In AHA! Yoga sessions, we often use yoga straps. No, it is not a strange torture device, nor is it meant to stick you in difficult yoga poses. A yoga strap can help you get all the benefits from specific postures, while maintaining comfort and ease. It allows you to practice proper alignment without strain, making your overall yoga experience more delightful.
Just as yoga blocks are a way to move the floor closer to your hands, using a yoga strap can be like lengthening your arms. (Remember, “Go, go Gadget arms!” anyone?) An easy example—and one you can try at home or your desk at work—is Gomukhasana, or “Cow-Faced Pose.”
Gomukhasana (Cow-Face Pose) with a Strap: How-To
To practice the arm position of Gomukhasana, gently hold a strap in your right hand. Then, stand in Tadasana, “Mountain pose” (or, you can practice this in any seated position). Inhale, raise your right arm up, palm facing your body. Bend the right elbow so the hand comes between your shoulder blades, fingers pointing down towards the floor. Exhale, bend your left arms so the left hand goes behind you, with the back of the palm resting against your buttocks. Then, slowly slide the hand up between your shoulder blades. In the final pose, your fingers meet, grip, and pull against each other. But here, use that strap. Having lifted your right arm with the strap in your hand, simply reach up with your left hand and grab that dangling strap. Breathe. Be sure to keep your spine lengthened, chest open, and eventually even open the armpits. Exhale as you straighten your arms and come out of the pose. Repeat on the other side.
These arm motions work the triceps of the upper arm and the biceps and deltoids of the lower arm. Gomukhasana helps with your overall posture, improves basic yoga poses like Virabhadrasana I and II (Warriors I and II), and is an effective shoulder opener. The strap helps you keep the right alignment that ensures you get all these benefits—especially the long spine and open shoulders, no matter how far up or down your back you can reach your hands.
Micro-Movements for Body Awareness: Shoulder Release How-To
Yoga straps can help your body get the feel for micro-movements that are crucial details of many foundational yoga postures; more importantly, these exercises simply feel good. It is an easy way to feel nuanced muscle stretches that might otherwise go unnoticed. Using a strap in this way also helps create awareness in your body, which is always one of the primary goals of yoga. An easy example—and, again, one easy enough to do at home or work—is a shoulder stretch that helps your posture and alignmet, while drawing your attention to specific body sensations.
Take the strap and wrap it around your back, catching the bottom of your shoulder blades or a little higher. Ladies, this is usually just above your bra strap. Hold the strap on either side, with an end in each hand. You want an equal length of strap on each side. Take each side over its respective shoulder, and let the ends hang down your back. Now, adjust so that there is an even length on both sides. Take each strap over its own shoulder, letting each end hang down your back. Now, cross the strap behind your back, so that the “X” is just above the length of your strap touching the bottom of your shoulder blades. Adjust it so the strap across your back and the straps over your shoulders feel snug. Take the ends of the strap in either hand and gently pull. Notice your shoulder blades moving down your back slightly; as you do, press your shoulder blades slightly forward, into your back rib cage. Lift your chest, and really focus on the sensation of open and supported shoulders. This should feel good. If it feels too odd, the configuration might be too high on your back. With further practice, take your front rib cage and slightly move it towards the back of your body. Be sure your chest stays open wide, and lift through the crown of your head, keeping your spine—especially the neck area—ently lengthened.
You can slowly build up to the balance and stretch of Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose) by using a strap. Image Source: http://www.melissawest.com/223/
Straps for Any Yoga Practice: From Ease to Challenge
Yoga straps can be used to help beginners learn alignment and body awareness, and practice good posture more generally. They are also great tools for advanced yogis. If you are seeking more challenge, yoga straps provide you slight degrees of resistance, so you can slowly building up strength and teach your body safe postures in good alignment. Notice the difference of strap use in variations of the same posture (above). Both yoga students are in Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose), and both use straps to foster balance and increase length, but they use the strap in very different ways, according to where they are at in their yoga practice.
Straps for Restorative Yoga: Art Historical Examples
Yoga straps are also great tools to help you rest and relax by allowing you stay in a gentle pose longer. This supportive use of a strap long pre-dates what we now know as “Hatha yoga,” practiced by most yoga students today. Though such health-centered yoga sequences in the West are relatively recent developments (around 150 years old), yoga as a spiritual practice combining precise physical postures and meditation reaches back at least a thousand years. Glimpses of these distant pasts can be seen in visual artifacts, and some of these include—you guessed it—yoga straps.
Note the figure (missing a head due to erosion damage) seated just below the temple; it includes a yoga patta. Image Source: http://www.goroadtrip.com/explore/destinations/arjuna-s-penance-601
An early surviving image of a yoga strap is found on one of many the elaborate stone carvings on the side of a cliff facing the Bay of Bengal. Located near Mamallapuram (also spelled “Mahabalipuram,” and other variations), a small village in southeastern India (see map, left), this complicated narrative sculpture includes a plethora of characters, symbols, and interpretations. Carved during the 7th century as part of a huge temple complex, one small section shows three sages seated just outside a small portrayal of a temple. All three sages (see above images) sit in a meditative posture, what is now referred to as “Sukhasana,” or “Easy Pose/Sweet Pose.” Though time has wrought havoc on the figures through erosion and damage, you can still see that one of these sages wears a “yogapatta,” or yoga strap. It is in the customary supportive position, wrapped around the hips, thighs, and shins of the sitter. Using a strap to hold these body parts in allows one to meditate more comfortably for long periods of time.
A more detailed view of a “yogapatta” can be seen in an impressive bronze statue (see Figure to the right) made nearly 600 years later, in the present-day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, near the same region as the sculpted cliff of Mamallapuram. Here, a mythical half-man half-lion figure sits in the meditative Sukhasana (“Easy Pose”), with his front two of four arms resting on his knees, a sign of relaxed focus. Art historians explain that the pose of this particular character signifies the teaching of devotional yoga, rather than the more common physical Hatha yoga of today.
Note the ornate geometric pattern on the yogapatta (yoga strap). Unknown Ascetic, granite sculpture, 18th c., Madras, India (modern Tamil Nadu), Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image Source: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O120563/sculpture-unknown/
A more recent example of a meditating figure sporting a yoga strap is a granite sculpture also from Tamil Nadu (left). Carved sometime in the 18th century, this sculpture portrays a Hindu ascetic, identified in part by his prayer beads. This type of yogapatta sculpture is rare because it shows a mortal man, rather than a mythical being or deity. For this reason, he was probably a specific person renown for his yogic skills, and served as a model for aspiring meditators.
You needn’t be a sage, hero, or famous holy man to reap the physical and mental benefits of yoga or the yoga strap. All three of the above historical examples illustrate the common function of the “yogapatta” today; it allows a person to maintain a pose for a long period of time with relative comfort and ease. Hence, yoga straps are often used in restorative yoga classes. Heavily influenced by Iyengar yoga, a form of yoga that has helped popularize the use of props for proper, precise alignment, the goal of restorative yoga is to relax and revitalize your body and mind. It uses body positions to calm the nervous system. Restorative yoga is often used to lower blood pressure, release stress, and even lessen insomnia.
Supta Baddha Konasan (Supine Bound Angle) with a Strap: How-To
An effective and relaxing restorative pose made better by a yoga strap is Supta Baddha Konasana. “Baddha Konasana” means “bound angle.” Have your yoga strap within reach (for this one, you will need a strap with a buckle or clasp; see discussion of kinds of straps below). You will also need bolsters and blankets. Sit up on your sitz bones, pelvis tilted slightly forward. Life up through your spine and the crown of your head, and imagine breathing into each of your vertebrae to create space. Carefully bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together. If you want to work the groin a little bit, flap your knees slightly, in small up and down movements.
Here is where you add that yoga strap. Using the buckle on the end of your strap, make your strap into one big circle, and bring it around your body like a hula hoop. Bring the strap around the back of your body at your sacrum and hips, and at the front of your body around your ankles and tops of your feet. The sides of the strap are on top of your bent legs and between your knees, making a line on each side from your ankles to your hips (see accompanying photo). Put the buckle of the strap somewhere that does not touch the body; you’ll be grateful for that added comfort if you stay in the pose long, and hopefully you will. Using the yoga strap while in this pose aids the hips and the lumbar spine, while tilting the pelvis slightly forward.
“Supta” mean supine (lying on your back), so you do Supta Baddha Konasana lying down. Take some deep breaths, and get ready to let go and relax. If you have one, use a large bolster and place it behind your buttocks, lengthwise. If you do not have a bolster, use stacked folded blankets or even a couch cushion. You want something long and skinny, so your arms can splay open as your chest and shoulders release. Use a folded blanket or blankets as a pillow for your head (a small pillow works fine too, of course). Keeping your legs and feet in the bound angle posture with the strap, press your hands to the floor or hold the sides of your bolster. Exhale and carefully lie down, keeping your spine elongated. Support your neck and head with your additional blanket or pillow. If you are straining your neck, add more blankets to increase the height of your support beneath your head and neck, and perhaps tuck your chin in a smidgen. This should be a posture without strain; rest into it with ease. When you are comfortable and steady on your support, open your chest wide, release your shoulders down and back, and place your arms at either side of you body, palms up. If you want even more support, place bolsters, cushions, or blankets under your knees. Breathe! Try to relax here for at least 5 minutes. Putting weights onto your hands also helps you to relax; use eye pillows if you have them; they work great for this purpose.
This is a restorative asana (pose), but your body is being productive and garnering great benefits. It just does not necessarily seem like work, because the bolsters, blankets, and that trusty yoga strap are doing much of the work for you, in cooperation with our old reliable friend, gravity.
Be sure to get a strap that is at least 8-feet in length; the shorter 6-foot straps are not as versatile. Image source: http://www.yogaaccessories.com/8-foot-cinch-buckle-cotton-yoga-strap.html
Find Your Yoga Strap
Yoga straps can be found in Lake City at Wal-Mart, though better quality straps are available on-line at Amazon.com and other sources, such as yogaaccessories.com. For the frugal types, a man’s silk or polyester old tie or a long scarf works just as well. Especially for simple modifications like the hand position shown above in Gomukhasana, a silk tie or scarf works great. Another inexpensive option for a yoga strap substitute is to use any old rope, or to purchase a length of blue nylon rope at Home Depot, though here at AHA! Yoga, we have found these are a bit too rough on the hands; thicker or wider options keep you from gripping your hands too tightly. The conventional yoga strap is often preferable for restorative or more challenging poses, as these include buckles that allow the strap to hold circles of various tensions and sizes. Many newer straps even clip in place, though some of these do not allow you to adjust the size as much as the more traditional belt loops. Generally, you want to get a strap that is at least 8-feet in length; any shorter and you cannot do much with it. If you are tall or have an abundant torso, you might want a strap that is 10-feet long. You can also just buckle two shorter straps together. Try a yoga strap out at an AHA! Yoga session, and ask your teacher about finding you the right one.
Bell, Charlotte. “Yoga Strap: Open Your Shoulders in Gomukhasana.” Hugger-Mugger Yoga Products. Last modified September 17, 2015. http://www.huggermugger.com/blog/2015/yoga-strap-gomukhasana/
Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002 (org. 1997), pages 184-204.
Iyengar, Geeta S. “Yoga in Action” for Beginners, Preliminary Course. Mumbai: YOG, 2000, pages 19-20 and 61-62.
Johnson, Eve. “Use a Long Strap to Put Your Shoulders in Place.” Last modified March 22, 2010. http://myfiveminuteyoga.com/303/take-your-shoulders-back-with-a-long-strap/ (may need to use “Cached” version)
Victoria and Albert Museum. Collection entry, Sculpture, IS.252-1953, London, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O120563/sculpture-unknown/.
Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013.