I am a huge fan of physical assists—giving, but especially receiving them. I started out practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga, in which they are integral to the teaching technique. I was also always drawn to vinyasa flow teachers who were very “hands-on” and frequently used assists in my own classes.
Hands-on assists serve many purposes. Not only can they take us further into a pose, but they can also pull us back toward our more optimal alignment. They can show us both where to move from and where to stabilize. Some are comforting, like when our shoulders are gently pressed down in savasana or our trapezius is softened in a seated forward bend. And some wake us up, like when a teacher lengthens our arms in urdhva hastasana (arms overhead). Personally, I think the coolest part about physical assists is their domino effect throughout the rest of the body. For example, having your thighs pulled back in downward facing dog may not only help you stand more solidly in your legs, but also lengthen your spine and help to “uncrunch” your shoulders.
Clearly, there can be a lot of benefits to hands-on assists, but not everyone likes receiving them. Perhaps they do not like being touched or have a history of injury or trauma. Or maybe they enjoy hands-on assists, but only from certain teachers or only in certain poses.
And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has made any type of physical contact during class unsafe, if you can even attend a live class. Until the pandemic is under control, most yoga teachers are avoiding the use of assists as a teaching tool. And right now the majority of yoga is being done virtually at home and alone.
Missing hands-on assists and knowing how useful they can be to my practice, I decided to get creative to see if I could create “DIY” assists for home practice.
What follows are some ways to reap the benefits of a variety of hands-on assists without needing another set of hands—with a little help from some common household items:
Type of assist: Educational
Benefit: Teaches how to stabilize the torso when arms are overhead.
Props: Strap and floor
Fold a strap or belt into quarters, so it is thick. Place it horizontally in the middle of your mat and lie down on top of it so it is directly under your lower back ribs. Begin with both feet on the floor hip width apart, knees bent. Inhale to reach your arms up to the ceiling directly above your chest. As you exhale, use the strap for guidance and soften your lower ribs down toward the floor. Keeping your back ribs connected to the strap, inhale your arms slowly overhead toward the back of your mat. If your back ribs lift away from the strap, you’ve reached your arms too far.
Remain for five breaths and then slowly lower your arms to your sides. Lift and lower your arms a few more times while keeping your lower back ribs connected to the strap.
Type of assist: Educational and deepening
Benefit: Helps to stretch the internal rotators and bicep of the bottom arm.
Stand a few inches in front of a wall with your back to it. Take your right arm out to the side. Internally rotate your upper arm so your palm faces the wall and then bend your elbow, bringing the back of your hand as far up your back as possible. It is okay if your hand does not reach as high as your shoulder blades. Please don't force it.
Once your arm is in position, externally rotate your upper arm bone, so that the front head of your shoulder pulls back. This is an interesting pose in that we take a different anatomical action (internal rotation) to initiate the pose than we do once we are in the pose itself (external rotation). Back yourself up to the wall as far as you need to in order to feel a stretch in your front right shoulder and right bicep. If you are right up against the wall, use it as feedback and try to flatten your right shoulder blade against it.
Remain for 10 breaths. Step away from the wall and release your arm slowly. Switch sides.
Type of assist: Lengthening
Benefit: Works with gravity to deepen your chest opening and improves shoulder flexibility.
Props: Bed or couch
Lie on a bed (or couch) so that your head is at the edge. Bend your knees and use your feet to push yourself backward until your last rib is just at the edge of the bed. On an inhale, slowly start to take your arms overhead, shoulder width apart, with your palms facing each other. Your hands may reach the floor, in which case let your thumbs touch the ground. Straighten your legs. Let your neck be long. Don’t try to hold your head up against gravity; instead, let it release.
Take 10 breaths. Come out slowly, lowering your arms onto the bed so that you can prop yourself up onto your elbows. Coil up with your spine, lifting your head last.
Type of assist: Lengthening and “feel good”
Benefit: Helps to lengthen your spine and ground your hips.
Props: Stable piece of furniture
You will need either a long strap or something like a dog leash wrapped around a piece of stable furniture for this one. I use the leg of a bed or couch, but you can use anything that doesn't move.
Come to your knees and loop the strap around the top of your thighs at your hip joint, then secure it around the leg of a stable piece of furniture. Turn around and crawl away from the furniture on all fours until you feel the strap pulling your thigh bones back, making space in your pelvis. Fold into child’s pose, sinking your hips back toward your heels, big toes together and knees apart. Extend both arms alongside your ears and crawl your fingers forward, lengthening your spine. The strap will provide resistance and hel
p to draw your pelvis back further, while also pressing your thigh bones down.
Hold for 20 breaths. When you're ready to come out, walk your hands back under your shoulders and lift up to hands and knees. Remove your strap and sit on your heels.
Type of assist: Grounding
Benefit: The blanket helps to press your thighs down, grounding your hips and deepening the stretch.
Props: Blanket or towel
Take a blanket (or towel) and make a tight roll lengthwise. From a seated position, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, opening your thighs into baddha konasana. Place the blanket over the top of your thighs, at your hip crease, and get a good grip on either side of it. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, keeping a firm grip on the blanket, press it strongly down toward the floor and into your thighs. Inhale once more, then fold forward on an exhale. Once folded, pull the blanket toward the back of your mat (versus straight down to the floor), which will create a sense of grounding in your pelvis.
Hold for 10 breaths. Release your grip on the blanket and slowly come up to sitting. Stretch your legs out in front of you and move the blanket off to the side.
Taking the Practice Into Our Own Hands
Doing our own physical assists allows us to personalize our practice, because we know our bodies better than anyone! It also gives us the opportunity to be creative.
I invite you to think about a favorite hands-on assist or an aspect of a posture you are working on and ponder its mechanics. Then look around your house to see if there is something you can use to encourage that action in your body or to find that sensation you seek.
It can be incredibly empowering to take our practice into our own two hands. We then learn “firsthand” that we are our own best teachers.