Given my unique line of work as a bolster artisan, it’s not unusual for me to hear the question: “What the heck is a bolster?”
Bolster isn’t a word we tend to use as a noun. For most of us, the verb form is our only point of familiarity with the word – as in “I bolstered my argument with a great analogy.” Even in that context, we don’t use the word a lot.
To people who ask me what a bolster is, I typically tell them to think of antique sofas with the cylindrical cushions and then to think of a larger and much firmer version of that.
If they’re not familiar with those antique cushions, I cut straight to the chase by asking them to imaging a very dense, cylindrical or rectangular pillow. That puts them in the ballpark, anyway.
To better understand bolsters, I recently did a little research. Turns out that outside of the more recent yoga applications, bolsters have historically been used throughout Southeast Asia as hugging pillows while sleeping – basically an adult version of the teddy bear.
Wikipedia notes that in times of Japanese yore, “a wife would fashion the bolster out of bamboo and give it to her husband when he traveled away from home so that he would not be lonely at night, hence the name “bamboo wife,” or “Dutch wife” or chikufujin in Japanese.” Ooh, la la!
As titillating as the history of bolsters might be, a functional description, however, is more important that a physical one.
After all, it’s not so much what it looks like that’s important, so much as what it does. In a general sense, bolsters do precisely what the name suggests – they bolster, in other words, support your body in your yoga poses.
Just one advantage to this support is that it allows your body to open more deeply than would otherwise be possible, such as in chest openers, where the ribcage and upper spine can gently open over the bolster, increasing breath capacity, flexibility in the upper body, and a calmer nervous system.
For more information check out How to Choose Your Perfect Yoga Bolster.
In the meantime, happy yoging…
Che Nolan is a propologist with a major in bolsterology and an Iyengar yoga practitioner with a daily meditation practice. He is also a writer and a regular Halfmoon contributor.