A Strap-Lover’s Compendium: Practice for the Legs
Are your yoga straps languishing in a basket in the corner of your yoga studio or practice space, used only occasionally to lasso a distant foot or leash in wayward elbows? To revivify your appreciation for this simple, ubiquitous prop, try practicing the common poses below while employing a strap in uncommon ways. This strap-assisted practice is designed to power up your legs and help you find length in your spine.
Hints for practice: Extra-long straps (an eight-foot strap is pictured) may be required for the bigger loops. Always arrange the buckle so it is not pressing into your skin uncomfortably. Adjust the strap so that it is secure and bracing, like a hug, but never so tight that it digs into you or forces you off course. You’re the boss; rather than allowing yourself to be pulled in a certain direction by the strap, always push back into the strap. Once you’re in, stay in for a while (two to three minutes), so that your body can integrate the alignment, and you make the most out of each strap arrangement.
Make a large loop. To begin practice, let’s highlight the length in the spine we’re aiming to facilitate with this sequence. Loop the strap from head to sitting bones, then arrange yourself in a seated position like sukhasana (easy pose) (1) in which it is possible for you to push down into the strap with your sitting bones and lift up into the strap with the crown of your head, as if you are trying to break the strap in two.
While this spinal lengthening may require a good amount of effort from some deep postural muscles, observe how willingly the more superficial muscles relax once a strong throughline of muscular energy has been established. Notice: Is it easier to sit tall and take complete breaths when you have the strap to push into? When you're ready to move, endeavor to keep the strap in this position as you come forward to hands and knees. Pause to lengthen in both directions. Then move to adho mukha shvanasana (downward facing dog pose) (2).
Continue to reach your head and sit bones away from each other and into the strap. Next, walk your feet toward your hands and rise into an ardha uttanasana (half forward bend), still pushing into the strap, then squat into an utkatasana (chair pose) (3) in which you reach your sitting bones and the crown of your head away from each other.
Shrink your loop. To activate your thigh muscles in a way that feeds length into your spine, stand in tadasana (mountain pose) (4) with your feet hip distance apart and toes pointing forward, and tighten the loop just above your knees.
Practice rooting down with the bases of your big toes and hugging your inner ankles in, while turning your knees out away from each other and pushing out into the strap. (This is especially helpful to those of us who tend toward weak inner quadriceps (vastus medialis), hyperextension, or knock knees.) Notice: When your legs are thus charged, does it feel like you could stand here forever, growing taller with each long breath? Then come to the floor, keeping the same strap arrangement for plank (5).
Push into the strap while keeping your feet parallel, the bases of your big toes rooting and your inner ankles firming in. Observe the places in your body where plank pose becomes easier, and the places where it becomes more challenging when your legs are activated in this way.
Enlarge the loop. (The following poses will use a large loop to help you continue to activate your thighs, and to emphasize healthy knee tracking in wide-legged standing poses.)
In virabhadrasana I (warrior one) (6) try looping the strap from your from shin, just below the knee, to your straight back leg just above the knee. Keeping the bases of your big toes rooted and your inner ankles in hugging in, how much can you turn your knees out and press into the strap? Notice if, with these vitalized legs, you can lift the crown of your head higher.
Next, try a wide-legged forward fold (prasarita padottonasana) (7) with the strap just above your knees. Keep your feet rooted and your ankles stable while moving your knees away from each other and pushing out into the strap. As you come into a deeper fold, notice if pressing out into the strap seems to magically bring your head closer to the floor.
Make a small loop. To activate the often lackadaisical back leg in externally rotated standing poses like virabhadrasana II (warrior two) (8), hold the free end of the strap, and catch your back heel from behind with the small loop. Keeping your spine vertical, pull on the strap with your hand, trying to pull the foot up, but at the same time, root your heel stubbornly into the strap.
Then, slant over your front leg into parshvakonasana (extended side angle pose) (9). Slide your top hand up the strap so that the shoulder blade isn’t yanked down overmuch and you keep tension on the strap. Continue to try to dislodge your back foot by pulling up on the strap while at the same time, stomping the foot down.
To move into ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) (10), walk your back foot one step closer to your front foot, adjusting your hold to keep the strap taut. Move your front hand a foot or two in front of your front foot, then lift your back foot, driving it into the strap as much as you reach forward with the crown of your head. Hold here, and imagine breathing space between your vertebrae as you stretch forward and back. Notice if you feel more stable than usual when you have the strap to push into. Collect your lowest front ribs if they've flared out. Thus bound, you might discover the freedom to spin your chest open and even to lift your bottom hand.
Undo the loop. Keeping the strap long, grab a hold of each end like a jumprope, and step your back foot into it for a version of virabhadrasana I (11) with your arms straight and your hands alongside your hips. Try to pick up your back foot with the strap while at the same time, resisting it back down. Observe if the rooting through your back foot seems to route any more length through your spine.
Continue to energize your back leg as you hinge forward over your bent front knee and launch yourself into virabhadrasana III (warrior three) (12). Press back with your back foot as much as you reach forward with the crown of your head, and you might discover you have created the space you need to move your lowest front ribs in.
Once you’ve landed back down for parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose) (13), transfer both sides of the strap to one hand (if your right leg is forward as pictured, the left hand grabs both ends of the strap) and slant your spine forward. As you turn from your ribcage into the twist, keep plugging your back foot down into the strap. You might find that when your back leg remains active, your hips automatically level, your chest widens, and your heart is able to reach further forward. Though when constructed in this manner, the pose may give the appearance of a shallower twist, notice if your experience of the twist feels deeper inside.
Make your way down to hands and knees, draping the strap around your feet and placing the ends of the strap at the outside edges of your mat near your hands before easing onto your belly. To create a bestrapped version of shalabhasana (locust pose) (14) in which you galvanize your limbs in pursuit of the utmost length in your spine, place the balls of your feet in the strap, toes curled under on the floor, and grab the ends of the strap in your hands. Walk your hands down far enough that your arms are straight, and keep tugging on the strap with your hands as you push back into it with the balls of your feet. Rush your heart away from your feet.
Make a large loop. For an ushtrasana (camel pose) (15) that emphasizes lengthening rather than backward bending, step your shins into the loop, coming into a high kneel, and pull the loop to the top of your sternum, adjusting the tightness of the loop so it will stay in place when you place your hands alongside your sacrum and arch up and back. Press down with your shins as much as you balloon your heart up, keeping your chest as full and lifted on the exhale as it is on the inhale.
Then, for a surprisingly pleasant version of navasana (boat pose) (16), sit down inside the loop with your toes down and your knees lifted, and draw the loop up so that it is behind your thighs and under bottom tips of your shoulder blades.
Tighten it until it supports a right angle between your thighs and torso. Keep the top of your sacrum moving in and up as you lean back and float your shins up. Thanks to the strap's configuration, as you press your thighbones forward into the strap (legs can be bent or straight) you will also be scooping the bottom tips of your shoulder blades in, helping to lift your sternum up. Keep the loop in the same place, binding your thighs to your mid-thoracic spine, as you land and set yourself up for pashchimottonasana ("stretch of the west" pose, or seated forward fold) (17).
With the knees well bent, fold forward exploratorily, waddling your sitting bones back to help tip your pelvis forward. As you press your torso to your thighs, gently tighten the loop so that the strap gives you an adjustment, like a hand on top of you that is guiding you forward and down just the right amount, the pressure entirely within your control. As you gradually press the tops of your thighs down into the strap, activating your quadriceps to straighten your legs a little or a lot, the strap will help the bottom tips of your shoulder blades to press in toward your ribcage, urging your heart forward.
Make an extra-large loop. For a hands-free, core-activating version of hand-to-big-toe pose (supta padangushthasana) (18) that restores the natural curves to the spine, widen the loop so it can stretch from the center of the back of your pelvis to the foot of your straight, upward-reaching leg.
Make the strap tight enough that you feel it pressing your foot down toward your pelvis, as if trying to shorten your lifted leg. Your lifted leg, by contrast, is trying to grow longer, as you press your foot up into the strap. Root your sitting bones into the ground to maintain a neutral curve in your lower back as you actively lengthen through both legs. If your right leg is reaching up, try to make your left hip the heavy hip, sealing the strap down. If you are interested in more intensity, reach your arms back behind you, keeping your lowest back ribs and siting bones pressing into the earth. You might also consider floating your forward-reaching leg an inch off the ground.
For the next pose, make a small loop. After the intensity of effort in the above poses, give yourself time to relax in a supported version of bridge (setu bandha) (19) with your shoulders and head on the mat, and the rest of the body supported by four folded blankets.
The gentle support of the blankets underneath your chest might help you elongate the often-rounded thoracic spine and move it inward toward the heart. Tightening the strap around your shins ensures that your legs do not have to do any work to maintain internal rotation. The strap holds your legs in place, and the tops of your thighs can relax at last. Allow your exhales to lengthen.
Finish with shavasana (corpse pose; not pictured) legs heavy. After a couple of breaths in which you are supported by the earth in perfect alignment, you might find the crown of your head can move a millimeter further back and your heels a millimeter further forward. In this final pose, you have a chance absorb and process this practice and its attendant sensations, so that you will be able to carry the impression of the strap with you every time you do these poses. Your body will do this without your mind having to make a conscious effort to remember of the positioning of the strap. Give your mind only the task of visualizing fine, Lilliputian ropes around your lungs and your heart. Imagine those threads loosening, more threads falling away, with every beat of your heart. The sweep of your breath brushes the last web-like tendrils away from your heart and your lungs, then from all your organs and your muscles, so that any places in you that have felt bound by tension or worry become unconfined now. All the ropes inside you are loosening. You unfurl moment by moment, and the moments unfasten themselves from any relation to clock-time. Each one sprawls.
After a while, when you feel replenished enough to come back to an awareness of the world and your body in it, begin to stir. When you take a seat, continue to press through your legs in order to lift up through the crown of your head, and notice if, after this practice in which you were bound and re-bound by straps, and encouraged to use your legs heartily, you feel more grounded and stable, sturdy on this earth. Notice if you have a greater sense of the strength available to you, and of the heights that you can reach with that strength. And as you rise, untethered now, moving might be newly easy. It seems there is nothing holding you back, or dragging you along; just an unleashed heart bounding ahead of you, urging you to follow.
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>