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.
The Best Yoga Bolsters Reviewed
How to Use a Yoga Bolster
While you’ll find your groove with your bolster, and your yoga teacher can probably help you, I wanted to include a few tips to get you started.
Backbends - The bolster works very well in assisting backbends. With all the back problems people have these days, building a flexible lumbar can go a long way toward protecting you - if done right. Using the bolster under your back gives you the support you’ll need when building your flexibility and core strength. A round bolster works best for this move and alternatively you could also use a yoga wheel.
Easy pose - The name implies this is an easy pose but it's far from it for most of us. If you work a desk job, chances are your hip flexors and the muscles along your back are probably tight and rigid. When these muscles are tight it’s hard to sit on the flat floor and keep a straight spine.
By placing a support under your rear and elevating your hips you’re able to lower your knees and easily maintain perfect posture - even for long periods of time such as during meditation. For the easy pose a zafu or rectangular bolster works best.
Wide Forward Bend - For this pose you’ll place the pillow in front of you, between your legs, and lean forward to place your chest upon the pillow. This helps stretch your hamstrings and release tension in your lower back without straining your muscles. Any bolster would work find for this purpose.
Supported Forward Fold - Sometimes it comes back to the basics. The forward folds tend to be some of the best, basic exercises we can do since they affect our entire posterior chain. When we're sitting at a computer all day, our hamstrings and hip flexors remain in a contracted position for the majority of the time. By incorporating more forward bends into your routine you can undo some of this tightness.
To perform the supported forward fold, you simply place your yoga bolster on your lap in a seated position. From there, extend forward feeling the stretch through your back and legs. Rest your chest against the bolster and take a few breaths. The bolster allows you to completely relax your muscles and get the best possible stretch, without overstretching. Repeat this daily and you'll notice its not so hard to stand up after being seated for a while.
Supported Camel Pose - This is a more advanced backbend and probably shouldn't be used until you're slightly more advanced in yoga. Additionally, you may want to consider using a yoga wheel while you're getting comfortable with backbends.
To perform supported camel pose, you'll place the bolster against the wall and press your thighs against the bolster. The bolster acts as a pad for you to press into while you're building your thigh and back flexibility. From there, you'll slowly move into the backbend until you can relax your head back and breath deep.
Corpse Pose - We wrote a whole article on mastering corpse pose but using a bolster can kick it up even further. Instead of lying flat on your yoga mat, you place the bolster long ways so it travels the length of your spine. Then you relax into the pose letting your arms fall to your sides.
The yoga bolster props up your shoulders allowing your arms to fall further down and this action does wonders for opening up your chest and heart. It's very comfortable and a pose that you may actually fall asleep in if you're not careful.
Here's a quick video with a few more poses you might enjoy:
How to Choose The Best Bolster For Your Practice
As a final note I’d like to help you think about a few things when choosing the best yoga bolster for you. These are all things we consider (and more) when choosing items to review so I’d like you to have a way to evaluate the quality as well.
The outer covering of your bolster can range from polyester to a durable cotton. Since they are designed to be used and not as decoration the material will usually be thicker and more durable. You should notice this as soon as you pick it up. Other things to think about regarding the material are the durability of the seams (these are often the weak point), whether or not the cover can be removed and cleaned, if the cover is going to shrink and the colors and patterns available.
The comfort of your cushion will be dictated by the filling, firmness and material of the cover. While an embroidered bolster may look cool, it might also become irritating and leave imprints on your skin. The filling can be anything from cotton to buckwheat hulls. Buckwheat remains firm but molds around you similar to sitting on sand. Cotton is typically more firm at first but it breaks in and becomes even more comfortable through use. I can’t say one is better than the other because your taste may be different than mine.
The shape is an important consideration when choosing your bolster. If you want something that’s versatile, I would use either a rectangle or round (ideally get one of each) because these can be used for the greatest variety of asanas.
Price is always a consideration when making a purchase because we humans often use price as a shortcut to determine the quality of an item. However, as we’ve found through many reviews now, price does not always correlate with quality. We search for the best balance of price, comfort, durability, etc. and then make recommendations based upon what provides you the best value for your money.
Who Should Use a Yoga Bolster?
Yoga bolsters are such versatile pieces of equipment that almost everyone should or could benefit from using one. Most yoga bolsters are long, skinny cushions designed to be flipped on their sides, lye flat, or even turned on their head for support. This meas they're the perfect companion for beginners and advanced yoga practitioners.
For the advanced yogi, they can be used for added comfort during stretching, used during warm up, or even used during meditations to provide some hip elevation.
For the beginner, the bolster can be turned on its side or top to add height and bring the floor closer to you. This is especially helpful if you can't quite hit the deep pose yet without overstretching or having your muscles tense up. As you progress in your practice, the bolster can be laid flat and used as a prop in deeper stretches.
How To Care For Your Yoga Bolster
Fortunately most bolsters are very easy to care for. And as with all equipment we use in yoga, its important to keep things clean. The yoga bolster, just like your yoga mat, is going to be on the floor, on your mat, and get sweaty from time to time.
Read the manual of your bolster for specific instructions. But, most allow you to remove the covering and toss it in the washer for a good clean.
We recommend that you always wash your covers on cool cycle and hang dry. Washing the cover with warm water or drying it in the dryer (even on the dedicates setting) will almost always shrink the cover so you won't be able to put it back on your bolster.
Beyond that, you can occasionally wipe your bolster down but it shouldn't need to be washed very often with normal use levels.
Our Pick For The Best Yoga Bolster
This was a tough review. There's so many bolsters available and you never know when you'll get a dud. Fortunately for us, we found a several really high quality options we can recommend.
For most yogi's the round and standard shaped bolsters will accommodate 95% of the asanas you'll do on a regular basis. The Hugger Mugger brand round and standard bolsters are both dense with just enough give to be comfortable while being supportive. They're covered with upholstery grade fabric and every time you buy one, a portion goes to support charity. Overall we found these to be the best value for the money and the most morally conscious bolsters.