If you’re anything like me, the idea of practicing Handstand in the middle of the room fills you with fear. For those of us who are more flexible, it’s easy to collapse into a backbend and overbalance.
The simple addition of a block can make even this challenging pose feel more achievable. Using the block to pin one leg to your chest gives you a counterweight to the lifting leg, and forces you to engage the core muscles that stop you from falling over into a backbend.
Begin in Downward-Facing Dog with a block close to hand. Step your left foot halfway up your mat, then pin the block between your left thigh and left ribs. Shift your shoulders forward to stack above your wrists, slightly spread your fingers, and grip with your knuckles and fingertips. Rise onto the ball off your left foot, using your abdominals and hip flexors to squeeze the block in place. Lift your right leg out behind you into Three-Legged Dog, gaze between your hands, and lean forward into your fingertips.
Without dropping the block, take a Handstand Hop, aiming to stack your pelvis above your shoulders. Reach your right foot toward the ceiling and hug your left heel toward your buttock. If you feel as if you are about to overbalance onto your back, just release your left foot back down to the floor and the weight of your leg will draw you back to Three-Legged Dog. Try five to eight light hops, then release down to rest before trying the second side. If you are game, try once more on each leg to see if you can re-create the same core engagement without the prop.
This subtle stretch for our primary hip flexor, the psoas, is one of my favorite counterposes to a day of sitting, or a yoga practice heavy on forward bends. It can also be helpful warm-up for deeper backbends like Camel, Lord of the Dance, and Wheel Pose. Because the psoas originates on the spine around the bottom of the ribcage, it’s crucial that you find a position where your lower back can relax, rather than arching your back or looking for a strong stretch over the front of your hips.
How the block helps
When releasing psoas tension, we often think of strong stretches like a Low Lunge, but using the block to prop us in more gentle hip extension allows us to stay for a longer period of time, gradually relaxing deep tension out of the psoas.
Start as if coming into Bridge Pose: lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and a block in one hand. Press into your feet to lift your hips, then position the block under your sacrum, set on its lowest height, parallel to the short edge of your mat. Make sure that block is closer to your buttocks than your low back, so that your spine can drape rather than arching. If you feel pressure in your low back, move the block closer to your buttocks. Then draw your bent left knee into your chest or toward your left shoulder and take a loose grip with your hands.
Use the position of your left knee to subtly tilt your pelvis posteriorly (toward the back of your waist), broadening your low back and creating more length over the front of your right hip. You may not feel a strong stretch, but you should be aware of your right hip flexor lengthening or softening. Stay for eight to 10 slow deep breaths, relaxing as much as you can, before releasing your left knee to swap sides. When you have completed both sides, exit the pose as you came into it. Windshield wipe your bent knees side to side, or hug your knees into your chest, then take a few breaths in Savasana to see if you can feel the length you’ve created over the fronts of your hips.
10. Neck Release
This delicious myofascial release technique uses the corner of a block to dissolve tension in splenius capitis and semispinalis capitis muscles at the back of the neck. It’s one of my go-to practices after desk work, or at the end of practice to set up for a deeply relaxing Savasana. It can also be helpful preparation for poses that require strong neck flexion, like Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana), and Plow Pose (Halasana).
How the block helps
Using the edge of the block to apply targeted pressure to the splenius capitis and semispinalis capitis muscles works in a similar way to massage, with the added benefit of control over the exact position and the level of pressure applied.
Lie on your back with a block handy; a soft foam or cork block will probably be most comfortable. Make sure your legs are comfortable; a bolster or rolled blanket under the back of your knees might feel nice. Lift your head and set the block on its middle height under the base (not the back) of your skull. You should be able to lean your head side to side and feel the corner of the block closest to your shoulders press into the neck muscles on either side of your upper spine. When you think you are in the right place, roll your chin all the way over to your right shoulder, then come back about halfway to the center.
Relax your head completely, feeling the corner of the block melt into the muscles on the right side of the back of your neck; you can stay still, or rock the head slightly side to side to add a massage-like sensation. Stay for five or more slow breaths, then roll another halfway back to center so your chin is only slightly tilted to the right. Look for another pocket of tension up against the right side of your spine, and once you’ve found it, stay for another few deep breaths here.
When you’ve finished the right side, roll your head back to center and pause to see if you can feel a change in the right side. After a breath or two, roll your chin to the left to repeat on your second side. When you have finished, remove the block and slowly lower your head to the floor. Notice the relaxed weight of your head and the softness of the tissues down the back of your neck before you move on.
Whether you think you “need” props or not, they can be powerful tools to help you explore and expand your practice. So next time you head to your mat, why not take a couple of blocks—and an open mind—with you.