If you’ve ever done a class that required a few “advanced” positions, you most likely though about how nice it would be if you had some support. When I first started training in flexibility, I could barely touch my toes and it felt like my hammies were going to snap like rubber bands.
Needless to say I quickly learned that a block or bolster was the way to go. So I turned to trying some different items and, at this stage, feel like I can give you some solid input on choosing the best yoga bolster for your practice and style.
Here's the quick answer:
What's the Purpose of a Yoga Bolster?
Can you do yoga without a pillow? Yes. Should you? That depends on your level of flexibility and style of yoga. You may feel like using a prop is cheating or you might base your practice on what others around you are doing. Here’s the thing, that person may have been practicing for years, they may have been a gymnast before or they may not know what they’re doing.
If you use tools early on, you can actually get ahead of the pack - and do it safely. The proper equipment can deepen your back-bends without putting strain on your lower back; a yoga wheel can help you with inverted positions, and of course, your yoga mat is a tool right?
Benefits of a Yoga Pillow / Bolster
1. Support - While you’re working on flexibility, a support pillow can be a wonderful tool. They can be placed under your lower back to release tension during back-bends and bridge pose for example. This is especially useful if you have back problems and/or haven’t yet developed the core strength for advanced yoga positions.
2. Posture - Using a yoga pillow or bolster in certain positions helps to elevate your rear while putting your knees lower than your hips. This is very important in maintaining an erect spine during both yoga and meditation.
3. Flexibility - Have you ever tried to do a split before you could actually do a split? Everyone has. What ends up happening is you put your muscles and tendons in a position they’re not ready for so they tense up right at the worst time. This is what leads to many yoga injuries and it's something that can be prevented by using the bolster as a middle ground while training your flexibility.
4. Opens the chest - A bolster is often used to support the back and open the chest. This results in an enhanced breathing and opening of the heart center. It also helps you get the best stretch on the chest muscles and set your shoulders back - which can relieve tension in the upper back from stress and sitting too long.
Types of Yoga Bolsters
Standard - The standard pillow is a rectangular shape with a wide flat top that's used in most restorative yoga practices. They have a durable covering which is sometimes removable and washable. An important note is that because these are used in many supportive positions, the one you get must be firm so that it doesn’t sag or droop when propped against something.
Round - The round yoga bolster is a large cylinder pillow that’s usually about 10” in diameter. They can be placed under the knees, they’re great for straddling (such as in learning the splits), under your upper back for opening the ribs to deepen your breath and in a number of other positions. They’re a versatile and comfortable alternative to a standard yoga bolster.
Pranayama Pillows - These are just like a round bolster but smaller in diameter (anywhere from 3 - 6 inches high). This pillow is specifically designed for breathing exercises and doesn't offer the same versatility as the other bolsters.
Zafu - Some people use the zafu as both a yoga bolster and meditation cushion. I personally prefer to use the round or standard bolster for yoga but if you’re also a regular meditator you can see our review of the best zafu's here.