It’s easy to head into a yoga studio and immediately compare yourself to the rest of the room. If no one else has a block or a cushion, it can feel awkward or even embarrassing to use one. But those worries are all in your head—even yoga teachers like Jessamyn Stanley use blocks.
“Personally, I used to always look down on using props because I felt like, ‘Oh I’m not good enough,'” says Stanley, author of Every Body Yoga: Let Go of Fear, Get On the Mat, Love Your Body. “But then I realized that’s just my ego getting in the way, and the ego is something you’re trying to walk away from anyway. So if you just say, ‘I want to have the best practice possible, it doesn’t matter what tools I’m using,’ then you’re always going to get what you need.”
So the next time you feel yourself reaching for a prop, take Stanley’s advice: “Don’t be mad at yourself.” That’s just where your body is at in that moment. “If you are using a block, that’s not a sign of weakness, that’s actually a sign of power—that you know that your body just needs to be a little bit longer, just needs a little bit of stabilizing, and when you’re using the props, you’re actually giving yourself even more reinforcement.”
Here, Stanley shows us 10 easy tweaks you can make to common yoga poses for beginners. You’ll need one or two blocks or a blanket for most of these moves. As you get stronger and more confident, progress to the full pose you see right below.
Ease into cobra pose by increasing the strength and flexibility of your back with baby cobra. Start lying facedown on the mat with legs hip-width apart, palms on mat next to ribs, and elbows tucked in toward body. On an inhale, draw shoulder blades down your back and pull chest forward. You should be able to lift hands off mat—most of the work should be in upper back, core, and legs. Keep elbows bent and tight to body, and gaze forward.When You’re Ready: From baby cobra, press palms into mat and lift head and chest, drawing ribs and belly off the mat. Keep a slight bend in elbows and roll shoulder blades back and down. Pull heart and gaze upward.
2. Bound Angle
Giving your thighs extra support will allow them to melt into the blocks. From sitting, bend knees and bring soles of feet together with heels drawn close to pelvis. Take two blocks and slide one under each knee for support. Grab hold of your big toes with your thumb and index fingers, and press elbows into inner thighs to draw head to floor and belly to feet. Try not to round spine as you fold forward. Stay for several breaths then gently roll back to starting position.When You’re Ready: Remove the blocks and use elbows as anchor weights for your legs. Sink into the pose deeper by drawing head to floor and belly to feet while pressing sit bones into mat. Be patient with this pose; progress comes slowly.
3. Downward-Facing Dog
Adho Mukha Svanasana
This variation is particularly good for people with weak wrists. Start on all fours with shoulders stacked over wrists and hips over knees. Place hands on blocks in front of shoulders. Curl toes under and lift hips up and back. Use blocks as a weight stabilizer, helping you find balance between upper and lower body. Keep a slight bend in knees if necessary but work toward straightening legs and easing heels to mat by pushing into blocks and shooting hips up and back. Keep arms straight, rotating triceps in. You can also place the blocks up against a wall for additional support.When You’re Ready: From supported down dog, remove the blocks to get deeper into the pose. The key to holding this pose without wanting to kill yourself is to claw the mat, says Stanley. Plug into your fingertips and knuckles when you step into the pose to create a suction cup with your hands and protect your wrists, keeping weight evenly balanced between upper and lower body.
4. Garland Pose
If your hips are tight or you have tender ankles or knees, grab a block and a blanket for this one. Start standing with feet just wider than hip width. If needed, slide a blanket under heels. Spin heels inward and toes out, then sink hips down into a deep squat. Slide a block under butt for support (the block can be turned on any side for three different heights). Place elbows on inner thighs and press palms together to draw heart forward.When You’re Ready: Remove the blanket or block or both to sink into the deepest form of this pose. Stay for a few breaths then rise up to standing, shaking hips out if necessary.
5. Warrior III
Test your balance with this pose. Place two blocks at any of the three heights about 8 inches in front of toes. Step so right foot is directly in-between blocks. Transfer weight to left foot and kick right foot straight back until it’s about parallel with floor, flexing through toes. Don’t let all your weight fall into the blocks. Slightly bend right knee if necessary for balance. Repeat on other side.When You’re Ready: When you feel steady, remove the blocks. Without letting right leg fall, press palms together in front of chest to drive heart forward. Gaze forward, keeping neck relaxed. If you’re really feeling it, extend arms straight back. Hold for a few breaths then return to standing.
6. High Plank
Utthita Chaturanga Dandasana
Before building up to high plank, try a table-top pose. Start on all fours with shoulders stacked over wrists, hips over knees. Spread fingers wide to evenly distribute weight in your hands. Engage triceps, release any tension in neck, and gaze just beyond fingertips. Practice pushing the ground away and rounding upper back to feel more sturdy and lifted.When You’re Ready: Once solid, start curling your toes under and slowly stepping legs straight back into high plank. Stay on balls of feet with core lifted and shoulders engaged. Stay for a few breaths then return to all fours.
7. One-Legged King Pigeon
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
Start in a high plank position, shoulders over wrists, hips in line with shoulders. Draw right knee to right hand and right foot to left hand, resting outside of shin on mat as you roll over left toes. Try to get shin as parallel to the short edge of mat as possible. Square hips and keep right foot flexed. Grab a block and place it under right hip. Sit upright with hands on floor for support if that’s enough, or fold forward over front leg and relax forehead to mat. Relax shoulders and breathe into the stretch in your hips. Repeat on other side.When You’re Ready: As your hips begin to open, remove the block and try sliding front foot farther away so that shin stays parallel with short edge of mat. Keep sinking right hip into mat for several breaths. Repeat on other side.
8. Standing Half-Forward Fold
Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Place two blocks (at any height) about 8 inches in front of toes. Fold forward and place hands on blocks. Extend spine, chest, and gaze forward. Push into the blocks to lengthen spine and let tension in upper back melt away.When You’re Ready: Remove blocks. Keep weight stacked in heels and add a slight bend to knees if necessary. Reach fingertips to mat as you draw heart forward. Keep spine long and shoulders relaxed.
9. Tree Pose
Start standing and place a block (at any height) next to left ankle. Shift weight to left leg and root through big toe. Lift right foot, bend knee, and rest right ankle on left leg. Stand tall and bring palms to touch in front of heart as you sweep gaze up. Repeat on other side.When You’re Ready: Remove the block and lift right foot to left ankle, mid-shin, or grab inner right ankle and bring the sole of foot to left shin or upper thigh—never rest it on the knee. Actively press right foot and left leg into each other to maintain balance.
10. Half Moon
From standing, place a block (at any height) about 8 inches in front of right toes. Transfer weight into right leg and lean right until right hand rests on block, left leg lifts straight up flexing through toes, and left hand extends toward ceiling. Keep chest open (not facing mat), shoulders stacked on top of each other. Press into right big toe for balance; if necessary, slightly bend the right knee. Repeat on other side.When You’re Ready: Remove the block and reach fingertips or palm to mat. If necessary, slightly bend knee to reach the mat. If possible, try to look up along raised arm. Stay for a few breaths (get up if you’ve fallen over because that’s totally OK, too) and repeat on other side.
Photography: Julia Hembree