One of the biggest mistakes a yogi/ni can make is to assume that props are for beginners. Take the yoga strap. Before class, a strap can help with warming up. During class, the strap can help one experience an otherwise impossible pose without sacrificing proper alignment, helping to prevent injury as well as ensuring that the pose does what itís supposed to do. At the end of class, the strap can help improve flexibility. Hereís how to use a strap at each point in class.
Certain styles, such as Iyengar classes, donít generally include a warm-up. In addition, on a cold day one can be stiff enough that even the standard warm-up is challenging. A strap can help one get ready for class. For stiff shoulders, take the strap and hold it in front of the body, hands at shoulder height and width. Raise and lower the hands without letting go of the strap. Keep the hands at shoulder height and move them from side to side; try this one with the hands above the head to relieve some stiffness in the sides of the body. Once the front of the shoulders have warmed and stretched, move the strap so that it is behind the rear end but still held at the same length with the hands. Raise the hands behind the body while holding the strap. At tender spots, stop and hold in a static stretch. Notice how much easier it is to move into poses such as Forward Bend and Down Dog afterwards!
The strap can be an essential part of practicing certain poses. Natarajasana, or Dancerís Pose, is almost impossible to do with proper alignment for the intermediate yogi/ni, as it demands a larger backbend than most people are capable of at first. However, by using a strap to Ďlengthení the arms, the practitioner can focus on stretching the shoulders and quadriceps of the lifted leg. With the strap attached to the foot, itís possible to get into the pose and then work the hands down the strap as the body relaxes.
Similarly, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, or Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose, is very difficult for most people because of chronic tightness in the hamstrings and low back. . By curling the strap across the ball of the raised foot, the leg can be held straight and at a lower angle. This allows the practitioner to work on the balance part of the pose while working on flexibility in the stiff muscles, all the while still protecting the lower back.
Poses done to stretch out at the end of class use a strap in similar ways. In Janu Sirsasana, or Seated Head to Knee, the strap gives more stretch to the hamstrings without compromising the knee or hip joint (and the associated tendons). In Gomukhasana, or Cow Face Pose, the strap elongates the arms and allows the practitioner to stretch tight deltoids while maintaining a straight back. Finally, using a strap to Ďbindí the legs and knees in Baddha Konasana, or Bound Angle Pose, allows the yogi/ni to relax into the pose, which allows the hip flexors and lower back muscles to stretch out slowly and without strain.
Straps can be found at studios, but they can also be purchased at athletic stores or on amazon.com for home use. Gaiam makes a good one from organic cotton; it has a D-ring at one end that comes in handy for attaching the strap to the feet or across the hips. At less than twenty dollars, itís an inexpensive investment for a prop with multiple uses. Even five minutes on a daily basis can make a difference in oneís flexibility, which can then make a yoga class more comfortable.