From the Blog

Mental Blocks (and Straps)

"There is no lack of knowledge out there … Just a shortage of asking for help." - Mark J. Carter

Once upon a time, I was in a leadership and team-building course in college. We were bussed out to the woods and put through a series of challenges and exercises. A bunch of competitive over-achievers, we tried hard to do the exercises completely on our own. I remember one very vividly.

It was pouring rain. We were all dressed in ponchos, blindfolded, and put through a maze. They told us to grab onto a rope strung waist high through the trees and challenged us to find our way out by following the cord as it twisted and turned through the woods. Their last instruction made its way to us through the damp, chilly air: “If you need any help, just raise your hand.”

Help? Why should I need help? I can do a stupid maze, I thought as the rain dripped inside the hood of my poncho and crawled down my back, and my shoes made a soft shuffling sound as I carefully picked my way along the soaking forest floor. I blindly bumped into my fellows, mumbling hasty excuse mes, hoping they weren't secretly peeking, and nervous I wouldn't be the first to escape.

Every few minutes, the counselors called out, “Remember. If you need help, just raise your hand.”

I'm not sure how long we all wove in and out of the trees, but after some more cold, wet, miserable bumbling I realized that I was done. I was frustrated. I was soaked. I was over it. So I raised my hand. The counselor hurried over to me, removed my blindfold and put a finger to his lips as he led me away from the maze. I turned to watch my classmates in the confounding maze, and I instantly felt like an idiot: of course there was no way out. The cord was just a giant loop that zigzagged its way around the woods.

The whole point of the challenge was to ask for help.

Sometimes I feel that way in a yoga class about props, specifically blocks and straps. They're right there. They're not hiding. They're in plain sight. Blocks stacked carefully in the corner or on shelves. Straps hanging neatly in the back or nicely coiled in boxes. Just like that counselor reminding me that it's okay to ask for help, the props are available for use. They won't jump into my arms as I enter the room, but it's pretty easy to grab one on my way to my mat.

Yet as I observe fellow yogis, I am consistently surprised at how little we use props. We hear all the time how important it is to keep a “long, flat back” in forward folds and halfway lifts; yet there we are, hunched over and straining to reach our toes. Oh to just place a block in front of our feet. We could press into it, draw our shoulder blades to touch on our back, bend the knees slightly, look down, and voila – find a brilliant halfway lift. The alignment we could achieve! The lengthening!

Or binds. Oh the binds we could do if we put down the ego and picked up a strap instead! Imagine: a beautiful open torso, bound arms, and strong legs in a fully bound Extended Side Angle. Sadly, many of us prefer to reach and twist and contort our body, hold our breath, and link our sweaty fingers together – just barely – knuckles and fingernails white from the pressure; our faces turn toward the earth, our chest collapses. There, we gasp. We did it.

No. We didn't.

Holding a strap would allow you actually find the bound position and incrementally open your body while holding the proper alignment. Forcing yourself into an uncomfortable bind only contracts and hardens your muscles and puts you at risk for injury. Ah straps.

Props can also strengthen. Try to run yourself through a simple Sun Salutation A with a block squeezed in between your thighs. Or try one in Boat Pose and Forearm Plank; squeezing the block helps to align your pelvis and protects your low back. Still think props make it all easy? The action of squeezing your thighs around the block will strengthen the adductors, the transverse abdominus (your deepest core muscles), the hip flexors and rectus abdominus (six-pack, anyone?). A stronger core will help you in any pose – also in walking, sitting upright, and in general moving around in your daily life.

It's a common misconception that props are for people who are brand new to yoga, or people with injuries that prevent them from doing the “full” version of the posture. Props are also used extensively in certain types of yoga, like Iyengar and Restorative. But anyone in any class can benefit from using a prop. In reality, props allow different body types to find their way safely into well-aligned poses. They support us on the quest for safe alignment, help us to find the appropriate depth for our body, and can be used for strengthening as well. Bottom line, props are there to help.

Resisting help can be a symptom of an over-active ego. Your community, your teachers, your family: they help you reach things you couldn't on your own. They challenge you. They allow you to try new things. They sometimes give you strength just by being there. Use your time on the mat to a) improve your alignment, b) find new depth and try new things, c) strengthen your core, and to perhaps gain a dash of humility as well. Acknowledging when you need somebody (or a block or a strap) is a lot smarter than leaving yourself all bound up in knots.

Namaste.

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