Yoga blocks in our practice

“Do grab a block or two if you need it.”, I often hear this phrase at the start of class from the yoga teachers at the studio I practice at. Not many people – especially regulars – will grab the blocks. Well, me neither. In retrospect, I attached myself to my ego, thinking that I “don’t need it” or “wouldn’t need it” since I have been practicing for quite long and can comfortably do most poses.

However, this is not at all true. I only recently discovered this in a recent vinyasa flow class I attended. Our teacher made it mandatory for us to start with yoga blocks. When floating to half-moon (Ardha Chandrasana), she made all of us rest our bottom hand lightly on the block and further instructed us to open our hips and chest more and lift our non-standing leg higher. I thought this was going to be a lot easier than a half-moon pose without blocks, but it really proved me wrong. It helped me in the later part of the pose when transitioning to half-moon without blocks, to be conscious of my hand placement, where I placed my body weight, and my alignment.

From this, I learned an important lesson. In both yoga and in our lives, we must be willing and ready to let go of any ego and instead be open to finding foundation and engage in continuous learning with humility. I struggle in many standing or balancing poses and having a block could actually assist me better or help me correct my alignment. It could even expedite my progress in the poses. Overall, blocks are amazing for all levels of yoga, and be used for various functions – balance, alignment, strengthening core, working adductors etc.

Generating space for step throughs: some of us may struggle with stepping through from Downwards Facing Dog to Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana A) or High Lunge (Ashta Chandrasana) because we are unable to create space from the lift of our hips or rounding of the back and engage the iliopsoas and core muscles. Usage of a block can help us train this.

  1. Place the block at a comfortable height parallel to the front of the mat
  2. Lift one leg and bend knee towards the chest
  3. Shift body weight forward
  4. Stack shoulders over wrist
  5. Lift the foot of the floating leg up and over the leg
  6. Squeeze into your chest
  7. Wrap shoulder blades by pressing down into hands
  8. Lightly land the foot between your hands
  9. Stand to warrior 1 or high lunge.
  10. Advance to the next block height

Balancing and alignment in Half-moon pose: Beginners usually have difficulty touching the floor and even if they manage to, they throw their weight to the bottom hand and fail to focus on opening the hips. This can be gradually improved by first starting with a block. Take note that weight should not be on supporting hand but on the standing leg (microbend). You should eventually aim to touch only the fingertip of the middle finger down towards the floor.

  1. Support the bottom hand on the block when coming from Trikonasana to Half Moon
  2. Rotate the upper torso upwards
  3. When stable, straighten the hands on hips to the ceiling
  4. Press lower hand lightly to the floor and lift the inner ankle of the standing foot upwards so that the standing hip doesn’t bear deadweight
  5. Dorsi flexion of the foot of the non-standing leg and lift the leg higher up
  6. Once comfortable, advance to a lower block height

Yoga as Strength Training

“What sport do you do?”, “What’s your gym routine”, – these are questions I am often asked, to which I always reply with a smile, “I only do yoga!”. In return, I always get the same shocked faces. I would describe my build as one that is more towards the ‘buffer’ side. Though I do not entirely love my body fit, I have come to accept it! I have done various high intensity sports in the past like touch rugby, but I would credit my muscle gain to yoga. It was quite unexpected even for me. I expected yoga to make me just really flexible, but in addition to that, my muscles toned a lot too. It felt somewhat satisfying to see my body transform in ways I never thought it could. However, everyone’s body is built differently, and everyone’s diet differs. Not everyone will achieve the same body type by doing yoga – some become leaner, some become more flexible.

Many experts advice doing strength training at least twice a week. Strength training has many benefits including increased strength, better bone health, increasing metabolism and decreasing risk of injury. The idea of strength training seems to immediately relate to going to the gym and having to use weight machines, dumbbells and resistance bands. While yoga should not be focused on how it sculpts one physique, it is indeed one benefit of yoga. Certain styles of yoga help to define muscle and tone our body: Ashtanga yoga, Modern Vinyasa Flow, Sivananda yoga, Hatha yoga, among many others.

Rather than lifting progressive weights, in yoga, you are ‘lifting’ your own body weight, which in a way takes a lot more skill, time and determination. Another difference is that weight training exercises often isolate and work on one muscle group at any one time. On the other hand, yoga uses muscles all over the body in most poses (when done properly).

  1. Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana): strengthens glutes (gluteus maximus) and legs (hamstrings). It also helps to stretch the back and neck. Advanced variation: root down through one foot, lift the other knee into chest and extend the heel to sky.
  2. Plank pose (Phalakasana): tones core (transversus abdominis, obliques), and strengthens shoulders (rotator cuff and deltoids), glutes etc. It also improves posture. Advanced variation: side plank / alternate leg lifting up.
  3. Chair pose (Utkatasana): tones quadriceps, glutes (gluteus medius and minimus) and adductors among many others. It also stretches the Achilles tendons and shins, which is therapeutic for people with flat feet.

These are just a few yoga poses that can build muscle and tone the body when done repetitively, safely and properly. While yoga may not be the fastest route to a stronger physique, it will definitely be effective for building muscles in a dynamic manner. Yoga asanas (typically the more intense ones) provide an all rounded option to burn fat, build strength, and increase flexibility.

Transitions in Yoga!

Transitions make flows fun and dynamic. They help to create continuous movement that smoothly connects one pose to another. They allow for the body to experience fluidity that we may not in our busy everyday lives. I personally enjoy transitions a lot in Vinyasa Flows because it gives a creative touch and differentiates one flow from another.

However, many a times, we fail to appreciate the transitions themselves, often rushing through them or taking no notice of them. Well, it is no surprise since it may not feel as rewarding as the final pose itself or as relaxing as the next pose. Going from Chaturanga to Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), we find ourselves rushing through to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog) and then carelessly pushing back to downward facing dog so we can quickly rest, paddle our legs out and take a few more resting breaths. In another example, half-lifts are often neglected – we often just look upwards instead of straightening and lengthening our spine as we should – before jumping back to Chaturanga.

It takes effort, consciousness and awareness to accept and integrate all transitions properly in our practice, such that we can ultimately derive more satisfaction from our practice. With all this being said, I would like to highlight 2 different transitions that require attention and focus in order to facilitate proper execution and prevent injury.

Chaturanga -> Upward Facing Dog -> Downward Facing Dog

  • If done correctly, upward facing dog helps to open up your chest while engaging your legs. This helps you maintain an open chest during downward facing dog and prevent the pinching of shoulder.
  • How to do: on inhale, slowly press through arms and roll over the toes / flip them back. Arms should straighten without locking and biceps should roll forward to feel expansion across the chest. Collarbones should spread and shoulders should depress and retract. Actively press tops of fit and lift kneecaps, engage quads to prevent putting too much pressure/weight on the wrists.
  • If we rush through the pose and throw ourselves from Chaturanga to upward facing dog carelessly, it can lead to injury in shoulders, elbows, neck and lower back. We will also not be able to get the most out of the movement.
  • Alternative: Ashtanga Namaskar -> Cobra (Bhujangansana) -> Downward Facing Dog

One legged Closed hip posture -> One legged Open hip posture (vice versa)

  • Examples: Warrior 3 -> Half Moon, Half Moon -> Standing Splits
  • Common transitions in asanas that seem natural
  • Caution: One legged transitions from neutral to external (vice versa) results in combined compression (of cartilage – in moderation it is good) and shear (gliding force) that could create too much friction on the cartilage. The cartilage of the hip joint could diminish in volume and completely wear through and expose the bone. If it is missing, it can no longer interact with synovial fluid (a slipper lubrication) and the bone to bone friction increases. In long term, this could result in Labral tear, arthritis, and other degenerative joint problems.
  • How to counter:
    – Balance down the hip by putting down both legs then transition to the next pose.
    – Alternative B: Utthita Trikonasana -> Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana). This is a natural transition because the hip is already open and the weight is initially on both legs.
    – Alternative C (not as protective): Bend the standing leg and slowly straighten when opening the hip.

Effect of Yoga on My Life

My prior concept of yoga was merely stretching and being “zen”, so it did not quite appeal to me as someone who has extremely short attention span and does not like being still. Now looking back at this 2+ years of practice – I had to stop for quite some time as I was getting shoulder dislocation and a shoulder surgery from another physical activity – I realized how I have progressed mentally and emotionally through my physical practice.

Yoga has helped improve my mental and emotional wellbeing unintentionally through Asana practice. During the initial stages, I found myself getting easily frustrated when I am unable to do a pose and would constantly find competition in classes, like being the lowest eagle pose in class or show that I can do my twisting poses with ease. However, it did not bring fulfilment to my practice. My hunger to do better felt weirdly insatiable. My basic poses weren’t even comfortable to hold, yet I was trying to move on to other things.

I realized something was missing, and that it lied within myself, so slowly but surely, I tried to focus on nothing in the room but myself. I started with giving myself more space and leeway, telling myself that it is alright to skip a flow if I am exhausted, and to use blocks to assist myself if necessary. Instead of beating myself up, I could better recognize what I could do to improve myself. I started to learn that I am on a race only with myself, whether in yoga or in life. My mindset shifted to one that was focused on self-improvement without comparison. It helped me recognize that it was alright to be on a different speed and different journey from others, as we have our own strengths and weaknesses, that the final destination is different, and even raise a question: ‘Does the final destination even matter?’. The journey of learning, failing and picking oneself up to me is the meaning of life.

Through Asana practice, I became more emotionally stable in terms of how I view myself and others. I was able to I feel joy instead of envy for others when they are able to master poses quicker than me and I feel more content from my own practice. Though I have yet to perfect controlling my emotions, I have learnt to identify them and reflect on them. Being alone but not feeling lonely has been one of the biggest takeaways through my yoga journey these 2 years as I begin to appreciate alone time more and more.

Moving forward, I hope that I could better identify moments when my mind becomes fleeting and be able to train my mental grit and stamina. Emotionally, I want to slowly move towards to controlling my angsty nature and learning to manage my tone and pace. 🙂