“Child’s Pose, please.”
Years ago I took a yoga class almost daily in an East Village studio where each practice began with those three words. No matter the sequence to come, the composition of the people in the room, or the teacher leading, this pose served as an anchor. The New Yorkers followed, dropping their bodies and bringing their knees to the earth, hips to heels, and foreheads to the mat. The descent into Balasana (Child’s Pose) in a room of busy, type-A urban dwellers in a city that famously “never sleeps” was often dramatic: exhales verging on groans, the very sound of people dropping stress.
Fifteen years later, the pandemic hit, studios closed, and stress skyrocketed. The pose I most frequently took in between Zoom classes was hunched-over-my-phone-doom-scrolling pose, which is where I began to notice Child’s Pose memes everywhere on my social media feeds.
In another, a woman has dropped to the floor in the middle of what appears to be a grocery store, the text reading: “My yoga teacher said to take Child’s Pose any time I needed it.” I hearted them all, laughing. At the height of the lockdown, stocking up on toilet paper in a Brooklyn grocery store, I really was tempted to drop to my knees and find a cool spot for my forehead on the linoleum. It’s true: in yoga classes, teachers often invite us to drop into Child’s Pose when we need to take a break. Didn’t everyone need one now?
Even more than a year later, The New Yorker acknowledged the enduring lure of Child’s Pose with a cartoon in which a woman is checked on by her worried (freaked out?!) partner. “You’ve been in Child’s Pose for almost three weeks,” he says. “Just checking everything’s O.K….”
Is this the season of Child’s Pose? And what exactly conjures the calming effect so many of us experience while in the posture?
The anatomy of relaxation
In this simple shape, we can feel ourselves unwind. Dr. Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, clinical professor of yoga and health at Loyola Marymount University’s Master of Arts in Yoga Studies program, explains that the pose stretches the muscles and fascia along the backside of the body, the exact places that tense when we become stressed. “Child’s Pose releases these muscles, shifting the body from a sympathetic stress response to a parasympathetic relaxation response,” she explained.
That made sense to me. In Child’s Pose, I felt a literal stretch along the back of the heart, a widening of the shoulder blades, a physical release of tension. This is often followed by a wash of eventual calm.
“Plus,” Dr. Rubenstein Fazzio added, “resting the forehead on the floor stimulates the oculocardiac reflex (OCR), aka the Aschner reflex. This lowers the heart rate and brings up a relaxing sensation.” I thought of my third eye, the center of the forehead, resting on the mat. It’s as if this posture pressed the area like a button, allowing the machine of my mind to whirl to a stillness in which wobbly mental or emotional states found some stability.
Child’s Pose, in essence, facilitates pratyahara, the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga, according to tradition. Pratyahara, which translates to “withdrawal of the senses,” is physicalized here. We turn within. There we can investigate our inner world. How are we doing?
It’s easier to hear the answer if we turn down our reactivity. Valerie Knopik, PhD, Purdue University and Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist, explains that in forward folds such as Child’s, we tend to tuck the chin slightly toward the chest, which is one way to stimulate the vagus nerve, a key to our parasympathetic or rest-and-digest response. Often called the “vagal brake,” this nerve has the capacity to “put the brakes” on our stress response when it is stimulated. That feels good in a pandemic and can give us space to contemplate. Or just be.
Plus, yoga practices—including Child’s Pose—have been found to increase levels of the neurotransmitter Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which reduces anxiety while also lowering levels of circulating cortisol over time. All of this makes space for more room in between our thoughts. We not only find it easier to hear ourselves think, we begin to sense the quiet beyond thoughts. From this inner space, we can determine how to more skillfully operate in the outer world.
With this perspective, it makes sense that this pose was being called up again and again in a pandemic. Alongside the exhaustion we’ve been facing and the continual existential questions is the need to check in: How is the disruption in our outer world affecting our inner state? Child’s Pose reminds us: We can always turn inside, listen, and find out.
It’s all in the name
For years I taught yoga in public schools and noticed there was no “Child’s Pose” in kids yoga. I guess because it would be strange to tell a child, ”Hey, this is your pose!” Instead, the shape was called rock or seed, names signifying something of the energetics at play: a groundedness holding the energy of new beginnings inside the shape. By becoming small and grounded, we connect with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”—the wisdom of humbling ourselves, starting over, starting again.
I took the thought a step further during kids yoga teacher trainings I later facilitated and joked, “There’s no adult pose in yoga!” But I was also being real—who didn’t want to take a break from the stress of adulting and drop into another point of view? When I think of kids, I think of people who are in-the-moment, honest, with less pretense than adults. There’s a lot to learn from adults taking the shape of a child. According to Alanna Kaivalya, author of Myths of the Asanas, “The myth of Child’s Pose touches on the ideas of all we can learn from children. They are very present.”
I know my years of teaching yoga to kids held a secret: As much as I was teaching them, they taught me more. I was always stunned by how present and open children were to each moment. To practice Child’s Pose, then, was a reminder to us grown-ups to be in the world, but not of it.
See also: Yoga for Kids
What are the benefits of Child’s Pose?
Poet Mark Nepo once wrote that during times of suffering, “anything exhausted beside us is family.” We are all in this together. And in this time of overwhelm and exhaustion, these silly memes hold wisdom. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that rest and taking care of ourselves is crucial. Rest is productive. It is enough. And we are empowered in how we choose to practice rest.
I know for me, a regular practice of Child’s Pose has helped to regulate my nervous system, calm my mind, and find stillness in the chaos. In this world that’s always hyping productivity, I see that as a radical act. As Tricia Hersey of NapMinistry instructs, rest offers “radical paths for us all to get free from grind culture.” And as poet Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation.”
So feel free to drop into Child’s Pose. Maybe not on the linoleum of a grocery store, but inside your mind in the aisles of a grocery store. As Dr. Knopik confirms, “in terms of neuroscience, mentally rehearsing and imagining movements shares the same brain mechanism as actually doing these same movements. Visualizing can increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved with concentration, and away from more emotional, reactive parts of the brain. Many of the benefits you reap actually practicing Child’s Pose can also come into play just from visualizing.”
Out in the world, far from a yoga mat, I’ve recalled the sensations of Child’s Pose inwardly and felt an energetic shift. You could also just take one available element of the shape and act it out: bring your forehead to a surface, bow your head to your heart, or send yourself a reminder to take a break, a breath, take it easy. And when you’re ready (and only when you’re ready) start again.
How to make Child’s Pose even more comfortable
What if Child’s Pose doesn’t bring a calming effect for you?
If you’ve never achieved a state of bliss in this shape, you are not alone. Remember, everyone’s anatomy is slightly different. No pose has the same feeling in the body for everyone. From a musculoskeletal perspective, “this posture requires full flexion of the hips and knees,” says Rubenstein Fazzio. “So it may be aggravating to those with limitations in range of motion due to injury, severe arthritis, or other conditions.” Due to the forward-fold compression of Child’s Pose, some people may find breathing restricted or have anxiety arise. If these or any discomfort occurs, try a modification.
Child’s Pose when you can’t touch your head to the ground
Bring your forehead to rest on a block, folded blanket, even your stacked hands or forearms instead. But do apply gentle pressure to the forehead as it may stimulate a relaxation response. (Think of how, in times of stress, there is often a natural instinct to bring your hand to your forehead. It’s not just to act the part of a drama queen.)
Child’s Pose when your knees don’t like the floor
You can also slip a folded blanket beneath your knees for cushioning.
Child’s Pose when you have tight shoulders
Try placing a block or a small stack of books underneath each hand.
Child’s Pose when your seat doesn’t rest on your heels
If your seat doesn’t rest on your heels, slide a folded blanket or two or even a couple of pillows in between your behind and your heels so that you can sit back comfortably and relax rather than hold yourself in position.
Child’s Pose when you are a teacher
Always seek permission before offering hands-on adjustments in this or any pose, especially one in which you quietly approach a student without being in their line of sight. There is also something sacred about quietly holding space, even from several feet away, for students to turn within and embark on the invisible work of yoga—inquiry, listening, communion with self, and rest.
If Child’s Pose proves to be physically or emotionally uncomfortable for you for any reason, it’s completely fine to skip it. Everyone’s body and experience are different. Honor that.
See more: Restorative Yoga Poses
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, teacher, and dedicated yogi with a bicoastal heart.