Props: Three Ways to Use a Yoga Bolster

Props are an important aspect of a yoga practice. They make some poses more available, some poses more challenging, and many poses kinder for our bodies. In my previous posts on props, we’ve looked at the uses for straps and blocks. This week we look at the sweetest of props: yoga bolsters. Bolsters are versatile, but all of their uses come back to their name: they bolster you. You can sit on them, use them as padding, and relax onto them in supported and restorative poses.

Sitting

Try sitting on a bolster with your legs in a sweet criss-cross position or try using the bolster as a saddle. Either way, you’ll probably notice that sitting on the ground is a lot more comfortable. You can use a bolster to lift your hips a little higher in any seated yoga pose.

Padding or Propping

Bolsters can be used to pad knees in poses like low lunge. They can serve as props for your hips in poses like pigeon. In a sweet resting pose like child’s pose, they can be used under your head. Any time the ground feels too far away from your body, use a bolster to fill the gap.

Restoring

My favorite use for the bolster is as a prop for restorative yoga and supported poses. Bolsters can give your upper body a lift in supported fish and can elevate your hips in supported bridge. They can also be used in a traditional savasana pose, slid under the knees for a sweeter experience for the low back.

—Alexandra

Styles of Yoga: A Primer

Last week Tracey, a regular student in my Yoga for Aging Athletes class, asked about different types of yoga classes. If you’re heading to a yoga studio or gym, you may feel (as she did) a little stumped while perusing the yoga schedule. What do all the different names and styles mean?

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Tracey, 63, is an avid runner and tennis player. She takes my Yoga for Aging Athletes class every Thursday.

Let’s start with a quick primer.

Types of Yoga Classes

Flow is yoga that moves quickly—often at a rate of one breath per movement. In addition, the poses are linked together, so you move seamlessly from one to the other. Other terms that denote a similar style of yoga include Power Flow, Ashtanga, Baptiste, or Vinyasa. These classes often include a focus on plank pose and other poses that require weight-bearing for the upper body.

Hatha is an umbrella term for all styles of yoga. Classes labeled “Hatha” will move a little slower. The poses won’t necessarily link together.

A class labeled gentle, healthy aging, or senior yoga will be mellow and mindful, with a focus on seated poses or modified versions of standing poses. If you’re a cyclist or runner, this is a great type of class to take when you’re recovering from a race.

Restorative yoga is even mellower: you use props like blankets and bolsters to deeply rest and relax. (You can learn about my favorite restorative yoga pose in my post about supported fish.)

Yin yoga involves holding low-to-the-ground and seated poses for several minutes at a time. While you don’t move quickly, long holds offer a different type of challenge.

Anything labeled Iyengar or alignment-based will include clear, detailed anatomical instruction and the use of props.

Heated yoga refers to yoga in a room heated from 75 up to 105 degrees. If it’s Bikram, a specific style of heated yoga, a set series of 26 poses will always be practiced.

Yoga for athletes will be taught by an instructor who is also an athlete. You can expect a focus on release, strength, stamina, and injury prevention.

This is certainly not comprehensive. New styles of yoga are constantly being created, and different teachers and studios may have varying interpretations of these terms. If in doubt, ask the instructor to explain the tempo and focus of the class.

Which Yoga Class is Right for You?

Your yoga practice should complement the other movement practices in your life, not compete with them.

Recovering from a race? Try gentle, Yin, or restorative.

Looking to build your cardio or upper-body strength? Check out flow.

Feeling the chill of winter cold? A heated yoga class could be fun.

Brand new to yoga? Hatha or alignment classes often cover the basics.

And of course, if you’re an active, aging adult, a class labeled yoga for athletes or yoga for healthy aging (or a hybrid of those) is always going to be the perfect fit.

—Alexandra

 

Sequence: Snowga to Do When You’re Trapped Inside

In our Sequence posts, you’ll find a sequence for a specific purpose. This week, we’re looking at snowga! When we get snow in North Carolina (where Sage and I live), things really slow down. Businesses close, sidewalks stay icy, roads aren’t safe for driving for several days. Snow days are nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and do less. But doing less doesn’t mean doing nothing. That’s where this simple, short practice comes in. It’s easy to do anywhere: you don’t need anything except your body and a wall. Bookmark this post, and the next time the weather brings your active life to a halt, take 5 minutes to move. Your core, hips, legs, and shoulders will thank you. (We practice a lot of downward-facing dog at the wall in this video. For a tutorial on that, check out Sage’s Hack Your Down Dog.)

—Alexandra

Hack Your Sun Salutes, Part 2

In Hack Your Sun Salutes, Part 1, we looked at ways to modify the front end of sun salutations. Today: ways to work around limitations on the back end.

Problem

It can be tough to step your foot forward from downward-facing dog, either because of tightness, comparatively less strength in the upper body, or issues in the foot and toes of the back leg.

Solution

In this video, I offer some workarounds. To modify the step forward, you can take more than one step toward lunge, lift to your fingers, or use a block to elevate your upper body. Or avoid it all together! It’s fine to modify in class—you know you’ve found the right teacher when you feel comfortable leaving out poses that don’t work in your body in that moment.

Props: Three Uses for a Yoga Strap

Yoga props can make your practice more productive and kinder for your body. We looked at some of the uses of the yoga block already. This week, let’s look closer at the yoga strap and its three main uses. In poses, a yoga strap can help you connect, stretch, or stabilize.

Yoga straps are 6-10 feet in length, and for most bodies the shorter length is perfect. Straps are made of thick, woven canvas and have a plastic or metal buckle so the ends can be easily connected. If you don’t own a yoga strap, no problem: you can use a tie or a belt in its place.

In this video, I show how you can use a yoga strap to connect, stretch, and stabilize. Grab a yoga strap and come along!

Connect

Imagine the yoga strap as an extension of your arm. If you’re reaching for your foot and  your hand doesn’t quite reach, your strap can fill the gap of those last few inches and help you make the connection.

Stretch

Shoulder stretching and hamstring stretching are made most effective by using a yoga strap. For shoulder stretching, place the strap in each hand and open your arms shoulder-width or wider. Reach both arms overhead and explore your shoulders by moving your arms behind you or from side to side. For hamstring stretching, lie on your back and wrap the strap around your foot. Extend that foot skyward and feel your hamstrings get looser as you move your leg around in space.

Stabilize

Sometimes we want to hang out in a passive or restorative shape and use as little effort as we can. The yoga strap makes that possible. In a pose like bound angle pose, the strap can be utilized to keep your body in one shape while you relax.

—Alexandra

Just One Pose: Paused Roll Down

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This week, the pose to try is paused roll down. This variation on the Pilates roll down doesn’t rely on upper-body support, so if you’re recovering from a shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury, it’s the perfect core-focused pose.

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John, 71, holds paused roll down

Why

If you want to continue to run, bike, and play for the whole of your life, having strong abdominal muscles is key. You can explore plank pose as a stabilizing pose to build core strength. In plank, the spine stays long. In paused roll down, the spine articulates. This is another important way to build core strength and maintain spinal health, and it’s a good alternative to plank when your upper body needs rest.

How

Sit with your legs extended. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and reach your arms forward. Take a breath in and deeply engage your core. (Not sure what “engage your core” means? Check out Core Engagement 101.) Moving with a neutral spine, start to roll down toward the ground. Pause about halfway to the earth—or when it starts to feel a little challenging. Stay here and breathe. Keep your core engaged and deepen the engagement on every exhalation. The “work” of the pose should happen in the front and sides of your body, not in your back. Hold for 5-10 breaths.

Variations

If you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors: Bend your knees. This will give your hip flexors and hamstrings a reprieve, and you’ll still get the benefit of core work.

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Be kinder to your legs: bend your knees

For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.

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Start with holding your legs to build strength

For more spice: Pause with your body closer to the earth. Things may get a little shaky!

If you have disc concerns or stenosis: Instead of rolling down, lean back with a long spine. Don’t lean back very far: pause just a few degrees back. If this pose still doesn’t feel right for you with that change, simply don’t do it. (Not all poses are for every body, but that’s another post.)

—Alexandra

Props: Yoga Blocks for Better Yoga

Doing some yoga? You should give yourself props! And although you deserve accolades for getting to a mat and moving, the props I’m speaking of are the literal ones. This week, let’s talk about the yoga block, an important prop that can help you align, strengthen, and play your edge. In weeks ahead, we’ll explore other uses of the block (it can be supportive, too!) and we’ll look at additional props—the strap, bolster, blanket and more.

Yoga blocks are small, firm rectangular blocks, often made of heavier foam or wood. If you don’t have a block, a thick book can do the job just as well. It’s useful to have at least one on hand, and in some poses two blocks would be even better.

Align

Use your yoga block to help you find optimal alignment. In a pose like triangle pose, it’s easy to reach too far forward of the front shin or to lose integrity in the pose by reaching for the ground. Placing a yoga block under your hand helps you keep your arms in a straighter line, and it allows you to find a “just right” stretch instead of a “too much” one. Any time the ground feels far away (especially in forward folds or lunges), a yoga block can serve as the buttress for better yoga, helping you find safe alignment for your knees, hips, shoulders, and back.

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Chris Mason, 57, explores triangle pose as a counter balance to cycling

Strengthen

Use your yoga block to make poses a little spicier. In poses like plank, bridge, or mountain, you can add a block to build strength. In all three of these poses, placing a block between your thighs and squeezing will help you find more engagement in your legs and inner thighs.

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A block between your thighs will make mountain pose spicier

Play your edge

Use your yoga block to play your edge in balance poses where one or both hands reach toward the earth. In half moon pose or standing split, the block brings the earth closer to you. This creates stability so you can explore the fullness of the pose in your body. By pressing into the block, you can better stabilize the standing leg and find your edge in lifting the extended leg.

Use a block for stability and play your edge!

—Alexandra