10 Ways to Use a Yoga Block to Enhance Your Practice
I am a huge advocate of the humble yoga block. These simple foam (or cork, wood or bamboo if you’re fancy) blocks can transform your practice, not just as a beginner, but as an advanced practitioner also. They're super cheap too!
For more advanced yogis, blocks can help improve your alignment on advanced poses such as Pinchamayurasana (forearm stand) or lift you away from the floor in Bramcharyasana (L-sit) to allow better engagement of the abs and lower body, and produce the muscle memory and arm strength needed to master this pose.
For beginners, blocks help where tension or tightness in the muscles might be restricting your movement, they enable you to get the correct alignment where you might otherwise give up on the pose, or worse stay in it in pain, or in the wrong alignment, which could lead to serious injury. If you’re just starting out, or even if you’ve been practising a while but don’t use a block I urge you to give it a try. Leave your ego at the door and enjoy the sensation of perfect alignment in those poses which are otherwise unachievable for you.
Here are my top ten ways you beginners and intermediates can use blocks to enhance your practice and reap the benefits!
Sukhasana (easy pose)
Do the words ‘comfortable seated position’ feel like an oxymoron to you? Do you struggle to keep you back straight while sitting cross legged, or maybe it’s your hips which are crying out after 10 seconds? I feel you. Never fear, the use of a block is going to transform this position for you, stretching out the hips and allowing you to get a beautiful long straight spine without struggling. Result: a perfect back from which to relax pre- or post-practice, and take up meditation comfortably.
Place the block (or blocks) on its lowest height directly underneath your sit-bones with your pelvis tilted slightly forwards. The aim here is to get your knees wide, and lower than your hips, so you can create a stable base from which to relax. Bend one knee and externally rotate your hip out, bringing the foot close in to the base of the block. Try and rest your knees on the ground if they will go, but don’t force it. Your hips will open up in time. Bend the other knee, externally rotating the thigh and bring the foot in, in front of the one that’s already there, or if it’s more comfortable, laying on top of the calf of your other leg (see images below). Inhale and lengthen the spine, relax the shoulders back and down, and rest your hands on your knees or thighs, wherever is most comfortable.
If you feel pain in your knees or ankles in this pose then the block is a perfect solution. You still get all the benefits of the pose, but no pain or tension. Ideal. Place a block on its lowest or mid height (whichever feels most comfortable) directly underneath your sit bones and then take the pose as you normally would, this should bring the weight off your knees and ankles and allow you to extend the spine comfortably and without strain.
This pose has so many benefits; but namely it really stretches the hips, groin, ankles, hamstrings and back….but not if you’re not doing it correctly. Avoid hunching your back and tensing your shoulders and quad muscles by using your handy friend, the block, or two, or five.
Place a block on its lowest height on the centre of your mat, add more to the tower as needed. Stand in front of the blocks and bring your feet as wide as your mat, toes turned slightly outwards. Inhale, raise the arms to the sky in prayer position, exhale and bring the arms down through the centre line, at the same time as bending at the knees and squatting, resting your sit-bones on the block. Use the backs of your arms (triceps) to push back against your legs to create more space to open the chest, relax the shoulders and straighten the spine.
Bada Konasana (butterly)
Ahhh butterfly, sounds so pretty but it’s a lethal killer if you have tight hips and groin, and I see many beginners sacrificing their long straight spine and relaxed neck and shoulders because they’re straining so hard to keep their knees in the air. When done correctly, this pose can really ease tension in the hips and groin as well as help with menstrual cramps.
Place a block under each thigh or knee (whichever feels most comfortable) and play around with the height of the blocks depending on your hip and groin flexibility. As you become more comfortable in the pose you can reduce the height of the blocks, or take up Supta Bada Konasana (reclined butterly – pictured) to deepen the pose.
Uttanasana (forward fold)
Now we all know by now that yoga isn’t about touching our toes. Right? Good. So let go of your ego with this one and grab those blocks to execute a really great forward fold. This routine is perfect to practice first thing in the morning, or in those 10-15 minutes before class to give your hamstrings a headstart.
Don't do this...
See that curved spine? Not good.
First, place your feet hip-distance apart, keep a slight micro-bend in the knee (locking out your knee will cause injury in the long run; this is especially true if you are flexible and can hyper-extend your knees). Place the blocks in front of you on their highest height. Inhale, raise the arms overhead and exhale, bend from the waist, keeping your back and neck in one straight line, shoulders relaxed and down the back. Place your hands on the blocks and feel the stretch in your lower back and hamstrings….stay here and breathe, breathe, breathe. You might want to bend one knee and then the other after a few moments, release the hamstrings and then take up a moment of stillness again.
After 10,15, 20 breaths here, inhale and bring the upper body so it’s at a 90 degree angle from the legs, your back and neck still straight and the shoulders relaxed and down (you probably hear your teacher say ‘half-way lift’ this is what he/she means). You might need to bring your hands to your thighs to keep your shoulders in a good position, this is fine.
Exhale and fold forward again, this time with the blocks on their mid-height. Stay here and breathe. When you’re ready, repeat and take the blocks down to the lowest height, and then to the floor.
This exercise really helps focus your awareness into the slow stretching of the hamstrings, and ensures you keep your back line in a nice position, instead of hunching over while we desperately seek toe-touching action.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (side angle pose)
If you find yourself rolling your top shoulder down towards the floor in this pose then the trusty block is your friend. Use it to bring the floor up to you (on whatever height you need) to maintain that openness in your chest and a nice stretch in the side of your body.
Place the block on the inside of your front foot but make sure you’re not crashing all your weight into the block. Instead, use it as a support, and try to imagine you’re pushing away from it with your palm, so you create a nice extension through the arms.
Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon)
Hey, let’s try and balance on one leg and one arm on the same side of our body, with our other foot in the air, while keeping a nice straight line from top of the head, through the body, down the raised leg….ermmm yeah, hand me the block please!
Again, use the block to lift the floor to you in this pose. Most people do not have the flexibility in their side body to be able to reach the floor with their front hand, so they end up rolling their top shoulder forward and hunching the back. In this pose you want to be aiming for the back leg and the torso to be parallel to the floor, with your hips and chest open. Ground down through the standing leg (keep a micro-bend to protect the knee) and at the same time push through the heel of the raised foot.
Just as with side-angle, make sure you’re not using the block to hold your weight, it’s there as a support to push away from, not to hold you up.
This pose is the hip-stretcher to end all hip-stretchers, but chances are, if you have tight hips you’ll be compensating in this pose by rolling the hip and bum cheek of the bent leg onto the floor, thereby foregoing any benefit. The aim in this pose is to keep those hips square…so if there’s space between your bum and the floor that you’re in danger of rolling into…yeah you know the drill by now. Mr block will help you out.
Don't do this...
Note that hip rolling down?
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge)
There are a couple of ways you can use a block in this pose. The first is to place it between your thighs to help engage those inner thighs, keeping your lower back protected and knees aligned. However, my favourite way of using the block in this pose is to support your sacrum so you can really relax the hip flexors and the spine in the backbend.
Start with the block on the mid-height, and adjust as you see fit. You can use more than one block, or you can put the block on its highest point. If you do this, make sure you’re fully trusting the block to hold your weight, or fear of falling will just create tension where you’re trying to release it.
As with most backbends this pose is really susceptible to compensations (i.e. wrong alignment which could cause injury in the long run). This usually means not engaging the inner thighs to protect the lower back, or not pushing the hips forward enough to ensure the bend is from the upper back and not the lower back.
There are two ways to ensure that neither of those happen. The first is just like with the bridge pose. Place a block between the thighs and hug the thigh muscles in to hold the block in place. This ensures correct engagement of the thighs and therefore stops you holding the tension with your lower back.
However, not pushing the hips forward is the most common compensation, because the yogi is desperate to touch the feet with the hands (again, hello ego). Camel pose is about opening the heart and the upper sections of spine, so forget about touching your feet and lets bring some blocks into the mix. Take a high kneel with your hips, knees and feet all aligned. The tops of the feet and shins should be pushing down into the ground to create a stable base. Place two blocks on their highest height on the outside of each foot.
Place your palms on your lower spine to support it and keep it straight and pushing the hip bones forward, start to bend back through the upper spine, bringing your elbows together behind your back, allowing your rib cage to expand. Your chest should be opening up to the sky, while the shoulders remain relaxed and hugging down your back. Place your hands on the blocks to support you and rest, breathing deeply into the pose. If you find this easy, take the blocks down a height, and so on, until you finally reach the feet.
Don’t squeeze your bum, and make sure you keep your abs engaged, your hips over your knees and your inner thighs engaged, oh…and don’t forget to breathe and enjoy! Simple, right?
So I hope from this that you can see how you can enhance your practice and gain extra benefits from using blocks on a regular basis. As always, if you have any questions feel free to contact me!