Using a wedge block can take your arm balances to new heights. We know that finessing arm balances requires dedication and perseverance, as well as significant mobility in the joints (specifically the wrists and hips). By incorporating a wedge into your practice, you can decrease the intensity on your joints and focus on other aspects of the poses.
Here, we'll take a look at how the wedge can drastically shift your experience of bakasana (crow/crane pose), vasisthasana (side plank), and parsva bakasana (side crow).
Crow pose requires at least 90 degrees of wrist extension—and at times, especially when the arms straighten, more than 90 degrees. Placing a wedge under your hands creates an incline (with fingers lower than the heels of the hands), and lessens the degree of wrist extension by about half. The incline is also a fantastic way to better understand how to grip the fingers into the mat and use the fingertips as brakes for the pose: When we lean too far forward in an arm balance, our fingertips tell us when we’ve reached our limit (before we topple over).
Place the wedge toward the front of your mat with the slope facing away from you. Stand about a foot behind the wedge and squat. Place your hands on the wedge, about shoulder width apart, with your fingers pointing down the incline. Press the heels of your hands firmly into the wedge so that it doesn’t tip backward. Now bring your knees to the backs of your arms and lean slightly forward into your hands. Watch how your fingers respond. Please note: In this version of crow, you do not need to lean as far forward as you would when your hands are on the floor. Lean forward just enough to be able to lift your big toes away from the floor. Then send your heels directly up toward your buttocks. Broaden across your upper back with a cascading curve of your spine from your upper back down to your tailbone.
When you are ready to come down, place your feet on the floor and straighten your legs to come into uttanasana (standing forward fold). Be aware of how the muscles of your hands and wrists respond to being on the incline.
You can also practice parsva bakasana with the wedge elevating your wrists. But another great way to utilize the wedge is to place it between your shins. The slender yet firm edge of the wedge gives your legs and feet something to hug, which helps to better stimulate the connection between your legs and core.
Stand with the right side of your body facing the front edge of your mat. Squat and place the thin edge of the wedge between your lower legs so that your inner feet, calves, and knees can squeeze it.
Turn your torso to the right and place your hands on the mat approximately shoulder width apart and about the length of your forearm (or a foot) away from your body, with your left elbow pressing into your outer right thigh.
Squeeze the block as you shift your weight into your hands, feeling your fingertips grip the mat, and lift your feet away from the mat.
Stay here for a few breaths and notice if squeezing the block helps you deepen the twist in your side crow and increase the lift in your hips. Come down when you are ready and switch sides.
Vasisthasana as practiced in the Iyengar style with the toe lock is, literally, quite a stretch. While there may be more emphasis on straightening the top leg while grasping the big toe, the foundation of the pose requires an inordinate amount of foot eversion: The inner foot reaching toward the floor creates an excellent reference for balance, unless you have trouble getting your inner foot to the floor—which most practitioners do.
The wedge block comes to the rescue, heroically supporting your foot. The press of the outer foot and big toe mound are important in this pose because the action of pressing engages the entire circumference of the bottom leg and hip. This creates an incredibly strong base from which you can then work on the more graceful aspect of the top leg.
Place the short edge of your mat against a wall. While you can also practice this away from the wall (as shown), using the wall when you begin can be helpful for keeping the wedge in place.
Place the thick end of the wedge horizontally against the wall. Start on all fours facing away from the wall. Come into a plank pose with your toes on the lower end of the wedge. This will help mark your distance for side plank. Then come down, and move about two inches to your right.
Go back into plank and roll onto the outer edge of your left foot, which should now be in the center of the wedge. Bear your weight into your left hand while you take your right arm to the right side of your body and turn your body to the side. Anchor your left big toe mound into the wedge, and then bend your right knee toward the right side of your rib cage. Hold on to your right knee or reach for your big toe. Press into your left fingertips and left foot as you lift your hips against the force of gravity. Work on straightening your right leg.
Stay here for a few breaths, coming down when you need to by letting go of your knee or big toe and placing your right hand on the floor. Bring your knees to the floor to rest and switch sides when you are ready.
Wedge blocks can significantly reduce the extreme ranges of motion you might feel are required of you when practicing arm balances. Even if, like me, you feel comfortable in those ranges, you may love practicing this way. It offers your body a different experience, and gives you a chance to pay more attention to nuances, without the pressure of going into the full range of poses all the time.
Using the wedge offers every practitioner the opportunity to expand their experience of arm balances. And maybe even to fly.
Photography: Andrea Killam