In yoga practice, props are sometimes seen as “crutches.” Some practitioners even go so far as to view the assistance of props as “cheating.” These powerful tools may be misconstrued as “unnecessary,” or even worse, “only for beginners”—a mind-set that not only keeps yogis from creating more safety and stability in their practices, but also denies the value of props as tools to deepen and inform everyone’s asana practice. Props can encourage you to activate and utilize less-targeted muscles, and move you more deeply into stretches. They can gently encourage you to move beyond habitual patterns and limitations. The next time you’d like to spice up your regular routine, grab a strap or block. And don’t be surprised if you connect with your asana practice on a much deeper level!
The following are a few of my personal favorite pose variations using props. These postures range from restorative stretches to invigorating asanas, and I’ve found that the use of props greatly enhances each of them.
Join the Block Party
Blocks are incredibly versatile. While these simple-looking tools may seem elementary, they are like gold to your yoga practice. Often used to “bring the floor closer to you,” blocks can also be used to target and stimulate different muscle groups, and to deepen stretches by moving the floor further away from you.
Holy Hips This simple use of blocks dramatically affects the key actions needed to practice the pose. By adding the unexpected obstacle, you create a wider space for your stretch—and thus, a deeper release.
Come to a seated position, and draw the soles of your feet together while elongating your spine. (If you are a seasoned practitioner, or if you have naturally open hips, you may not find this position particularly challenging.) Place a block between the soles of your feet (in the direction of your choice, using any width of the prop), and press your feet firmly into the block. The distance created between your feet, and the greater angle in your hips, encourages the opening of your hips, inner thighs, and groins even more than the traditional pose without use of a block.
Meet Your QLs: Asymmetrical This sweet stretch can feel like heaven for your lower back. Very simple and straightforward, this asymmetrical forward fold allows for a targeted lengthening on one side of your body to release deep-rooted tension that is often a culprit of lower back pain in your quadratus lumborum (the long, deep-seated core muscle of the posterior abdominal wall that extends down your lower back). Come into a classic (standing forward fold) and bend your knees slightly. Place one block at its lowest height under your right foot. Press down firmly and equally into both feet, and allow the weight of your torso to hang heavily toward your mat. Feel free to place other blocks under your hands or rest them on the floor. Notice that one hip will be higher than the other—allow for this imbalance. You can stay exactly as you are, or you can work toward straightening your left leg as much as feels comfortable. Again, you can either stay as you are or begin straightening your right leg as well. You can also gently walk your hands toward the left side of your mat, twisting from inside the torso into a side-bending forward fold, establishing a different opening through your lower back and side body. Wherever you choose to stay, breathe deeply into the beautiful release in your right QL. When you’re ready, repeat on the opposite side.
“Don’t Drop the Block” Sun Salutation Sun salutations are often incorporated into many styles of practice. To intensify the actions of this sequence, and to awaken the often-latent adductor muscle group (running along your inner thighs, they account for the action of squeezing your legs in toward the midline of your body), place a block between your thighs at a width that brings your feet hip-distance apart. As you flow through the sequence, focus on the action of hugging your thighs toward each other to hold the block in place. This action will become super-important as you move through , as hugging in toward the midline can help prevent swaying or “banana back” in the pose.
*Note that you must be able to jump directly back into chaturanga dandasana from uttanasana when practicing sun salutes with a block between the thighs, or you can “waddle” back to plank from uttanasana while still maintaining your grip around the block.
Hold on to Your Straps
Straps can make stretching more accessible to those who have tighter hamstrings. Instead of straining the neck and upper back to reach the toes, you can use a strap to bridge the gap between your feet and hands. Straps can also be used in this way to deepen the stretch for those who are more flexible.
Helloooooo Hamstrings: For this, you’ll need a very long strap (about eight to ten feet), exceptionally short legs, or super-open hamstrings. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Create the widest loop possible with the strap and place it over your head, keeping the “tail” of the strap facing toward you for easy length adjustments. Slide the strap as far up your spine as you can (ideally placing the strap directly beneath your armpits). Lie down on your back, draw your right leg into your chest, and place the ball of your foot into the loop of the strap. Work toward straightening your right leg as much as possible (you may need to slide the strap slightly down toward your waist to make this more accessible). Tighten your strap as needed to eliminate excess slack until you feel a comfortable stretch in your right hamstring. Completely relax your upper body, allowing the strap to hold all the tension for you, moving more deeply into the stretch without over-activating any muscles. If you are very open in your hamstrings, you may notice a point where your femur bone (thighbone) will literally reach a “wall” in your hip socket that prevents you from folding deeper at the hip joint. If this happens, you can create a subtle external rotation of your femur toward the right side of your mat (so that your toes will hug in around your ears, rather than directly across the midline of your body). Feel free to relax into this position for as long as you feel comfortable. Once you’re ready, repeat on the other side.
Strapping (boat pose) is a powerful posture requiring great core strength. Utilizing a strap in this pose helps to align your spine and assist your core in supporting your body weight. Just as you did in the previous asana, create the widest loop possible in your strap and place it over your head with the “tail” facing you. Slide the strap high up your back to hold under your armpits. Elongate your spine and bend your knees, placing your feet flat on the floor. Loop the other end of your strap around the balls of your feet. Squeeze your legs into the midline, activate in your core, and rest your hands on the floor beside your hips. Press firmly into the strap with both your back and your feet simultaneously to pull it tautly, as you lift your feet off the floor and straighten your legs forward and up to create a V-shape with your body. Tighten the strap as necessary to keep it taut, and continuously apply pressure against the strap with your feet and your back in opposing directions. Press down into your sit bones to lift up taller through your spine, and draw your chest toward your thighs. If it feels appropriate, you can challenge your balance by lifting your hands up off the floor.
Props are excellent tools to inform and advance your asana practice. Try these simple exercises, and don’t be afraid to experiment with other props as well. Whether they’re new or old additions to your practice, props can become great friends with which to share your mat.