Stretching is like flossing. We know it’s good for us, but some of us don’t do it as often as we should. To help you get the most out of stretching – and maybe inspire you to do it more often – MEC staffer Jessica chatted with Halfmoon Yoga Products about using yoga props to hit the stretching sweet spot. Today’s focus: three stretches using bolsters, starting with a bit of backstory on the prop-making gurus at Halfmoon.
Part one of a three-part series on stretching with props.
I visited Halfmoon’s head office expecting to learn how to use props like bolsters, cushions, and straps. What I wasn’t expecting to learn was that MEC and Halfmoon had similar beginnings. Much like how the founders of our Co-op identified a gap in how their climbing community accessed products, Beth McTavish, founder and owner of Halfmoon, recognized the same sort of void for yoga products more than 25 years ago.
In 1989, Beth took that void into her own hands and turned it into her business. She started selling products out the back of her station wagon to yoga workshop participants eager to get their hands on gear they couldn’t find anywhere else (sound familiar?). As an Iyengar yoga practitioner, Beth’s heart was in props, and she created her first-ever yoga strap out of a red seatbelt (using D-rings from MEC). Today, Halfmoon’s head office and manufacturing plant operates out of warehouse space in Vancouver, where they produce 80% of the soft goods they sell.
Heading into the interview, I felt a bit of anxiety. I mean, I get it – stretching is super important. It helps prevent injuries, keeps you active longer, and makes climbing stairs the day after a hill workout not feel like torture. But I never take the time to do it. So now my perpetually tight muscles want zero to do with my half-hearted attempts at reclaiming a limber body.
But after an hour and a half of stretching with props at Halfmoon, I felt more confident in my ability to reach for my toes without something snapping, and excited by the idea that stretching doesn’t have to feel like self-inflicted suffering. It can actually feel really amazing. And I hope that after this three-part stretching series, you’ll find the same.
Bolsters: More than just a throw pillow
First off, let’s talk bolsters. Halfmoon bolsters are made from hand-rolled organic cotton, and then hand-stuffed into hand-sewn covers. If you noticed a lot of “hands” in that sentence, it’s because each bolster is individually made with a remarkable amount of human contact.
However, a bolster is more than just a well-made throw pillow. They take the grunt work out of stretching and bring an element to end-of-day unwinding that a glass of wine can’t even touch. Using a bolster under your hips, knees, neck, spine, or bum (not all at once, of course – let’s not get carried away) provides additional support and stability, helps you to get into a pose or a stretch, and reduces tension by helping your nervous system relax.
“MEC carries both our rectangular bolsters and cylindrical bolsters, and there’s a bit of a difference in the function of each shape,” explains Erin, Sales Coordinator at Halfmoon. “I prefer the cylindrical one because it’s more of a deep opening for me, but some really prefer the traditional rectangular bolster because of the increased surface area and additional support.”
click here to see Halfmoon’s Bolster Comparison.
Now, finally onto using this thing, yes?
Good for: Runners, who are so focused on the lower body they forget about the upper; cyclists, who are hunched over their bars; and paddlers, who demand so much of the chest and shoulders. “My favourite way to use a bolster is to just lay on it at the end of the day, or at the end of my yoga practice, to let my day and my practice sink in,” says Erin.
In a nutshell: Because of a bolster’s cushion-like qualities, it makes sense that it’s used in calming, rejuvenating stretching and poses. This chest opener is no exception. “Lying on a bolster is perfect to open your shoulders and stretch the chest out,” educates Sandy, Sales Account Manager at Halfmoon and Vancouver yoga instructor. “Allowing yourself a few moments of just lying still and letting your muscles relax can go a long way when it comes to improving your posture and mobility. Especially after sitting at a desk all day.”
How to: Lay your bolster on the floor directly behind you, resting it against your lower back. Then, just lie back. “It’s a fairly deep opening, so you’ll want to take a few breaths to get settled into this position,” says Erin. “It can sometimes take a moment or two to find just the right space.”
My thoughts: For me, the discomfort caused by the curve in my lumbar far outweighed the benefit of the shoulder opening. I switched to the rectangular bolster, which was more comfortable to start but I found the stretch to not be nearly as satisfying. Sandy and Erin came up with a perfect combo for me: go back to the cylindrical bolster to get the release in my shoulders, but put a block under my sit bones so that my bum was almost level with the bolster, eliminating the curve in my lumbar. Result = perfection.
Insider tip: “Between the different bolster shapes and props, you’re almost guaranteed to find an option that fits well with you, regardless of how tight your muscles are,” comments Lisa Pratt, Marketing Manager of Halfmoon.
Good for: Active people looking to increase their range of motion and decrease their chance of injury.
In a nutshell: A healthy spine is sublime (that’s a saying, right?). “Wringing out your spine allows you to have a better range of motion and makes you more aware of your posture, which subsequently increases your balance and back strength, and gives your spine more dexterity, which prevents back injury, especially as you age,” explains Sandy. “It’s also a detoxifying position because it’s seen as wringing out your organs.”
How to: Sit the bolster on the ground beside you, and line the end of it up with your hip. Then swivel your torso and just fold over on the bolster.
My thoughts: I found it too deep to have my head turned the opposite way from my knees (as pictured above). Keeping my eyes facing the same direction as my knees allowed me to still experience the stretch, but avoid the extra twist. “Bringing your knees up and down in this position changes the intensity of the lumbar stretch as well, so knees up for more intense; down for less. Turning your head the opposite way of your knees will intensify the stretch in the mid-back.” says Sandy.
Insider tip: “In a twist, I find it helps to think of your organs as little sponges that are getting wrung out. Breath is super important in this position, because when you come out of the twist, it’s what encourages oxygenated blood to rush through your body, filtering through your organs and flushing everything out,” describes Erin.
Legs up the wall, aka: Lazy Shoulder Stand, The Waterfall
Good for: Post-run recovery (especially after a grueling speed session or hill day), rest day recuperation, and end-of-day indulgence.
In a nutshell: This is a restorative supported inversion because it allows the blood that has accumulated in the feet and legs to re-circulate in your body upon standing. “Putting your legs, hips, everything above your heart, helps blood flow and refresh the organs and gives your heart a chance to relax from working against gravity,” Sandy explains. It really really allows everything in your body to relax, and can also give your hamstrings a little something to talk about too.
How to: The rectangular bolster is definitely the one you want for this position; however, getting into the position requires commitment. Put the bolster right up against the wall and sit sideways on it. Place the hand not facing the wall down on the ground for support, and swing your legs up so that your heels, legs, and bum are all resting gently against the wall and the bolster is comfortably tucked under your sacrum. You’re likely going to need to do some shimmying to make this happen.
(position pictured away from the wall to show correct bolster placement, comfortably tucked under sacrum)
My thoughts: Grace is not one of my strengths, so it took a few rounds of rolling off the side of the bolster, righting myself, and flinging my legs into the air before I got the positioning right. Once I got there though, this position felt effortless and rewarding.
Insider tip: Erin and Sandy suggested adding a flax-filled lavender-scented eye pillow to the experience, which is a recommendation I enthusiastically endorse (and when I say “enthusiastically,” I mean “relaxed and sleepily”). The weight of the pillow felt comforting, the flax felt cooling, and the scent of lavender was almost instantly calming. See you later, terrible day.
And whatever stretch you try, remember Erin’s advice: “If you’re stretching to the point of pain, you’ve stretched too far. Yoga is about meeting you where you’re at… props just bring it a little closer. Learn to respect your edge – never go beyond it.” This segues nicely into our next post: hello, blocks.
Halfmoon bolsters are available in stores and online. We can’t wait to hear what you think of your bolster and these stretches. And if you have a stretch that’s really working for you, let us know!
Image credits: Thanks a heap to Erin, who was awesome enough to be the model for these shots, and to Lisa, who supplied additional images.