Yoga props are great, versatile tools that help students create certain actions to deepen their understanding and expression of asanas. Props also allow us to experience the postures we need a little more support in as we build the necessary strength to do them on our own.
I myself use a block under the bottom hand in Ardha Chandrasana and Ardha Chandra Chapasana, not because I lack the hamstring length to reach the floor (trust me, I have plenty for all of us), but so that I can create a stronger lift through my side waist and revolve the entire pose more open.
And I always use a block between my upper inner thighs in Camel to keep my knees from splaying and my low back safe.
While it can be a struggle to get students to use props because they’re seen as crutches for pose modifications, I highly encourage using props when teachers ask you to—whether you think you need to or not, and regardless of how well you can already do a pose.
In fact, teachers often use props to emphasize key actions in the body and alignment you may not feel otherwise. Here are five ideas for practicing with yoga blocks.
1. Refine your Chaturanga.
Sometimes we forget that Chaturanga Dandasana is an actual pose, not merely a transition on the way down to the floor.
It is perhaps THE pose practiced the most out of alignment—putting excessive strain on our rotator cuffs and other muscles of the shoulder girdle.
This exercise teaches you not only to keep your shoulders at elbow height, preventing the shoulder heads from dipping forward and down, but also how much the rest of the body needs to work to maintain Chaturanga.
Place two yoga blocks at their highest height shoulder distance apart. Setting your hands behind the blocks, step back into Plank (or modified Plank with your knees down) with your shoulders over your wrists. Firm your core and legs, and shift your shoulders forward.
Lower your shoulder heads to the blocks but resist resting completely onto the blocks.
Practice building strength here by pressing down into your hands and lifting your shoulder heads back up an inch or two away from the blocks, or try lowering down to the blocks and hovering just above them without touching your shoulders to them.
You can always put your knees down to build the awareness and strength necessary to perform Chaturanga Dandasana. I most certainly do!
2. Lift your Down Dog.
Having extremely flexible shoulders, I spent the first half of my yoga life with my armpits nearly resting on the floor in Downward-Facing Dog—wreaking havoc on my neck and cervical spine.
So I’m extremely passionate about teaching my students how to stabilize their shoulders (and free their necks) for weight-bearing poses, beginning in Down Dog.
This exercise teaches you how to keep a lift through the underside of your arms and shoulders, creating more stability and freedom to lengthen your spine from tailbone to crown.
Set two yoga blocks up lengthwise flat at the front of your mat. Placing your hands on the blocks, step back into Down Dog. Pressing the pads of your fingers and hands into the block, even gripping it with your fingers, lift your shoulders away from the floor and broaden your clavicles.
Resisting the urge to drop your armpits to the floor, stabilize your shoulders and begin to let the place between your shoulder blades (your thoracic spine) soften.
While you’re at it, take a vinyasa with your hands on the blocks, lowering through Chaturanga Dandasana and forward and up into Upward-Facing Dog.
With a little more height, you’ll be able to articulate the spine and move more freely through the transition to Up Dog.
3. Lift off In Lolasana.
Want to be able to jump forward, back, and through from Down Dog? Then practice Lolasana (Pendant Pose), recruiting all of the muscles and developing the strength to float forward and back with grace and ease.
Sitting on your knees and shins, place the blocks on either side of your knees. Place your hands on the blocks and prepare to tuck your torso and bent legs (with the ankles crossed) into a tight ball.
Strongly push your palms down into the blocks and—staying tucked into a tight ball—press your arms straight, lifting your knees, shins, and feet off the floor. Continue pressing down strongly into the blocks as you pull your knees into your chest and heels up to your sit-bones.
Allow yourself to swing like a pendulum.
Next, try bringing your legs forward and straighten them through your arms, landing in Staff Pose with your hands still on the blocks. Practice going back the same way—lifting up, bending your knees, and crossing at the ankles to return to where you started.
4. Free your back and open your Full Wheel.
For Full Wheel, you can place a block between the inner edges of the feet, shins, or upper thighs to prevent the feet and legs from turning out. You can also place your hands on a pair of blocks (preferably with the blocks at the wall) and press up into Full Wheel to help open the shoulders and chest.
Try turning the blocks long-ways with the narrow edges against the wall to help open the quads and hip flexors. (Watch this video to learn and see how.)
Playing with blocks under your feet and hands is also a great way to discover the areas of the body that could be working a little harder in your backbends.
5. Lengthen and be free in Camel Pose.
I find Camel the least forgiving pose on my low back and love the way this variation feels through my whole spine.
Not only are your heels higher so that you don’t have to bend back as far and can keep the spine lifted, having the feet lifted higher than the knees also puts a little more weight in the legs, making it easier to press the hips forward and keep the thigh bones straight up and down.
Turning the blocks sideways and flat on your mat with the narrow edges together, place your feet up on the blocks with your toes curled under. Once in Camel Pose with your hands on your heels, press down strongly to lift and broaden your chest, lengthening your spine up and out of your pelvis.
Next time you head to your mat, grab a pair of yoga blocks and try one or two of the poses above and let us know how the experience goes.
Image credit: Nir Livni Photography / Yogini: Meagan McCrary