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Um, what is that thing??
If you’ve ever stepped inside a yoga studio or found yourself wandering down the fitness aisle of the local big box store, you’ve likely seen a yoga block or two. You know, those weird looking bricks they tuck between the mats and other yoga gear?
But what on earth are they for?
As it turns out, yoga blocks are quite useful props to have around.
In this article we will delve into the many ways blocks can take your practice to a whole new level. We will explore the differences in materials and sizes available, as well as provide real world applications and ways to enhance common poses with step-by-step instructions.
A little bit of History
Yoga blocks made their debut as a prop in the 1970s. BKS Iyengar, one of the founding fathers of yoga in the United States, was a firm supporter of props in yoga to make poses accessible and more comfortable. Yogis would make their own blocks out of wood. They were splintered, heavy, and difficult to transport.
Eventually the blocks were made of foam which were easier on the hands and lighter to transport.
So Why Use a Block?
Now the question is: “What does it actually do?”
If you are new to yoga, have physical limitations, or feel uncertain in your practice, the block is an excellent tool that can assist you with poses that may otherwise be unavailable or intimidating to you. Blocks can be used to develop proper alignment as well as ‘raise the floor’ to meet you. It can also provide stability and encourage proper alignment.
Experienced yogis can also benefit from incorporating blocks into their practice. The yoga block can be a wonderful way to deepen into poses and increase flexibility, allowing you to advance to the next level of asanas.
Okay, so now you have a general idea of what a block is and why you should try it, let’s delve into some concrete examples of how to use it.
Using Blocks for Stability and Height
There are a lot of reasons to use a block for stability.
Beginners can develop confidence in their bodies as they move through a sequence.
If you have some hesitation, or perhaps a physical limitation that prevents you from reaching the floor, the block brings the floor to you. By accommodating your needs with this simple modification, you are able to focus on the essence of the pose itself.
Here we break down several poses, issues commonly experienced in each one, and how to use a block to address and accommodate them.
Easy Seated Pose (Sukhasana)
Tight hips can result in discomfort in this seated position; knees hover above the ground and there may be a “pinched” sensation in the hip flexors or pain in the low back.
Raise the hips above knee level in order to better relax the hips and stabilize the back.
Place block on the floor on the lowest setting. Sit on the edge of the block, allowing the knees to naturally open to the side as you cross your ankles. You may also enjoy bringing extra blocks in and allowing your knees to rest on the additional blocks.
Standing Forward Fold (Uttinasana)
Tight hamstrings can make forward folds uncomfortable, especially if you find yourself dangling your arms above the floor and straining in an attempt to maintain straight legs.
The block raises the floor to the hands and provides support and stability. With this “resting place” provided by the block, the yogi can relax more fully into the fold without straining the low back and hamstrings in an effort to touch the floor.
Stand with legs straight. Stack block(s) in front of feet and fold forward at the hips, reach for the floor, allowing hands to rest on the block(s).
Half-moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)
This pose can be tricky, especially for anyone with shaky balance. The added challenge of reaching toward the floor and revolving the torso can be quite intimidating!
Use the block to raise the floor to meet the hand and provide stability in this standing balance pose.
Holding the block lengthwise in the right hand, gently shift your weight into the right foot. Gradually lift the left leg behind you as you fold forward, hinging from the hips. Place the block on its tallest setting and keep your right hand on it for stability. Slowly rotate the torso, stacking the hips and lifting the left hand to the sky. Repeat on the opposite side.
Triangle pose (Trikonasana)
Tight hamstrings and shaky balance can lead to hyper-extension of the knee in an attempt to stabilize and simultaneously reach the floor.
The block raises the floor to the hand and provides stability and support in standing poses.
Beginning in Mountain pose, step the right foot back and pivot it to be parallel with back of mat. The left foot remains at the top of the mat, toes pointed forward. Keeping the torso straight, hold one rectangle block in the tallest position in left hand. Shifting your torso forward, keep a “microbend” in the left knee as you lengthen the spine and then bend at the hips, bringing the block to floor to the right or “inside” of the left foot. Lift right arm up to the sky and look up at the right hand, opening across the chest. Repeat on the opposite side.
Hero’s pose (Virasana)
Tight hips can result in the sit bones hovering above the ground when in Hero Pose, causing strain on the knees. Some yogis find resting weight on the ankles uncomfortable as well.
The block can act as a bolster, raising the hips high enough to minimize the bend in the knee while also keeping weight off the ankles.
Place a block on the floor. One or two blocks, stacked, can be used. Come to your knees hovering over the block and sit on it so that your feet are outside of each hip. Sit up tall, hands palms up on the thighs. Close the eyes and breathe.
Forearm balance (Pincha Mayurasana)
Note: this is a more advanced posture. It is included here for people attempting the pose for the first time, or who have found difficulty with alignment.
When attempting this pose, the elbows may tend to splay out to the sides, compromising the shoulder girdle and the foundation of the pose.
The block creates a focal point to encourage effective muscular engagement by bringing the elbows in towards the midline of the body for proper alignment
Hold block between thumb and pointer finger, lengthwise, with elbows in line with the body. Place block on the floor, still holding it. Raise hips and straighten legs, coming into Dolphin pose. When you are comfortably aligned, begin lifting one leg high as you gently kick the other leg up to come into forearm balance.
Deepen into Poses with a Block
Below you’ll learn how to use a yoga block to go a little deeper into poses. This is helpful as you are ready to move from beginner to intermediate and from intermediate to an advanced yoga practice. Using a block in the ways suggested will prepare your body for more flexibility and strength. Try these poses for 1-3 minutes each.
Legs “up the wall” Pose in the middle of the room (Viparita Karani)
This gentle inversion is meant to be calming and restorative. The pose involves a slight backbend, and the settling of the legs into the hip sockets for stability.
The block raises the pelvis up off the floor, adding cushion and a slight backbend to the lower back. The angle of the legs straight up and down over the block facilitates hips rooting into hip sockets, while minimizing any pressure on the lumbar spine.
Lie down on back. Gently raise hips and place block under the sacrum, adjusting as necessary for comfort. Tuck the knees towards the chest and begin straightening the legs towards the sky. Remain as long as you comfortably can.
Supported Fish pose (Matsyasana)
This pose is designed to encourage a backbend in the thoracic region, the least flexible section of the spine, as well as chest expansion to allow for clearer breathing.
The block will provide support under the thoracic spine, providing a passive bend while allowing the shoulders to gently open and the chest to expand.
Place block on the floor where it will rest approximately between the shoulder blades. (You will likely want to experiment with different heights and positions of the block, to find the one most suitable for you.) Gently lie back, coming to rest on the block. Allow gravity to gently release the shoulders, opening up for chest expansion. Draw the crown of the head back, lifting the chin towards the sky and stretching the front of the neck slightly.
Elevated Butterfly pose or Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
This pose is designed to open the hips through external rotation. The hip flexors are gently stretched and tension is released as the pose is held for as long as it is comfortably available.
Using blocks in this pose encourages thigh adductors and IT bands to relax, bring the practitioner to a deeper level of hip flexibility.
Begin by sitting on the floor, soles of the feet drawn together and close to the body, allowing the knees to fall away from the midline. Place a rectangle block under each ankle, raising the feet above hip level. Maintain a neutral back as you fold forward, being mindful of your body’s signals as you progress deeper into the pose.
Frog Pose (Mandukasana)
In Frog Pose, the yogi is entering into what can be a challenging hip opener. The weight of the body is used to apply pressure to the inner thighs and groin, slowly stretching them out.
The use of blocks here will encourage relaxation in the upper body to encourage a deeper hip opening stretch in the adductor/groin area.
Come to hands and knees or table top position. Place block(s) under the elbows, finding the most appropriate height for your comfort. Begin to separate knees wide as you clasp the hands together. Lower the hips closer to the floor making sure the knees are in line with the ankles, feet flexed.
So now you know what the yoga block is used for, why and how it can be beneficial, and how to bring it into your practice. But what kind of block should you get?
Luckily, blocks are generally very affordable and widely available in today’s market. They come in different shapes, sizes, and materials. If you have a yoga studio in your area, you may be able to experiment with different options before you buy.
Here’s what you need to know when shopping for yoga blocks:
Foam is generally considered best for beginners because it’s firm enough to provide stability, but also has enough “give” to make it appropriate for restorative poses. Foam is not slippery, even if it gets sweaty. It is the most affordable option on the market, staying in the $10 and under range.
Cork is a natural material and a favorite of eco-conscious yogis. Cork blocks can be stacked without slipping and are easily gripped for all yoga poses, even when wet. They are noticeably more sturdy than foam, which some practitioners may find uncomfortable when the blocked is used under the spine. Cork blocks are also slightly more expensive, falling in the $10-20 range as a general rule.
Wood blocks are often made from sustainable bamboo, making them a very eco-friendly option. They can also be found in pine or teak. They are the sturdiest of the choices given here. It should be noted that wood is more slippery than the other materials, and can be rather heavy. Wooden blocks are available in a wide range of prices, from $15-$30 depending on the wood used.
Shape & Size
Generally speaking, either of the two sizes above will be appropriate for your practice, as blocks are very versatile in design. A yoga block on the lowest setting will provide the most surface area and stability, while standing it on end will provide the most height.
In standing positions, a yogi with tighter hamstrings will enjoy the highest setting, as it will take more pressure off the low back and hamstrings than the lower options.
Alternatively, the same practitioner will find the lowest setting much more comfortable when using a block in seated postures.
If you haven’t gotten around to buying a block yet, you can improvise with items you likely have around the house!
Using a thick, sturdy book is a great alternative way to bring the floor closer to you in standing poses. Simply place it as you would a traditional block, and enjoy the stretch.
A folded blanket, rolled towel, or a bolster can be used for seated and supine poses. If more height is desired, simply stack more blankets. This can be very soothing in savasana as well!
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