Aisling Conn, who teaches in The Yoga Room and My Yoga Body, has given us some expert tips and ideas of how to incorporate yoga bricks and yoga blocks into our yoga practice. This time she looks at ways belts can help us reach into some difficult asana, that would sometimes be beyond us, and help deepen our practice.
AISLING’S GUIDE TO YOGA BELTS
Yoga Belts are fantastic for extending the length of our arms in certain poses and for limiting movement in others.
Whereas it’s a good idea to avoid having an attachment to ‘perfecting’ any asana, there are lots of cases where using a belt and being able to connect to other parts of the body, will help to achieve greater structural alignment.
Belts are useful at any level of yoga. Here’s how I use them in my personal and teaching practices. On a physical level, Supta Padangusthasana A, B and C is a great way to stretch the hamstrings, calves and inner thighs. It can also help alleviate stiffness in the lower back and address imbalances or asymmetries in the pelvis.
Using a belt in this pose allows the hand to connect with the foot while the arms are straight, without the hamstrings over-stretching. Make sure to always keep the arms straight and creep them up the belt as the tight muscles stretch, instead of bending your elbows. This way the force assisting the stretch is kept constant, allow correct alignment to be maintained, and you’re more likely to avoid tensing the shoulders.
The wide-leg forward fold Prasarita Padottanasana C has the added chest-opening action of interlaced hands behind the back, which can be a source of dread for anyone like me, who has tightness in the front of the shoulders.
A really helpful way to warm-up the shoulders for this pose is to practise it with a belt held between the hands. Being able to pull strongly on the belt (instead of using possibly slippery/sweaty interlaced fingers) it is easier to achieve the correct rotation of the upper arm bones in the shoulder sockets as you fold forward. This allows those tight areas of the chest and shoulders to stretch more efficiently.
If you are unable to interlace your hands behind your back using straight arms and rolling your shoulders back, a belt will be your best friend in this pose!
Gomukhasana (arms) is a really interesting asymmetrical pose for stretching the shoulders because it rotates the arms and stretches the corresponding muscles in two different ways. The top arm is externally rotated, raised and bent at the elbow (no mean feat!) and the lower arm is internally rotated, drawn back and bent at the elbow to, maybe, bind with the top arm.
A bind here is not always possible, generally due to restriction in any combination of parts of the shoulder’s range of motion. This is not necessarily a problem as it is still possible to feel a nice sense of the stretch by placing the palm of the top hand on the base of the neck and the back of the lower hand wherever it reaches on the back. However, in order to progress with the stretch, having a belt to bridge the gap and extend the reach of both arms is really useful and much safer in terms of keeping the correct alignment of the shoulders and arms.
Hold the belt with the top hand over the shoulder and reach for the end with the bottom hand, allowing the bottom arm to exert appropriate downward force, extending the overhead reach and range of motion of the top arm shoulder joint.
This is also really great preparation to come into the full variation of Natarajasana.
There’s a version of Natarajasana where one arm externally rotates and extends back to hold the same side foot from the inner side. Students can then tilt forward from the standing leg hip and use the connection of the hand and foot to stretch the chest, shoulder and hip flexors. When you are comfortable with this variation of the standing balance, and are ready to deepen the pose, using a belt can help to get you there.
It’s best to buckle your belt making a loop to slip over your foot, then take the free end in the same side hand and extend overhead adding the other arm when you are steady (it’s helpful to let the standing leg rest against a wall if you feel at all unsteady). Once both hands are holding the belt overhead you can work your alignment instructions and creep hand over hand closer to the foot.
You will certainly feel the benefit of this deep shoulder, heart and hip-flexor opening pose without compromising on safety.
The symmetrical, seated forward fold Paschimottanasana is a fantastic stretch for the whole back of the body. However, for a simple pose it can have some pitfalls for a new, or very stiff, student.
Often we get so caught up in getting the hands to the feet and the forward-folding element of the pose, without paying attention to the delicious stretch for the whole spine and back of the legs that is possible when performed with care.
Use a belt here to connect the hands to the feet whilst keeping the shoulders relaxed, so that you can encourage your pelvis to tilt forward to its full range of motion. Then, each vertebra of the spine bends sequentially forward from that anteriorly tilted pelvic position (forward tilt), making your Paschimottanasana the perfect stretch for legs and spine. regardless of how close your face is to your shins!
As with Supta Padangusthasana above, instead of bending the elbows as you come forward, walk your hands along the belt, keeping your shoulders relaxed, and you’ll achieve a better sense of the pose rather than grabbing straight for the toes and pulling the body forward, which just tends to aggravate the lower back.
For years in yoga class, when it came to practising Salamba Sarvangasana the teacher would invariably adjust my elbows closer together to give me a better lift in my thoracic spine and a better foundation for the inversion. A great way of giving yourself this adjustment is to loop a buckled belt just above your elbows so that the elbows are no more than shoulder width apart.
Hang the correctly sized loop around just one arm and come into Halasana, Plough Pose. Then manoeuver the second arm into the loop, externally rotate your arm bones, bend your elbows, place your hands on your upper back and lift you legs into Salamba Sarvangasana.
Make sure not to let your arms press out into the belt but rather draw the arms inward away from the belt to decrease your dependency on it for the correct alignment over time.
Hope you find these interesting and can put them to use in your practice. Keep an eye out for our next prop guide - blankets!
Aisling teaches yoga on Tuesdays, 9.45am in The Yoga Room, Sundays, 10am & 11.30 in My Yoga Body, and pilates on Mondays & Wednesdays, 9.30am in My Yoga Body. She is also available for private and small group classes by arrangement. To contact Aisling email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message on Facebook