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Expand Your Flexibility Training: Tools (Part 2)

By on April 17, 2017

Yoon and Athena partner stretch at My Body Shop.

In continuing our discussion on increasing flexibility for your students or even for yourself as a teacher, Part 2 of the flexibility series(read Part 1 here) focuses on what tools may help your practice and how to use them.

While technically you only need a mat or even a clean patch of grass to stretch on, including tools will help your students to improve their technique, intensify their stretch, and even help to loosen tight tissues and muscles through myofascial release. These tools ranges quite a bit in price and durability. Where applicable and available, options in the following list are included along the price points.

Common Tools: Yoga Based

The most common set of tools are those found at a yoga studio. They include things like foam blocks, a towel/blanket/bolster, and a yoga “belt” or strap.

While all the super-flexy instagram stars focus on using blocks (or chairs, or other people) to show just how crazy their over splits are, foam blocks or a rolled up towel help primarily with alignment and with providing assistance for moves requiring balance. They assisting body parts to achieve poses more easily. A towel/blanket/bolster supports joints and may help relieve to mental and body stress – particularly if they are used in a restorative focused class. Always have your students grab these tools and encourage their usage to find stability and security during stretches and poses.

This great article (with photos!) by Yoga Junkie has a few ways you could use bolsters to help support poses and take stress out of flexibility.

Blocks can help literally bridge the gap between body parts and the floor in poses like forward fold, when the hamstrings aren’t quite ready to have your hands touch the ground. Or they can be used in hip opener poses like pigeon where a support under the bum will make the pose more comfortable for your student. This article covers a couple of poses with blocks for beginners that assist with alignment and encourage proper muscle engagement.

Straps function similarly to blocks in that they can bridge the gap (this time with a string!) between the ideal pose and the current range of motion for the person using them. I love using straps as part of an active shoulder warm up. Be careful when using a strap not just to yoink your arm/leg/shoulder/other body part around and pull gently. Check out this article for some options for beginner strap usage.

All of these tools are available for purchase at most “big box” online and physical retailers or specialty online stores like yogaaccessories.com

Less Common Tools

The yoga wheel is gaining popularity among flexibility students as a cylindrical version of a block. It is very supportive and assists with poses and balance but it also fits the body’s curves a little more smoothly than a rectangular block. The wheel is also a great tool for assisting in hand and forearm balances despite the fact that it’s a wheel and could roll away at any second. It’s not touted as a restorative device but I have certainly used mine for some myofacial release, which we’ll get to in the next section.

Chin Stand with my yoga wheel and cat.

Dharma Yoga Wheel (read a detailed review here) invented the wheel a few years ago and several other versions have cropped up in other materials, other sizes, and at other price points. There’s even a DIY version that uses industrial grade pipe, the kind you can get at any home store. They’ve been releasing more and more tutorials on their website that explain how to use the wheel realistically – i.e. for regular humans and not super-human yogis doing extremely crazy things on instagram. I’m a big fan of the chin stand one which makes a potentially scary pose much safer to try on your own/without a trusty spotter. There’s even a teacher training now if you’re really interested in expanding your practice.

Brooms stick, bamboo sticks, or smaller diameter PVC piping are some of my favorite assistance tools. And you don’t see them very often in flexibility classes. GymStick or Yoga Stick are a few off-the-shelf products I’ve found. Check out these videos on how you could use their product (or a stick you have lying around the house). They are used similarly to how you might use a strap or even a pole. Try using it with another person to stretch your shoulders and possibly hip flexors (photo).

Stretching with a stick and a partner.

Stretchy bands like Rubberbanditz ( which are newly focused on the pole market), Ballet Bands, Theraband, or any resistance band you can find online or in a big box fitness store will also help your students and your own stretching. These bands provide gentle to extreme resistance and encourage strengthening along with their stretching. Search for “ballet” band stretches – particularly on Pinterest – for ideas. Or start with Charlotte Robertson’s Top 5 stretches, which also integrate our next tool, the pole!

Don’t forget about your pole! The pole is a great resource in a stretching/flexibility/contortion class and can offer balance assistance as well as resistance. Sometimes in our flexibility focused classes we forget about our primary apparatus! A pole can often replace a wall, a stick, a block, a strap, and in some cases a partner if used creatively. Several of the video/online resources from Part 1 use a pole (particularly the Valentino brothers). For readily available (read: free) resources, try a few YouTube Channels such as the adorably French Marie Cherry and the previously mentioned Charlotte Robertson.

Augustin and Anita stretch at FIT4Pole.

Lastly — partner stretching. I love partner stretching! I’ve found that not only can you get a deeper stretch working with live partner (rather than a static tool) but it also increases communication and promotes studio morale. You’ve got to trust and talk to your partner to effectively stretch. My motto is: Don’t “trust fall”, “trust stretch”! A partner can help check alignment and discover possible muscle imbalances. They can also be your eyes in stretches that are hard to see in the mirror or if a mirror isn’t available. Even if you video yourself, nothing beats having a person watch and interact with you to improve your form. Almost any stretch can be improved with a partner. Bendy Kate (mentioned in Part 1) has an entire section on partner stretches. Search #partnerstretch on instagram to get some inspiration. As a teacher make sure you have tried the stretch both ways as the stretcher and as the assist. Be sure to demo on a student who is a good communicator. Give clear directions during the demo and walk around to help the partners. Some people work together better than others and others may need more manual/close-up demonstrations.

Foam Rollers/Lacrosse Ball/Other Myofascial Release Tools:

Some of my favorite myofascial release tools.

Fascia is the fibrous tissue that encloses/connects your muscles. Some therapists describe it as a crystalline or weblike structure that actually connects all the pieces of our body together. Fascia can be superficial meaning just under our skin, or it can be deep, connecting our muscles/bones/nerves/blood vessels or visceral which protects our organs. Fascia tightness and pain is not entirely understood and is not easily detectable in MRIs or Xrays. Trauma can affect fascia mobility as can age and use or lack of use.

Myofascial release is a way to increase blood flow, relieve tension and increase the overall mobility of the fascia. It is a practice very often done in some fashion by flexibility students and teachers and can reduce pain and increase mobility. This is a particularly useful technique to try with students who don’t seem to be progressing.

Myofascial release can be achieved through massage (typically sports, Thai, or deep tissue not Swedish which is a lighter touch) or Rolfing or it can be done by yourself with a series of tools.

Foam rollers are the most common tool and there’s likely a long tube hiding somewhere in a corner of your studio. The base line models are smooth and can be used to “roll out” your back, your bum, your legs, your sides, shoulders – basically any body part you can roll along the tube (see my comment earlier about the yoga wheel and perhaps get some double duty out of your tools). Some models, such as those by Rumbleroller, have added what look like medieval spikes and protrusions which can help dig into harder to reach spots and include videos on how to use their rollers.

After foam rollers, the next most common myofascial release tools are massage balls, which come in a variety of firmness, size, and spikiness. Get a set of different sizes including the super helpful “peanut” double ball from companies like Rad Roller. They also have helpful videos on how to use their tools. Don’t want to spend a fortune? Start with a lacrosse ball for large areas and golf balls for smaller areas; tennis balls are too soft.

Various sticks can also be used to help roll out muscle soreness and knots with helpful handles. They may be more easy to use on certain body parts than the balls. Sticks come in all shapes and sizes – some that have spiky bits, some that have smooth, abacus-like mini-cylinders like the aptly named “The Stick.”

My advice? Have one of everything at your studio, and let your students play and find out what works for them. Then encourage them to buy their own favorites. I keep my peanut shaped ball in my purse and my massage therapist on speed dial during competition season.

Try all of these tools in conjunction with your own learning (such as with the suggestions in Part 1) to improve your own flexibility practice and offer your students options that will make your teaching more accessible, comfortable, and effective to a broader range of student populations.

Stay tuned for Part 3! Common issues and strategies for teaching special populations of flexibility students.

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Colleen Jolly
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Colleen Jolly

is AFAA and elevatED certified pole dance enthusiast and entrepreneur. She has been poling for six years, runs and owns the International Pole Convention (PoleCon), teaches pole and lyra in the DC metro area at FIT4Polers and MyBodyShop, and is a partner and instructor with 123Poling.com. She loves performing, regularly competes, and lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two kitties.
Colleen Jolly
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