Supine means lying in a faceup position. It is the opposite of prone, which is lying face down. Similarly, supination means to turn a hand, foot, or limb upward, whereas pronation refers to turning them downward.
Both words originate from Latin: Supinus means leaning backward, and pronus means leaning forward. Interestingly, this is the reverse of the usual movement from each position. From a supine position, flexion in the spine and limbs is generally what moves the body into space; from a prone position, it is extension in the spine or limbs.
Moving into postures from a supine position generally engages the anterior musculature of the body, which is why many abdominal strengthening exercises start in this position.
Just as tadasana (page 72) is a quintessential standing position, savasana (page 182) is a fundamental supine position. In savasana, the back surface of the body is almost completely in contact with the support of the floor. There is nowhere to fall, so the postural muscles can relax from their constant dance with gravity.
Savasana has the lowest center of gravity possible and is a starting point for all the supine poses. It is also the position in which those asanas usually end. Because very little effort is required to stabilize the body while it is supine, poses that evolve from here are by definition mostly langhana and become more brhmana (see page 20) as the center of gravity is raised higher.
sava = corpse
This pose is also referred to as the death pose, or mrtasana (mrit-TAHS-anna). Mrta means death.
Symmetrical supine pose
Savasana is said to be the easiest asana to perform but the hardest to master. Whatever gymnastic demands the other asanas may make on your balance, strength, or flexibility, the challenge of maintaining awareness without effort or exertion is perhaps the most revealing exploration of body–mind integration we can engage in.
In savasana, the structures that are in full, weight-bearing contact with the floor exhibit the primary curves of the body (see page 37 of chapter 2). These include the posterior surfaces of the heels, calves, thighs, buttocks, rib cage, thoracic spine, scapulae, and skull.
The structures that are off the floor mirror the secondary curves of the body, specifically the hollows of the back of the ankles, knee joints, lumbar region, and cervical spine.
The points of contact of the arms vary widely from person to person, and the arms can be arranged in a variety of positions.
Blue shaded areas show the major weight-bearing structures, including most primary curves.
Often in savasana the limbs are carefully placed to be symmetrical when viewed from the outside. This can conflict with the body’s kinesthetic (proprioceptive) feedback because what lookssymmetrical is not what always feels symmetrical. We can negotiate this contrast in inner and outer experience in a variety of ways.
It can sometimes be useful to align the structures as symmetrically as possible and then see if you can receive the kinesthetic feedback of the sensations of asymmetry without needing to respond. Perhaps your proprioceptors can even adapt to this new information and redefine your perception of neutral.
Alternatively, it can also be valuable to organize more from the inside and seek inner comfort and quiet, regardless of how asymmetrically the limbs are arranged. We can find balance without being symmetrical, which is a valuable distinction for everyone to recognize because none of our internal structures are symmetrical. Nevertheless, they all have the ability to find balance and harmony. Because all human bodies are inherently asymmetrical, a certain amount of surrender to this fact is necessary to achieve a deep state of emotional and physical integration.
A deep state of quiet consciousness is quite different from sleep, which is a common experience in this pose. In savasana, the body is completely at rest and its metabolism is freed of the demands of contending with gravity, making it possible to practice the most difficult breathing exercise of all: the act of being fully aware of—but not controlling—the breath’s movements.
Usually, when you are aware of your breathing, in some way you alter its natural rhythm. When you are not aware of the breath, it is driven by a combination of autonomic impulses and unconscious habit. The juxtaposition of active awareness and surrender to the breath’s natural movements makes possible the powerful realization that true surrender is an act of will.
Apana Pose, Wind Release Pose
apana = the vital air that eliminates waste from the system
Symmetrical supine forward-bending vinyasa
Apanasana is one of the key tools of therapeutic yoga because it is a simple and accessible practice that directly links breath and body movement. In this simple vinyasa, or sequence, the hands are on the knees, and with the inhale the legs move away from the body. With the exhale the legs move toward the body. This movement can be created in a variety of ways: through the very gentle movement of the breath, a simple movement of the limbs, or a more vigorous movement of the spine.
Apanasana stimulates the upward release of the diaphragm on the exhalation as the knees are drawn into the body either by actively using the abdominal and hip flexor muscles or by using the arms to pump the thighs against the abdomen and leaving the abdominals and hip flexors passive.
Low-back tension can be the result of tension in the diaphragm. Performing apanasana is a simple and effective way of helping the lower spine by mobilizing the contents of the abdomen and creating more diaphragmatic space for the abdominal muscles to create postural support.
Taken together, dwi pada pitham (page 188) and apanasana constitute a powerful pair of counterposing movements that can facilitate profound changes and healing.
setu = dam, dike, bridge; bandha = lock; setubandha = the forming of a causeway or bridge; dam, bridge
Symmetrical supine inverted pose
It can be a challenge to find full hip extension in this pose without also adducting or externally rotating at the hip joints. If the hamstrings and adductor magnus are not strong enough, the gluteus maximus may do too much and pull the legs into external rotation, the other adductors (such as the pectineus) may activate to bring the knees together but also flex the hips, or the rectus femoris may work to extend the knees but interfere with the ability to extend the hips.
Spinal extensors (especially lumbar) may be useful, but too much lumbar extension is not helpful because it may limit hip extension by putting tension on the psoas complex.
While the final position of the knees is actually a flexed shape, the action of coming into the pose is one of extension because it is moving from more flexion to less flexion.
The elevation of the scapulae moves the shoulder blades into the floor, which then lifts the rib cage away from the floor. It is important that the scapulae are not depressed or pulled down the back in this position, because that action moves the scapulae away from the cervical spine, leaving the flexed neck to bear the weight of the upper body.
The action in the arms is also the foundation for salamba sarvangasana (page 190) and viparita karani (page 196); the action in the hips and legs is the same as for lifting into urdhva dhanurasana (page 249).
All in all, considering the many muscle actions that must be balanced for this pose to work, sustaining this basic posture actually requires a high degree of coordination.
This position offers the opportunity to experience all three bandhas: the lower abdominal action of mula bandha, the opening at the base of the rib cage (supported by the hand position) of uddiyana bandha, and the chin lock associated with cervical flexion known as jalandhara bandha.
Setu Bandhasana Variation
Dwi Pada Pitham
dvee PA-da PEET-ham
dwi = two; pada = feet; pitham = stool, seat, chair, bench
Symmetrical supine vinyasa
Except for the arm position, the muscular, spinal, and joint actions of this pose are virtually identical to those of setu bandhasana. The main difference between setu bandhasana and dwi pada pitham is that dwi pada pitham is a vinyasa, a dynamic movement that is coordinated with the inhalation and exhalation.
This simple yet versatile practice can be used in a variety of ways to release tension from the spine and breathing structures, as well as to help balance the leg and hip actions that support similar poses, such as setu bandhasana and urdhva dhanurasana (page 249).
The lifting movement is typically done on the inhalation and the lowering on the exhalation, but this pattern can be changed to produce various effects. For example, the three bandhas can be very easily activated simply by doing the lowering movement while suspending the breath at the end of an exhale (bhaya kumbaka). Lowering the spine while using bhaya kumbhaka creates a natural lifting of the pelvic floor and abdominal contents toward the zone of lowered pressure in the thoracic cavity. The subsequent inhalation can create a dramatic downward release of the pelvic floor and a noticeable sense of relaxation in this often tense region.
Supported Shoulder Stand
salamba = with support (sa = with, alamba = support); sarva = all; anga = limb
The term salamba distinguishes this variation of the shoulder stand from the unsupported (niralamba) version.
Some of the deeper musculature attaching to the base of the skull that can be eccentrically active in salamba sarvangasana, halasana (page 199), and variations.
Symmetrical supine inverted pose
The foundation of this pose, as in setu bandhasana (page 186), is the shoulder girdle (not the neck). To truly be a shoulder stand, the muscles that elevate, adduct, and downwardly rotate the scapulae must be strong enough to keep the scapulae in that position despite the weight of the entire body resting on them. When preparing for this pose, it is essential that the scapulae find elevation along with the other actions; if the scapulae are depressed, the cervical spine receives the weight of the whole body in a flexed position, which makes it very vulnerable to injury.
Entering the pose from halasana (page 199) is more demanding on the extensors of the spine, especially the thoracic spine, because they are in an elongated position before contracting. Entering from setu bandhasana is more demanding on the extensors of the shoulder joints and the flexors of the spine (the psoas and abdominal muscles).
From the perspective of the muscles of the spine and abdomen, being in this pose is less challenging than getting into it. However, remaining in the pose is more challenging for the muscles of the scapulae, because they are bearing the static load of the body.
Center line of gravity passing through the base of support.
The more mobility that exists in the scapulae (or the less resistance from other muscles of the thorax), the less compromised the breath is in this position. This pose takes a tremendous amount of both flexibility and strength in the entire shoulder girdle. Without the integrity of the shoulder girdle, the weight collapses down into the thorax and the diaphragm becomes obstructed.
Keeping the base of the rib cage open allows the diaphragm and abdominal viscera to shift effectively toward the head so the full benefits of inversion can occur.
Lymph drainage in shoulder stand.
Unsupported (No-Arm) Shoulder Stand
niralamba = no support, independent, self-supported; sarva = all; anga = limb
Symmetrical supine inverted pose
In this pose, the scapulae are elevated, adducted, and slightly upwardly rotated; without the levering action of the arms, this calls on the muscles that move the scapulae on the rib cage to work strongly. It might feel like contradictory actions to perform adduction, elevation, and upward rotation simultaneously. It is indeed possible and in fact necessary in this pose in order to protect the neck. If the scapulae are not maintained in adduction, the weight of the body falls into the spine; if the scapulae do not upwardly rotate, the arms are challenged in being alongside the body. The scapulae are positioned in neutral rotation as they extend to the knees, but the action that gets them there is upward rotation as they come from the downward rotation of niralamba sarvangasana.
The upper fibers of the psoas major and abdominal muscles are very strongly engaged here to maintain the spinal flexion in the thoracic spine. In addition, more lumbar flexion occurs to bring the legs farther overhead and counterbalance the pull of gravity. Resisting this tendency toward lumbar flexion makes the spinal flexors work much harder eccentrically against the body weight’s tendency to roll down to the floor.
In this balancing act between spinal flexors and extensors, imbalances that are usually imperceptible show up because the arms aren’t available to leverage symmetry. When these torques appear, they make this pose that much more challenging to balance.
In niralamba sarvangasana, the intense action in the torso’s flexor and extensor groups creates quite a challenge to the shape change of breathing. Because this is a challenging balance pose that requires a lot of stabilizing action in the abdominal and thoracic musculature, any attempt at deep breathing will destabilize the pose even as the full-body activation of these major muscle groups creates a demand for significant oxygenation.
Efficiency—finding the minimum amount of effort necessary to maintain the position—allows the limited breath movements to supply just enough energy to sustain the pose.
viparita = turned around, reversed, inverted; karani = doing, making, action
Symmetrical supine inverted pose
In salamaba sarvangasana (page 190), the erector muscles of the spine are more active than in viparita karani. In the lifted version of viparita karani, the abdominal muscles play a greater role than the spinal muscles to keep the pelvis from collapsing onto the hands—because of the flexion of the hips, the weight of the legs falls in such a way that the weight of the pelvis is falling backward toward further extension in the spine.
In viparita karani, the abdominal muscles are strongly active in eccentric contraction. If they do not have the ability to modulate their lengthening, the weight of the pelvis collapses onto the hands or wrists. Practicing the ability to enter and leave this pose can help with other actions that require abdominal eccentric control, such as dropping the legs over into urdhva dhanurasana (page 249) from a headstand or handstand, controlling vrksasana (page 86), dropping back into urdhva dhanurasana from tadasana (page 72), and so forth.
Body proportions and individual differences in weight distribution between the upper and lower body greatly affect the experience of this pose. A prime example is how challenging controlling the movement into this pose can be for women because of the greater proportion of weight in their lower bodies and the generally greater flexibility of their spines.
Dropped version of viparita karani.
The inverted nature of viparita karani produces the cleansing, eliminative effects associated with the upward movement of apana. The supported versions of this pose are a valuable staple of restorative yoga practice.
hala = plow
Symmetrical supine inverted forward-bending pose
This pose has many variations: spine more or less extended, arms overhead, or hands on the back as in salamba sarvangasana (page 190). Some of these variations put more pressure into the spine than others. For example, when the arms reach overhead and clasp the toes, the scapulae upwardly rotate and move away from the spine, and weight falls into the upper spine. This variation can overmobilize the thoracic and cervical spine; there is potentially damaging pressure from the pushing action of the feet and, if the hamstrings and gluteals are tight, from the limited hip flexion forcing greater spinal flexion.
Because this pose can produce very intense flexion for the spine, especially the cervical region, it’s more important to maintain the integrity of the scapulae and cervical and thoracic spine than to get the legs to the floor; support the legs if necessary to protect the neck.
As in salamba sarvangasana, keeping the base of the rib cage open allows the diaphragm and abdominal viscera to shift effectively toward the head so the full benefits of inversion can occur. This can be much more of a challenge in this pose because the hip flexion tends to create more intra-abdominal pressure.
Halasana is a very good gauge of how freely you can breathe. It’s one thing to have the range of motion and flexibility to get into the pose, but quite another to have the diaphragm and organs be free enough to remain there and breathe comfortably.
karna = ear; pidana = squeeze, pressure
Symmetrical supine inverted forward-bending pose
Extensors of the spine should all lengthen evenly, ensuring that the opening is distributed along the whole spine. When the arms move overhead and the scapulae spread away from the spine, the weight bearing shifts to the spinous processes of the thoracic spine from the scapulae.
This variation can overstretch the thoracic and cervical spine due to the weight of the legs and pelvis, directing pressure into the vulnerable muscles of the neck and upper back.
This counterposes the shoulder action of sarvangasana (pages 190 and 193) because the spinal extension and scapular adduction of shoulder stand is reversed, so the muscles that were active are now lengthening. If the release is too passive, however, the muscles can be overlengthened.
In this pose, the weight of the lower body is bearing down into the torso, which is in maximal flexion—this is basically an inverted, weight-bearing exhalation.
If the muscles are tense in this pose, even if the joints and muscles have enough flexibility, the breath is inhibited. This limitation soon results in the muscles’ inability to fuel their activity; at this point, the asana should be exited.
jathara = stomach, belly, abdomen, bowels, the interior of anything; parivrtti = turning, rolling
Asymmetrical supine twisting pose
To ensure that this twist is evenly distributed throughout the spine, it is important to maintain a neutral spine. This is a challenge with both knees bent because it’s much easier to move into lumbar flexion to deepen the rotation. However, this might put excess pressure into the lumbar vertebrae and discs. If there is a lack of balanced mobility in the spine, excessive force can be directed into vulnerable spots such as the disc between T11 and T12 or the front of the shoulder joint.
Because the body is supported by the floor and the main action is provided by gravity, the breathing and postural muscles are free to release in jathara parivrtti. The breath can thus be directed in various ways to achieve specific effects. For example, bringing the breath movements to the abdomen releases the tone in the abdominal wall and pelvic floor and assists in reducing extraneous muscle tension in the lumbar region. The opposite pattern of restraining the abdominal wall during the inhalation directs the action of the diaphragm into the thoracic structures, mobilizing the costovertebral joints. A similar effect can be achieved in the seated twists (see the discussion of ardha matsyendrasana on page 152 of chapter 7).
Jathara Parivrtti Variation
With Legs Extended
In this variation, the top leg’s hamstrings are lengthening; tightness here can contribute to spinal flexion. The bottom leg’s hamstrings are active and help counter spinal flexion with extensor action.
With the bottom leg extended, the top leg has more adduction and possibly more internal rotation, which leads to increased length in the iliotibial band; gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus; piriformis; superior and inferior gemellus; and obturator internus.
matsya = fish
Symmetrical supine backward-bending pose
This pose can be done while focusing on using spinal extensors (which include the psoas major on the front of the spine) or supporting on the elbows. If the support of the elbows is used, there is less work in the muscles of the torso and perhaps more ease in breathing and more expansion.
If the pose is done while focusing on the muscles that extend the spine, the neck is better protected when lifting the arms off the floor. Variations can also be done with blocks under the spine and with the feet in baddha konasana (page 144) or padmasana (page 127).
This pose provides a great demonstration of the role of the psoas major in both hip flexion and spinal extension.
This pose is frequently used as an immediate counterpose to salamba sarvangasana (page 190) because it reverses the position of the cervical spine from extreme flexion to extreme extension. However, going from one static extreme to the other may not be the most beneficial way to compensate for the stresses of salamba sarvangasana. A more dynamic approach would be to gradually reverse the movement of the neck with simple vinyasas leading up to bhujangasana (page 212).
In matsyasana the chest is expanded, but not as maximally as in the more difficult arm-supported urdhva dhanurasana (page 249). As a result, there is still room for the inhaling action to further expand the rib cage, using the arms as leverage.
For a more calming effect—particularly if using matsyasana as a counterpose—focusing on gentle abdominal breathing can be quite useful.
With Arms and Legs Lifted
There is greatly increased action in the legs when lifted off the floor, especially in the psoas major, iliacus, and rectus femoris.
With the change in arm position, the coracobrachialis, no longer lengthening, is now working to flex and adduct the arm, as are the pectorals and anterior deltoid. The serratus anterior muscles are recruited to abduct the scapulae, and the triceps brachii are extending the elbows.
Reclining Vishnu Couch Pose
ananta = endless, eternal (anta = end, an = without)
Ananta is also the name given to the mythical serpent that the god Vishnu reclines on like a couch.
Asymmetrical side-lying balancing pose
When the leg is lifted, the pelvis and lower body often roll backward. The challenge is to find the balancing movement through the abductors and external rotators of the hip joint rather than through rotating the spine.
Anantasana is one of the few true side-lying poses. In the side-lying position, the dome of the diaphragm closest to the floor moves cranially (toward the head), while the other dome moves caudally (toward the tail). This is due mainly to the effect of gravity on the abdominal organs, which are pulled toward the floor, taking the diaphragm with them. In addition, the lung closest to the floor (the dependent lung) becomes more supported and its tissue becomes more compliant, meaning that it’s under less mechanical tension and responds more easily to the action of the diaphragm.
Consciously creating this asymmetry in the respiratory mechanism can be useful in breaking up deeply ingrained breathing habits. For example, this pose can be beneficial to people trying to change the habit of sleeping on only one side of the body.