gradually begin to release more effectively.
For experienced Yogis, notice the quiet and deeply relaxing quality that can develop from sinking the forehead firmly into a raised support. The pose becomes even more restful for the eyes and front brain.
2. Supporting stiff ankles or feet
This tiny adjustment can make a world of difference to your whole body. If you’ve got tension in your thighs because you’re trying to hold the weight of your legs up off your unhappy ankles, there’s no way you’re going to feel relaxed in Balasana. Try a thin roll of blanket (or a towel or similar if you’re practising at home) under both front-ankles. This should be combined with the head support for evenness in the pose.
Experienced or flexible Yogis will find this a great way to deepen awareness of the ankles and to really feel whether both ankles are resting symmetrically and evenly.
3. Using a bolster or blankets under the front of the torso.
If you don’t have a Yoga bolster, you can use a sleeping bag or 4 or more firm folded blankets. Take your knees a bit wider and place the bolster either under your belly and chest, or just under the belly if you prefer more belly space. Turn your head to one side, and during your time in the pose, try to spend an equal amount of time with your head facing to the other side too. Make sure your elbows are dropping restfully onto the ground, your shoulders are soft, and that your back thighs are sinking as far into (or toward) your calves as is comfortable. If your bolster isn’t high enough to feel supportive, go ahead and stack some blankets on it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having your own personal Skyscraper Balasana!
This restorative variation can be extremely restful and is perfect to practise before bed time to soothe your nervous system and settle your mind.
4. Using a support between the back thighs and calves.
This one should be preferably combined with the torso support, or at least the head support so that you remain evenly balanced in the pose without tipping too far forward, and with the ankle support so that your ankles don’t feel too squashed. Correctly placed, it can make all the difference for stiff knees, allowing the leg muscles to relax, and if you want your knees to regain their full hinging ability in this pose, it’s essential that your thigh muscles actually let go, rather than try to hold you up! Use a folded firm blanket, or a cushion but make sure it feels the same on both sides.
For experienced Yogis, anywhere you place a Yoga prop will deepen your awareness of that part of the Yoga asana. This addition turns Balasana into an even more profoundly restorative asana.
Balasana Breath Meditation
Once you’ve found your favourite way of doing Balasana and your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and in fact your whole body is comfortable, you can add a wonderfully relaxing and settling breathing practice…
- If possible, rest a heavy roll of blanket across your middle to upper back.
- Allow your breathing to become quiet, easy and slow.
- Allow a natural pause at the end of each exhalation. Allow your body to take its time to breathe in.
- Notice if the blanket on your back rises with each inhalation, and falls with each exhalation. Can you deepen your awareness of that movement of the breath into your back?
- Can you feel the breath moving your spine, the inhalation creating more space between each spinal joint?
- Can you feel the sides of your body also expanding with your inhalations, balanced by a sense of softness on each exhalation?
- On each exhalation, allow your body to soften more deeply into the asana.
- Make sure that when you begin to come out of this breathing meditation, you do so slowly. Take some time to notice your surroundings again before using the support of your hands to come up, lifting your head gradually.
Practising this meditation just before bed can be a great way to help you relax into a good sleep.
Extra notes and cautions about Balasana:
High Blood Pressure:
Most people with high blood pressure are perfectly safe in this pose as long as the forehead is supported. However, if you feel heavy in your head or behind your eyes, make the head support a little bigger so that your head rests higher up away from the floor. If it still feels uncomfortable, leave Balasana alone for now and ask your Yoga teacher for advice.
Depression or history of trauma:
For many reasons, not everyone is comfortable with keeping the head downward and folding inward for any length of time. In the case of depression, Balasana may feel ok while you’re in it but when you come out you may find you feel heavy and flat. If you feel anxious or if Balasana makes you feel flat, try the bolster support under the torso, with your head turned to the side and your eyes open. If this still doesn’t suit, practise a similar body shape but turn it upside down: lie on your back, drawing your knees toward your chest, keeping your sacrum evenly on the ground. This will enable you to keep working on deeply folding your knees and hips, and in this upside down Balasana you can also flex your ankles back and forth for ankle mobility. Don’t worry, you won’t be conspicuous in class as I often recommend this variation in class for sore knees or injured toes and feet.
Lumbar disc bulge or herniation:
Unless this specific injury is very well managed, forward bends like Balasana, or even just having the knees into to the chest can increase pain later, after the pose is practised. If you have great hip mobility, then with the guidance of a teacher you can try taking your knees wide and raising the height of the bolster under the torso to encourage more extension in the lumbar spine, especially on the way into the pose. Otherwise, lie on your stomach with your legs straight behind you during this part of the class as an alternative until your symptoms lessen.
For more complimentary resources, please see www.alisoneastland.com
Check out my Healthy Happy Back E-Course for manageable step-by step techniques that you can choose from and slowly incorporate into your daily life. It’s completely suitable for beginners and anyone willing to slow down and take a gentle, easeful approach to rediscovering a healthier, happier back.