The Singular most important area of the body to support restorative yoga is the head and neck. If you have only one blanket and no other props, use it to support your head and neck. Here’s why.
The head and neck are replete with a number of systems of nerves called proprioceptors that let the brain know where you are in space and orient you to gravity, thereby creating balance and supporting the upright posture that you assume most of the time. The brain actively monitors your position all the time.
When you lie down, these nerves that create muscular actions in your body to keep you upright are not required; thus, those muscles do not work very much and you can relax. This is, in part, why we lie down to sleep. Lying down requires much less metabolic energy than staying upright and thus supports relaxation.
A simple example of the importance of the head and neck position for relaxation can be seen if you have tried to sleep on an airplane. You may have found that if you can create a comfortable position for your head and neck, you can sleep, even if the rest of your body is not completely comfortable. The opposite, however, however, is not true.
To facilitate a deep relaxation in the poses presented in this article, give your primary attention to the position of your head and neck. Here are the main points to remember:
✅ Your chin should be in slight flexion (with your chin toward your sternum, or breastbone). This means that if you are lying on your back, your chin is slightly lower than your forehead. This position stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system that facilitates relaxation. To experience this flexion, try the following exercise. In a sitting position, lift your chin up to look at the ceiling; notice how that stimulates your brain. Now drop your chin toward your chest, and you will notice the opposite effect:
the chin-down position quiets your brain. This is no doubt why in all systems of meditation and during prayer in all religious traditions, the head is dropped.
Assume the chin-down position in virtually every pose in this book, with the exception of some of the backbends. In those poses, the effect of the chin being up is neutralized because the head is lower than the heart, and the overall pose elicits relaxation.
✅ The blanket(s) used for your head support needs to extend down to the top of your shoulder blades, which is called the spine of the scapulae. Supporting this area helps to support your shoulders and allows them to relax more fully. Everyone, however, has a specific amount of support that feels delicious for them, so be sure to experiment in your practice to find what works for you.
✅ The next point to support is the seventh cervical vertebra or C7. Remember, the vertebrae are numbered from the top (at the base of the skull) downward. C7 is the vertebra at the junction of the neck and the trunk.
Find it now by placing your fingers softly on the curve at the back of your neck and moving them downward. Stop when you come to the vertebra that sticks out the most. You may be able to find this more easily if you bend your neck forward while in a sitting position. This is likely C7 or the first thoracic vertebra (T1). This is the area with which we’re concerned. When you set up your head support, it is critical that this area is lifted by the blanket. Details in the next section, “A Word About Props,” explain the blanket folds in detail.
✅ The outer edges of the blanket should be rolled under along the sides of your neck. This helps to hold your neck and head in a stable and supported position. Likewise, fold the outer edges of the blanket under your outer shoulders.
✅ A variation of head and neck support uses one blanket in a simple way and may lend itself to teaching new and beginning-level students. Using the standard fold blanket, turn the corner of the blanket toward you so the corner fits under C7. The photos below show the model on her back and her side so the placement of the blanket is easier to see. You can leave the blanket as it is or roll the sides under to support the sides of your head.
Supporting your head and neck this way will not only feel wonderful, but it will hold your head in such a way that it cannot roll to the side. When you lie on your back, your head tends to roll to the side when you fall asleep. Thus, propping your head in a “straight-ahead” position will help you to relax without going to sleep. Remember that rest and sleep are distinct but similar activities, and the body needs both for full health.
For further details about blanket folding, see the next section on props.