Why you definitely need yoga props for your yoga practice
“I am not flexible enough for yoga“. This statement is often being used by people who believe that yoga is not for them because they are not “good” or flexible enough. But, what many do not seem to know is, that yoga helps you to become more flexible! Another thing is that yoga props are so helpful when it comes to increasing flexibility!
People may think this because they don’t know much about yoga yet or have never really explored it in more detail. One of the many reasons why I personally practice yoga is not because I am flexible, but rather because I am not flexible!
So, how do you become more flexible through yoga? Quite simple, BY USING YOGA PROPS! There are yoga blocks, straps, bolsters, blankets and pillows for a reason! But why are these props so rarely used in a yoga practice and in yoga studios? Or how are they actually used? Why are they often being avoided? I want to answer these questions here today.
My love-hate relationship with the yoga block
THE QUEEN of props for yoga par excellence is probably the yoga block. My love-hate relationship with the yoga block (or yoga brick) began during my yoga teacher training. Although we used yoga blocks and other props relatively rarely in the beginning, i.e. during the first week of the training, my yoga teacher started to incorporate blocks and straps more and more into our yoga classes shortly after the first week was over.
And, then he started using them on EVERYBODY. Not only on me, who is not known to be one of the most flexible people on earth. No, my yoga teacher used props on students whom I would consider rather flexible or “normal“, too.
Why? Because most people in our society nowadays suffer from tension and stiffness due to sitting so much (thank you, dear office job!). Do you have tense shoulders? Are your hamstrings shortened? Do you experience a tightness in your hips?
“How do I know if my hamstrings are shortened” you may ask? Well, do you find it difficult to bend forward deeply in forward folds – like in a standing forward bend (Uttanasana) or in a seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana) – with a straight back? Or maybe you’re more like me and do not only find bending deep down difficult, but even just bending forward a few inches, while maintaining a straight back? Well, I find this extremely difficult. The solution? Yoga Props!
Do I really need to use yoga props?
I must confess that I was ashamed at the beginning. I was soooo inflexible! And I hated that I had to rely on yoga props so much, especially on yoga blocks! But ever since then, I have come to love them! I lovveeeeeeeeeeeee them! They help me so much with my progress in any yoga pose (asana). They enormously help with flexibility. It’s amazing and so easy!
Yoga does not have to be hard, uncomfortable or difficult. It does not! And you do not need to feel pain when you practice yoga. Of course, it can feel a little uncomfortable sometimes, especially when our body is opening, but this does not mean that you can’t ease up a bit and take it easy. Allow yourself to be held by a yoga bolster, and allow yourself to be helped by the yoga blocks and the strap, with tools and props that help you so much with stretching.
Forward folds – Possible in a perfect world
In the standing forward bend (Uttanasana) as well as in the seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana) our upper body ideally rests on our thighs, that means that there is no space or gap between them. And ideally, we do this without bending our knees or our back curving in such an unhealthy way that we look like Quasimodo in the process. This is the ideal case. The truth is that very few people can do this, so no need to feel ashamed or inferior for this, PLEASE!
Unless you are a professional dancer (like my friend Phoebe), a hyper-extender or super bendy for some other reason, it often takes years of practice here to master these forward bends effortlessly. Yes, I am serious. And please do not take Instagram as an example on how it has to look like or where you should be! The questions is, how can we master these yoga poses (asanas)? Well yes, by now you already know what I’m going to say: by using props in our yoga practice, and thereby slightly modifying the yoga pose and adapting it to our individual body!
Here are my top tips on how to use yoga props in your yoga practice
Tip #1: Bend your knees
Yoga is not only great for relaxing the body, but also the mind. The mind can only be relaxed when the body is relaxed. After all, a relaxed mind is the ultimate goal of any yoga practice. That’s why Savasana is the final yoga pose in any yoga class. And arguably the most important one as well.
So, if we are in any given yoga pose, such as the forward bend, and our body is not completely relaxed, the mind cannot relax either and your yoga practice is actually just a… physical activity that may or may not benefit you. If I am trying really hard with all my means and effort to touch my toes in the forward bend and my spine is not fully straight and extended but rather curved, my body is automatically not relaxed. And neither is my mind. Thus, the pose has no positive effect on me. Instead, I am harming my body with it.
A correctly performed forward bend stretches the entire back of the body and gently, yet very intensively, stretches the spine and the hamstrings. In this pose, the lower back is relieved. However, an improperly performed forward bend puts stress on the lower back. On an emotional level, the forward bend calms and eases a negative state of mind. But, this may not be achieved if we do not perform this pose correctly, and instead of relieving and relaxing our body, we place additional stress and strain on it!
This is why I am appealing: bend your knees! Because usually, that is, if you’re not of the absolute most flexible kind (like me!), even with your knees slightly or even severely bent, you will still feel a stretch in your hamstrings! Just give it a try, please!
Tip #2: Use a pillow / cushion or a yoga block
It is quite possible that even with bent knees we still cannot rest our upper body on our thighs (yes, this is still the case for me too! But, I am slowly getting closer every day :)). Therefore, it is advisable to put a pillow or a yoga bolster between your thighs and your upper body, at least in seated forward bends. This allows the lower back, and therefore the mind, to relax.
This variation is often used in Yin Yoga, as it allows a passive stretching of the hamstrings without necessarily activating the muscles and is therefore very relaxing. You can happily linger here for one to five minutes!
When practicing a standing forward bend: Bend your knees! As much as necessary! Alternatively, do not bend down all the way and use a yoga block to place your hands on them, this way you’ll find yourself more in like a half forward bend. Bend forward only as deeply as you can, while still maintaining a straight back.
Tip #3: Use a yoga strap
First of all, in a seated forward fold, a yoga block is very suitable – or if you like it softer, use a bolster or pillow to sit on – to bring the upper body a little closer to the thighs. We actually don’t need more here than a little bit because that’s already a milestone for a rather “inflexible” person! Well, at least it is for me, and I always celebrate when I realize that I can now bend forward a millimeter more than before!
How to forward fold with a strap:
Sit with your sitting bones at the front edge of the block or cushion. Almost like you’re about to fall down, but you’re still maintaining a firm seat on the block or cushion. Then, take the yoga strap into both hands and tighten it around the balls of the soles of your feet.
It is important that the shoulders and hands remain relaxed as we hold the strap. Then bend forward as far as you can – not with your head, but rather with you chest – until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Once you’ve reached a comfortable place, feel free to stay here for at least 5 – 10 breaths. Note: Even when using a strap in a seated forward fold, you can still additional bend your knees, too.
My favorite flexibility hack with props
One of the BEST yoga exercises for stretching the hamstrings and increasing flexibility is the following:
Use a strap – keep your shoulders on your mat – stay for 1 min each side
Lie down on your back with both legs extended. Keep both legs active throughout the exercise, and your toes flex. Bend your right knee and slowly lift your right leg off the floor. Then bring the strap into both hands and wrap it around the ball of your right foot.
Next, extend the right leg as straight as possible into the air (the left leg remains active, toes flex!). You can still have a light bend in your right knee and it does not matter how high you can get your leg up.
Relax your shoulders and hands. Keep your shoulders always in contact with the floor below you. Feel free to bend your elbows and extend them out to the side. Focus on extending your right heel into the air and pointing your toes (flex!) toward your head.
Stay here for up to one minute. Then repeat the stretching exercise with your left leg. If you want to increase your flexibility tremendously, I recommend doing this exercise every day! You will notice an increase in your flexibility after just a few weeks 🙂
Tip #4: Sit on a block or bolster in ALL seated yoga poses
I use a block or pillow in just about every seated yoga pose.
You can also use a folded blanket or yoga bolster if a (cork) yoga block is too uncomfortable for you. If you don’t have any of these yoga props available, you may just use a blanket, which is folded several times. However, I personally like the block or a small pillow the best. Feel free to try it out and see what feels good for you.
Why is a block or cushion necessary for seated asanas? Because when we are sitting, there is a great risk that our spine is not fully extended, but curved instead. Sitting elevated, on a cushion or block, effortlessly remedies this. Although I love sitting on the block, it may be too high for some yoga poses. In this case I switch to a comfortable cushion.
Sitting on a yoga block, bolster, cushion or a folded blanket is particularly suitable for these yoga poses:
- Any seated twists (e.g. Marichyasana; Parivritta Sukhasana)
- Butterfly (Baddha Konasana)
- Any seated forward bends (e.g. Paschimottanasana; Janu Sirsasana – a variation of Paschimottanasana; Upavistha Konasana – the raised angle pose)
- Cow Face (Gomukhasana)
- The squat (Malasana)
- And of course for Sukhasana (the cross-legged seat)
Why is the squat (malasana) in the list? Isn’t it squatting and not sitting? Yes, it is. But an easy way to gently open the hips while keeping the spine straight is to sit on a block while squatting. The stretch will still happen, if your hips are pretty tight (like mine). Go ahead and try it out for yourself!
More poses with yoga props for more flexibility
Here are some more of my personal favs for more flexibility:
- Cobra with blocks
- Half moon with a block
- Plow Pose with Blocks (or a wall behind your head), to rest your feet on
- Bridge Pose (for relaxation place a block under your sacrum)
- Savasana – I always place two blocks or a bolster under my legs to ensure that my lower back remains in contact with the ground
Furthermore, to end my yoga practice, when sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position (Sukhasana) or half lotus position and in meditation I always sit on a block, a cushion or a blanket! Always! This way I avoid discomfort in the lower back. In general, you can use yoga props in any pose and in any yoga exercise!
Have fun using yoga props! If you have any questions or suggestions about this, feel free to comment below 🙂