Yoga blocks and yogis have a complicated relationship. Some students, and even practitioners, shy away from using blocks for a variety of common reasons.
Some people just don’t feel comfortable using them. Others see using blocks as a sign of inferiority, playing into the myth that to correctly “do” Yoga one must be flexible at all times and not require help at all (I bust more about myths in my blog, here!), but the most predominant reason of all is a simple one.
A majority of yogis just don’t know how to use yoga blocks and therefore don’t see the point of incorporating them into their practice.
But this is a shame. The overlooked and misunderstood yoga block can actually add huge benefit to a practice for both beginner yogis and those who have been practicing for a long time.
In this blog, I’m going to give you a mini guide as to what they are, what they do, and how to use them, so that the next time you show up at class, your block is proudly tucked under your arm: Just like your mat!
What are yoga blocks?
Yoga blocks are simply blocks made out of a number of different materials. On average, they’re rectangular in shape with dimensions of 1-2” thickness and either 30cm or 20cm in size.
They actually originated in the 1970s and were popularised by one of the first yoga teachers in the world: B.K.S Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga.
Foam yoga blocks from Perform Better
The very first yoga block was actually made from wood - and some still are - but which block is best is entirely down to personal preference. Nowadays yoga blocks are made from a variety of materials, including:
Cork blocks provide a little more grip, especially in practices like hot yoga where the hands could get sweaty and begin to slide. Cork yoga blocks are often softer than wood blocks and heavier than foam, which makes them a great option for beginners. They also tend to last longer than foam blocks, and of course, are eco-friendly.
Foam yoga blocks are the softest and lightest of all the blocks. Some yogis prefer this for the additional flexibility and support they give, especially if using them in a movement like extended cobblers pose. A foam block is much more comfortable to have under the back or under the neck, and supports the back as it moves.
The very first traditional yoga blocks were made from solid wood! Today, they’re made from bamboo wood which makes them a more sustainable and eco-friendly option, as well as making them that bit softer. These may not be best for beginner yogis or even best used in restorative poses because of how thick they still are, but they can be great additions to poses like Forward Fold where a person’s hands may not be able to reach the floor. Wooden blocks can almost bring the floor to a student in examples like these, which can be great when trying to initially work on poses and postures.
What are yoga blocks good for?
Yoga blocks have a plethora of different benefits, which is often why it’s such bad news for the yoga community that they are overlooked.
Building upper body strength
Practicing the correct alignment
Protecting and helping to build strength in weak wrists
Helping to get deeper into poses
How to Use Yoga Blocks
Yoga blocks are completely flexible in the way that they can be used. They can bring the ground up to a yogi, for example, or they can be used as aids for balancing.
Despite this, they work to predominantly do three things: Lengthen the body through deepening the stretch, strengthen the body by allowing the correct muscles to engage in the correct alignment, and support the body in restorative poses.
Below I’ve listed some example poses in each of these three areas in which having a block can greatly benefit the posture.
If you are in a pose and you feel as though you are off balance, your muscles are tight, or you are feeling any type of resistance this is where having a block can prevent from straining your muscles or overstretching.
An example of this could be a posture like triangle pose where you may find it tricky to have your fingers touching the floor, and trickier still to have the arm suspended in midair just above your calf. A yoga block can then bring the floor to you, giving your fingers somewhere to balance, removing the stress and tension placed on your muscles and then allowing you to get a better feel for the posture.
Other poses could include:
Standing Forward Fold
In standing forward fold we ask a lot of our hamstrings. Those with tight hamstrings may find it difficult to hinge at the waist and completely fold, which means they unfairly miss out on the true benefit of the posture.
Using a block in Standing Forward Fold gives you a chance to keep a straight back by shortening the distance to the floor and providing a platform on which your hands can balance. This gives you control over the depth of the fold, and simply allows you to concentrate on the stretch,
To perform Standing Forward Fold with a Block:
Begin in Mountain Pose, and place either one or two yoga blocks just in front of your feet.
Place your hands on your hips and engage the core as you begin to bend toward the floor, keeping your focus on maintaining a straight back.
When you feel your spine curling and you feel any type of stretching or tightness, then allow your hands to rest gently on the yoga blocks.
Whilst in the pose, you can adapt the height and distance of your block as you see necessary. Remember a block closer to you will give your hamstrings and hips a deeper stretch, whilst placing the block further from you will give a more milder full body stretch.
Downward Facing Dog
Downward facing dog is one of the most common postures in yoga and it is a staple of the practice because it is a natural resting pose. However, beginners may find that hard to believe as they begin to practice their flexibility! Some beginners can struggle with balancing their body weight, and those with weaker wrists may find the pose challenging too.
Yoga blocks can help significantly with downward facing dog by once again shortening the distance to the floor, and also taking the weight out of the wrists. By having a block to grasp onto, balance is restored too, leading to reduced swaying and falling.
To perform Downward Facing Dog with a yoga block:
Begin in tabletop position. Place one or two blocks underneath your hands, and choose what feels most comfortable. For example, you may choose to use the wider or thinner side depending on the height you prefer or whichever gives you the most stability.
Inhale, curl your toes under, and then on your exhale, lift your hips up and back. Envision placing your weight into your heels.
Even with blocks, make sure to engage your core, arms, and legs.
A fundamental benefit of yoga practice is its ability to build strength, almost effortlessly. However, it’s a bit of a two-way cycle. To build strength in yoga your body must try to maintain the correct alignment throughout the posture, which can sometimes require strength of its own.
Once again, this is where yoga blocks can truly get to work. Yoga blocks can help support your alignment by giving you extra lift, balance and support in challenging poses. This puts you back in control, and takes some of the stress and strain off of balancing your body weight which can be difficult to begin with.
Poses where yoga blocks can help with the strengthening side of your practice could include:
Boat Pose is a phenomenal way to build core strength. The only drawback with it is that to begin to build strength, yogis must balance correctly which requires both strength and flexibility in the core itself and the hip flexor muscles.
Quite often people struggle with the balance, and can lose the pose due to rocking, wobbling or falling either forward or backward. All these things are normal! But yoga blocks can negate this by engaging the legs and core. Simply squeezing a block between your legs gives you the concentration to be able to engage your core and keep your legs straight to hold it there.
To perform boat pose with a yoga block:
Begin in a seated position with your knees bent, and your feet placed flat on the ground. Place a yoga block between your calves, and then place your hands on the ground in line with your hips.
Slowly lift your feet, and begin to back until you feel your abdominals engage. Lift through your chest as you do so to maintain a straight back.
Now channel your focus into squeezing the yoga block as you lift both legs into the air at a 90 degree angle.
Finally, lift your feet from the floor and bring them along your sides with your palms up, and fingers reaching forward.
Stay in the pose for 2 to 3 cycles of breath, and then release by placing your hands back by your sides and lowering your legs.
Crow pose is a notoriously difficult yoga pose, and it is often not mastered until years of practice. This shouldn’t dissuade anybody from trying though, as the only way to truly learn Crow and begin to identify the muscles needed to both balance the upper body weight and hold the correct alignment is to just keep practicing.
Yoga blocks significantly aid crow pose by giving yogis a lift. Part of what makes crow so difficult is the psychological and physical strength required to lift the feet up from the floor and balance them on the arms. By placing a block, yogis are automatically lifted and gently begin to test their balance knowing they have something to catch them if they fall.
To perform Crow Pose with a yoga block:
Begin in a supported toe stand with both feet placed on either a yoga block or two.
Now place your hands flat on the ground to begin the preparation pose for transitioning into crow.
Using the elevation of the block, slowly lift one foot off at a time. Practice balancing with one foot for around 2 to 3 cycles of breath before lowering it and then trying the other.
Experiment for as long as it feels necessary. If you feel confident to lift both feet off, do so!
Just like Downward Dog, many poses that are classed as both restful and restorative in yoga can sometimes seem impossible and feel ineffective if you initially lack the flexibility required to transition into the correct alignment.
Yoga blocks help in these poses by providing support, whether it’s under the hips, back, or neck. Having the support allows you to remove tightness or resistance from the posture, and therefore sink deeper into it so that you can feel the rejuvenating benefits.
Restorative poses where blocks can assist include:
Hero’s Pose is an empowering movement that is also incredibly restful and commonly used in periods of yoga meditation. Yogis with tight hips may find the pose difficult to maintain though, and often complain that the front of their thighs begins to hurt. Other complaints can include painful ankles.
Yoga blocks help in Hero’s Pose because they allow the hips to lift, removing the weight from both the calves and ankles, and effectively acting as a seat.
How to perform Hero’s Pose with a yoga block:
Begin in tabletop position in all fours.
Swing your legs to one side and move into a kneeling position, bringing your body weight back to sit on your heels with your back in a tall upright stature.
Lift your body weight up, and place either a block or two directly under your buttocks.
Pigeon Pose is another pose that yogis initially find intimidating and difficult, mostly because it looks worse than it is! Tight hips and tight knees can significantly decrease the effectiveness of this pose though, which is ironic considering that its main benefit is working to release tight hips.
In Pigeon Pose, yoga blocks take the pressure off of bent knees by giving the yogi a lift. This removes the strain of the body weight, and makes the pose feel a lot more comfortable than if it were being practiced on the ground.
To perform Pigeon Pose with a yoga block:
Begin a tabletop position with your toes curled under. Using your hands to balance, lift up slightly and then bend either your right or left knee so that you can bring it up and under you. The knee should come parallel with the mat, but only as far as feels comfortable.
Once the knee is in place, place your yoga block under the knee you have lifted i.e if your right knee is bent then place it under your right hip.
Now slowly begin to straighten out your opposite leg, uncurling your toes if it feels comfortable to do so. Keep your hips as square as you can.
Lift your chest throughout the pose, or, if it is available to you, fold over using your elbows to balance.
To exit the pose, simply lift, remove the block, and slowly uncurl your body to come back into an upright seated position.
Yoga blocks are exceedingly beneficial and should not be looked upon as signs of inferiority or as unnecessary aids. If you’re struggling with a pose, try adding a folded over blanket in an area that feels as though it gives support. If this enhances the pose - it’s time to add a yoga block to your yoga accessories!
At Firefly Yoga, we have years of experience in the teaching of yoga, as well as a range of different classes to support a range of different yogis. If you’re looking to kickstart your health and fitness goals for 2021, why not give us a try? Try an online yoga class with us, join online from £20 per month.