The first time I encountered yoga props was way back in 1982. I’d been practicing asana for about six months when I joined an Iyengar-based class. The props were rather crude back then. We used discontinued carpet samples instead of yoga blankets. (The 1970s kitchen carpet samples we practiced with are burned into my memory!) There were no yoga blocks or yoga bolsters, or even yoga mats. A funky thrift store necktie served as a yoga strap.
By far the necktie/yoga strap was the most utilized prop in those classes. By connecting their hands and feet with a yoga strap in seated forward bends, students were able to keep their spines in a neutral position, no matter how tight their hamstrings were. This protected the sacroiliac (SI) joints and the intervertebral discs.
Yoga props are one of the gifts that B.K.S. Iyengar bequeathed to the practice of asana. The yoga props that have become almost universal in studios these days derive from his designs. That’s where Hugger Mugger founder Sara Chambers got the idea for making a yoga strap that was much more functional than those old neckties. Like Iyengar’s strap, Sara’s yoga strap included a buckle. This made it possible to secure the strap in a loop, making it useful for a whole bunch of different poses.
Anyway, I digress. The importance of maintaining a neutral spine in forward bends shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if your hamstrings are pretty flexible, sitting on the floor with one or both legs stretched out in front of you is likely to cause your lumbar spine to round. When we bend forward, the vertebrae exert pressure on the fronts of the discs. In addition, the SI joint gaps. We can get away with this once in a while. But when you practice this way daily, we risk injury.
How to Practice Janu Sirsasana with a Yoga Strap —and Other Helpful Props
- Gather your props: yoga mat, one or two yoga blankets, yoga block and yoga strap.
- Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Reach back and feel your lower spine. If the spinous processes—the knobby protrusions on the back of each vertebra—are poking out into your back, this means that your lumbar is in a convex rather than concave curve. If you know your hamstrings are on the tight side, try sitting on a folded yoga blanket to help your pelvis tilt forward more easily, which will also allow your spine to find its natural curves more easily.
- Bend your right knee out to the side so that your foot is in contact with the left inner thigh. If your knee is at all uncomfortable in this position, place a yoga block under your thigh to elevate your knee.
- Check your lumbar spine again. You may still feel the spinous process poking out. If so, place another folded blanket under your hips.
- Take a yoga strap and place it around the balls of your left foot. Hold the strap with both hands and pull it toward you to help you bring your spine upright. Stay upright in the pose rather than bending forward.
- Take five to ten deep breaths, grounding your sit bones as you lengthen your spine upward.
- If you decide to bend forward from here, keep the strap taut as you bend forward. Make sure that your pelvis moves forward with the rest of your spine.