Wedge blocks are generally recommended for decreasing the 90-degree angle of your wrists in poses like tabletop and plank. However, they can also be used in other ways to enhance and explore a wide range of yoga poses. In uttanasana, or “standing forward bend,” for example, you can use the wedge to discover how to bend at your hips, stretch your lower legs, and activate your hamstrings to control the movement of your pelvis.
A crucial aspect of forward bending is learning to initiate the fold from your hips. Without the hip hinge, the movement tends to commence from the spine. The wedge block can be the perfect tool for learning how to hinge at the hips.
Stand with your feet about hip width apart and your knees slightly bent. Place the thinner edge of the block below your frontal hip points. Gently press the block into your body. That way, when you start to fold, the rotation of the pelvis will occur above the block while aiming the hip points toward the block.
After your pelvis tilts, allow the rest of your spine to flex. Keeping the wedge block where it is, repeat the action five to ten times, holding each fold anywhere from one to five breaths.
Then try another forward bend without the wedge, trying to initiate the bend from the same place. You may still perceive the presence of the wedge block.
When practicing uttanasana, the hamstrings are usually the focus (or there is at least more awareness of them in the pose). With a wedge block, however, you can also target their partners in crime—the calves. For this setup, you may need a chair, a block, or a pair of blocks to support your hands.
Set up your wedge block toward the front of your mat with the thicker edge facing away from you. Have your blocks or chair ready in front of the wedge. Step onto the wedge so that your toes are higher than your heels, which requires quite a bit of dorsiflexion of the foot. To reduce the flexion in your ankles, place less of your feet on the wedge (perhaps only the balls).
With your hands on your hips, bend your knees a bit, and use the hip hinge that you cultivated in the previous section, going only as far as you can while maintaining a neutral spine.
Once your pelvis stops tilting, flex the rest of your spine and then place your hands on your selected support prop.
Stay here for as long as you feel comfortable, maintaining a steady breath (particularly noticing the movement of your breath in the back of your body). Later, try straightening your legs and staying in the fold for as long as you feel comfortable. Feel free to alternate between bent knees and straight legs. You may also need to adjust the height of any support you are using to accommodate the shift in your upper body that may occur the longer you fold.
By straightening and bending your legs, you alternately target the two calf muscles, your gastrocnemius and soleus, respectively. To come out, lift into ardha uttanasana, half standing forward bend pose, for a few breaths and slowly come up to stand. The longer you hold your forward bend, the more time you should take coming upright in order to avoid feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
Forward bending stretches primarily the hamstrings. However, in my opinion, being able to control your hamstrings as you come in and out of the forward bend may be even more beneficial. You can learn how to do this by stepping onto a wedge to activate the back of your legs (beginning with a concentric contraction of the posterior leg muscles and then working eccentrically—that is, the muscles are contracting while also lengthening as you slowly fold forward, resisting releasing entirely to gravity). Activating the posterior legs can be very advantageous for those who are easily able to fold forward.
Start the same way you did in the previous exercise, but now with the thin edge of the wedge block facing away from you. Step onto the block so that your heels are higher than your toes. Immediately, you may feel the backs of your legs turn on because the back line of the lower body is now shorter (this is the concentric contraction mentioned above).
Place your hands on your hips. Initiate the hinge from your hips, keeping your legs straight and your hips over your heels. Trying to keep your balance with the backs of your legs shortened, and your hips over your heels, prevents your upper body from totally giving in to gravity when you fold. This way, the hamstrings eccentrically contract as you control the forward-bending movement.
During a standing forward fold, the pelvis often moves way behind the heels, which defeats the purpose of engaging the strength of the hamstrings to counteract the effect of gravity. In this exercise, you probably won’t be able to fold as far forward as you normally do, and when you reach your limit you may feel like you’re about to fall forward. When you can no longer fold while maintaining your balance, stand up slowly, focusing on concentrically contracting your hamstrings by aiming your sit bones (where the hamstrings originate) down toward your knees to lift you upright. By working in this manner, you can get a better sense of the role your legs play in folding forward and lifting upright, as well as the enormous role the hamstrings play in controlling the movement of your pelvis.
The beauty of a yoga practice is that it isn’t set in stone. Just like life, your yoga practice invites experimentation and growth. The wedge block allows you to step out of your comfort zone, to explore new territory or reimagine your practice—particularly when a pose like uttanasana may seem too basic to spark curiosity. With a wedge block you can breathe new life into a pose like this one and discover how much more it has to offer.
Photography: Andrea Killam