Child pose or Balasana is a pose featured many, many times in most yoga sequences and for very good reason. Its name comes from replicating the foetal position that you evolved with in the womb.
That curling up of knees into your belly, your head in towards your heart is the same shape you curled up before and when first born – it represents a time before you were able to sit up or stand up.
The secondary curves we develop in the first year of life – the inward curves of our lower back and neck – signify what it is to be human, to stand upright and on two legs.
These balance out the outward curl of the primary curves at the back of our head, the top of our back and our tail bone, cleverly stacking force to uplift from gravity, up from the ground.
The resulting S-shape is cleverly engineered to allow us to stand up on to two legs and distribute the weight upwards with some ease.
The payoff that comes from freeing our arms to use when standing is that the lower back and neck tend to be areas of weakness for humans. Looking after these and being aware of how we use them is a crucial part of for spine health and how we move.
We tend to create quite a lot of compression and tension in these areas in the way that we hold stress and sit on chairs, crunching into our spines to look at screens. So in many of our yoga postures lengthen our lumbar (lower) spine and neck.
We practice moving into them, stretching and twisting them, but we come back to child pose to allow them to drop back into that first shape, that first setting before they evolved into more support.
When there’s a patterning of holding stress or long-term physical effects of tension, we often move into a pattern to unravel it.
So, habits that we might be holding into the lower back or the neck could be soothed and softened by allowing those places to come back to a rounded position that feels safe and familiar as somewhere that we were fully protected.
Human beings are also unusual in the fact that the standing up that signifies our place in the world also exposes our soft bits, our belly and our groin to the world and it’s very natural for us to feel we need to protect those.
In fact, coming into a foetal position is somewhere that we instinctively go when we feel that we need to feel a sense of safety and self protection; drawing our knees up in towards our chest.
Returning to this shape also helps cultivate a deep sense of safety into the whole nervous system, somewhere to come to where we can nurture, a place to move out from again.
Physically that curling in (flexing the thighs into the body) is initiated by the psoas muscle, that runs up from the thighs, up through the belly and into the diaphragm. The psoas extends to allow us to stand upright and is often referred to as the emotional muscle as our protective responses start from this core place.
Lots of chair sitting tends to shut this down, continually flexing the knees up in towards the chest, which could also be collapsing down in a less conscious foetal shape.
So if we’ve been curling around those in a sense of safety or just as in sedentary habits, if we move to quickly to opening up of the front body (eg lunges or back arches where we open up the front of the thighs, groin, belly and chest) then this can seem quite an emotionally stressful event for the body and the deep core in the psoas.
So countering with curling into the foetal position in Balasana isn’t simply a mechanical opposition. It also allows us to open into these patterns without imprinting on the nervous system that when we do a lunge it is a stressful event for the body.
We open up and then we draw back in again; cultivating a sensitive and inviting approach to creating new patterns in the body.
In my classes I instruct Balasana or a version of a foetal position in different planes, many times throughout. I like to work with a work-rest attitude to yoga where we engage energy and then come back to a place where we gather back in again, so that we’re not creating agitation or overwhelm.
We can do a foetal position, yes, in child pose face down on the ground but also often laying on the side on our back in Apanasana with the knees drawn into the chest or even upright on to the balls of our feet with our heels lifted and curling in, or feet on the ground or heels on a block to curl in and rest there.
We can also use this protective space in more dynamic postures, such as fully dropping down the front body in a lunge or standing with bent legs, dropping the torso fully down onto the thighs and letting the head and arms release – this standing child pose is a great decompressor for the spine, simply hanging to let gravity punctuate postures where the lower back and neck hold so much weight to stand upright.
Fully dropping the head is the benchmark of child pose, letting the weight of those thoughts go and focussing on breadth, space and release into the back of the neck and across the lower back.
This is a potent physical symbol of the power of yoga as embodied awareness.
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