Prop guides

Props are your best friend - belts

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 CONN
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 aisling.conn@gmail.com or send a message on Facebook

Props are your best friend - blocks

Aisling Conn, who teaches in The Yoga Room and My Yoga Body, talked us through the benefits of props in your yoga practice. She also talked us through the versatile uses of the simple yoga bricks and yoga belts, which gave us lots of poses to try in your next class or home practice. This time she’ll be examining ways blocks can lift and support us in seated, standing and inverted poses.

AISLING’S GUIDE TO YOGA BLOCKS
A yoga block is a fantastic support in your asana and pranayama practice. They are safely stackable to provide any required sitting height, and just squishy enough to be a comfortable surface for knees, shoulders, sit-bones, etc.

Here are just a few of the ways I use them in both my personal and teaching practices.
In seated poses, like Sukhasana, where we might spend a few moments on breath awareness or meditation before a class, using support is essential, even for the most seasoned practitioners. A block, or stack of blocks, allows the hips to be higher than the knees, and the spine to be neutral. This means less tension around the hips, and a more comfortable sit. We then get to focus our attention on the breath. It’s much easier to pay attention to something as evasive as the breath, when you’re not fixated on an aching upper back or pressure in the knees!

In any of the seated forward bends which use the general blueprint of Dandasana, having a foam block wedged just under the bony base of the pelvis (sit-bones), helps to create a much better angle for your spine to fold forward from. The hamstrings tendons attach to the sit-bones. When they are strong or tight they tend to pull the pelvis back (posterior tilt), this puts a strain on the lumbar spine. The tendency to pull forward with the arms sets you up for further strain on the lower back, increasing the risk of weakening & damaging the connective tissue. Getting help to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior tilt), means we can concentrate on finding the subtle balance between lengthening and bending the spine.

Virasana is a fantastic seated pose that stretches the front of the thighs and ankles. When comfortably held, it provides an easy place to find a lengthened, neutral spine and a sense of abdominal spaciousness. I love to use this steady base to explore the breath and spine, and to stretch and open the shoulders. Unsupported, it’s a very deep flexion for the knees. I always get students to sit on at least one, but usually two or three stacked blocks. The extra height the blocks give overcomes the pull of tight muscles, allowing you to sit right on top of the sit-bones. This way the spine can be in a neutral position, the back muscles in balance, and the legs in good alignment.

Another pose that can be torture for problematic knees is Anjaneyasana. A block under the back knee provides some welcome cushioning, even though there is not a lot of weight on it, especially if you’re staying there for more than a couple of breaths.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana prep is a deep hip stretch, specifically the hip-flexors of the back leg and the groins. For plenty of us, getting the outside of the front-leg hip all the way to the floor is so much of a struggle, we sacrifice torso and shoulder alignment. Try slotting a block under the front hip, so that the pelvic bones can be supported, and feel the tight hip muscles release into hip-opening bliss!

Just about everyone can benefit from practicing Salamba Sarvangasana on a raised support - 4 foam blocks arranged in a rectangle. The large stable surface here provides extra height to the shoulders and arms, protecting the neck and lifting the spine. Precise positioning is key here, if you haven’t tried it before be sure to recruit the guidance of your yoga teacher.

There are heaps of other ways to use blocks in your yoga practice, the ones above are just a selection. Think about anywhere in your practice where you could use a little cushioning or support and grab a block before class so it's there if you need it - even if you just end up sitting on it! Next up is ways to use a yoga strap/belt.


AISLING CONN
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 aisling.conn@gmail.com or send a message on Facebook

Props are your best friend - bricks

A prop is, by definition, a support or an aid. We are encouraged from an early age to be independent but sometimes this independence tips into not asking for help when we need it. Your yoga class is somewhere you can get this support from a simple prop and you don’t even have to ask for its help!

Aisling Conn, who teaches in The Yoga Room and My Yoga Body, has the most comprehensive anatomy and alignment knowledge. I frequently leave after her class intrigued with new ways to look at well-worn asana. She also manages to mix the perfect balance of this knowledge with little gems of ‘the bigger picture’ of yoga too, a skill that takes years of practice.

Aisling is writing a series of posts with lots of suggestions on ways to get the most from your props, which will help you to open up into some lovely asana, and to feel the difference a prop can bring to your practice. Each post will cover a different prop, starting with yoga bricks. She has also given a guide to yoga blocks and yoga belts, which will follow with blankets & bolsters and the often forgotten wall!

AISLING'S GUIDE TO YOGA PROPS
With the vast array of props out there it’s no surprise that there are many ways to use them. It also depends on each person’s individual anatomical characteristics as to what prop suits best for certain asana.

I’ve had varying relationships with props throughout my yoga life. Starting with Iyengar classes where I would struggle along to class with 4 foam blocks, 2 bricks, a mat and a belt, only to find out the essential props for that day’s practice were 4 cotton blankets and a couple of sandbags!

My next love was Ashtanga where props were rarely, if ever, used and I was fully on board with that at the time too.

My own classes nowadays will always call for one or two blocks, at the very least, and this is regardless of hamstring, hip or shoulder muscles. For the vast majority of people in the class, the props will assist them to either better understand the alignment instructions, or fine-tune my ‘one size fits all’ class to suit each person’s individual needs.

One of the huge benefits of a regular yoga practice is that we can develop a great ability to notice the subtleties of our bodies, attain a better sense of proprioception and ultimately become our own principal teacher.

BENEFITS OF PROPS
The use of props should not be seen as just a way of creating more ease in a pose, but of working more deeply and efficiently towards better, safer alignment and refining our awareness of our own bodies in the spirit of Svadhyaya (self-study).

Some props are great for support, like blankets, bolsters and blocks and some are used for extending the reach or range of movement, like belts or bricks, .

So which prop will work best for your yoga practice? Here I have looked at the yoga brick and given some examples of how to put it to use.

YOGA BRICKS
Yoga bricks are the props I use most often in my classes and in my home practice, because they can be used in so many ways. They are also useable in 3 different heights, making them great for different body heights and for progressing from high side to low side (or vice versa) as needed during a practice.

In standing forward folding poses, like Trikonasana and Parsvakonasana and their Revolved or Twisted versions, in balancing forward folding poses, like Half Moon and Revolved Half Moon, the block provides a steady, height-adjustable surface for the hand to press into.

Even if it is possible for the hand to reach the floor in these poses, what you gain in hamstring-stretch, you may lose in opening and expansion. The extra space and security that the block gives allows for better pelvic and shoulder alignment, allowing you to stay longer in a pose with a better ability to be present body and mind.

Parsvottanasana is a huge stretch for the whole body, done correctly it can strengthen and tone the legs, back and abdomen, correct alignment is key in this pose. For most of us, regardless of yoga experience, having a block under each hand to teach a level pelvis, lengthening spine and open shoulders, will lay down a really beneficial alignment pattern in the body.

Even if you don’t have particularly tight hamstrings or hip-flexors, Hanumanasana is beyond the reach of many of us. If it is something you’re working on in your practice, having a yoga brick under each hand to support you on the way down is pretty essential. It’s not just safer, but it allows you to keep your spine upright over your pelvis, heart lifting and breath steady and deep.

Another way I regularly use a yoga brick in classes is in Supported Bridge Pose. Positioning a brick on mid or high side under the boney sacrum, allows the body to relax and give the student the option of lifting the legs into a supported inversion. As with the previous poses when bones feel supported muscles relax!

Squats like Malasana are not always easy for every body. Sitting on a block lets strong hip muscles loosen their grip, allowing the inner groins to stretch, the knees to avoid injury and the feet to stay active. In this way the mind gets to stay attentive to the breath instead of being distracted by discomfort.

I use bricks all the time in both my personal and teaching practices. I find them an invaluable resource. I hope this article gives you some new ideas of ways to support your own practice with a brick, in studio classes or at home.


AISLING CONN
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 aisling.conn@gmail.com or send a message on Facebook