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Lately, I’ve been experiencing progress in almost every aspect of my yoga practice. My forward folds have started to feel easier. I look forward to my instructors cueing arm balances. But in my ten years of coming to my yoga mat, one skill hasn’t gotten any easier: binding.
Anecdotal research tells me I’m not the only one flailing around trying to bind. A peek around my yoga class reveals that few people have mastered the art of pretzeling their arms behind their backs. Those around me usually grab straps or bravely attempt to make their fingers meet…to no avail. I’m right there with them. And to be honest, I’m pretty sure it’s because I have tiny T-rex arms.
“Binding refers to any action where one part of the body holds on to another part of the body or when two body parts are intertwined,” says Bentley Fazi, an Alo Moves yoga instructor. “A pose that involves a ‘bind’ is done by intertwining or linking the hands; for example, interlacing the fingers together or one hand grabbing ahold of the opposite wrist.”
Personally, I tend to ignore binding cues altogether. I quietly think, “I’ll just stay in traditional Side Angle, thank you.” On my bolder days, I may rotate my shoulders a little and feverishly wiggle my fingers toward each other. But nothing happens. Nope. No dice.
The thing is, binding is an essential aspect of a traditional yoga practice. It’s an intrinsic part of poses such as Bird of Paradise, Cow Face Pose, and Marichyasana and the option to bind is commonly offered in Revolved Lunge and Yogi Squat. I get that binds can help open your chest, back, and shoulders. If, that is, you can move into them.
Your wingspan will determine how natural it feels for you to move in and out of binds. If you tend to have a slightly shorter reach, like me, fear not. Everyone can benefit from tying themselves up like a bow—even if you need an assist.
The Benefits of Binds
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’ve probably noticed that the practice gets more intricate as you go. As you increase your strength, flexibility, and balance, yoga reveals new ways to play and tests your physical and mental boundaries. Fazi says binds are simply another way to explore on your mat.
“Binds offer an additional way to approach and explore both alignment and depth in a pose,” she explains. “A bind can encourage you to self-adjust within a pose and ultimately allow you to experience a pose in a different, new, or deeper way.” For example, in Cow Face Pose, linking the hands behind the upper back straightens and lengthens your spine, advancing the posture beyond a deep hip stretch.
Binds have even more to offer. They also promote mobility and flexibility in the shoulders, back, and chest, all three of which are useful in the desk-work era.
Psychologically speaking, binds are thought to soothe the body and teach the value of breathing through discomfort. Some believe that binds inspire deeper connections and relationships off the mat.
But the benefits, as with most things in life worth experiencing, cannot be rushed. “Adding binds to your practice should be a gradual addition over time,” says Fazi. “Never force or push the bind. The mechanics of a bind vary depending on the pose it’s being explored in, so let each variation show you a new experience and range of the bind.”
3 Tips for Binding
Here, Fazi offers tips and tricks for achieving the experience of a bind—even if you’re working with teeny tiny arms.
1. Warm up properly
If you’ve been slouched over your desk all day long, give your shoulders a moment to release before you jump into your binding practice. Fazi recommends moving through less-intense movements, such as Sun Salutations, Cat and Cow, Puppy Pose, and Thread the Needle before coaxing your body into knots. You can even move through some shoulder flossing if you think your upper body needs a little extra time to unwind.
2. Know the difference between internal and external rotation
Many binds require both internal and external rotation of the shoulders, explains Fazi. Meaning, one shoulder will be rotating in toward the heart while the other will be twisting away from the heart. For instance, in Cow Face Pose, the bottom arm is internally rotated while the top arm is externally rotated.
Being aware of what kind of rotation a bind requires will help you know what poses can help you warm up properly and progress toward your bind with safety in mind so you don’t end up pulling a muscle or straining your shoulders. It will also help you notice your body’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you find that your right shoulder isn’t as comfortable with external rotation as your left. In that case, you may want to spend more time practicing Cow-Face Pose with your right elbow facing up.
3. Bridge the gap with a strap
“Those that are new to binding or have ‘shorter’ arms might find quite a lot of space between their hands, especially when wrapping their arms around their body,” says Fazi. “To ‘bridge the gap’ per se, a yoga strap, short towel, or even a belt is a perfect prop to use to close the gap.”
Adding these tools to your practice will help you familiarize yourself with how the bind feels in your shoulders. Plus, you can slowly start to inch your fingers closer and closer together to deepen the asana, and improve your flexibility and mobility within the posture.
3 Yoga Poses With Binds
You’re ready to try some common yoga poses that ask you to bind. As with everything in yoga, there’s no rush. Work toward the bind rather than force it.
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
Begin seated with both legs stretched out straight in front of you. Bring your right foot to the outside of your left hip. Place your right leg on top so your knees are more or less stacked on top of one another and your left foot rests near your right hip. Check to make sure that both of your sits bones are on the ground. If not, consider placing a blanket beneath your hips or placing a block below the hip that’s popping up.
Once you’re seated comfortably, bring your right hand up and over your right shoulder to pat yourself on the back. This will naturally cause you to externally rotate the shoulder. Walk your hand between your shoulder blades as much as possible. If you already know that you will need a strap, go ahead and hold the strap in the right hand.
Place your left hand behind your back and feel your shoulder internally rotate. With the palm facing out, slowly walk the left hand up to meet the right hand or the strap. Relax your shoulders and feel the opening across your chest.
To come out of the pose, gently release both the arms and legs. Come back into staff pose and switch sides.
Baddha Utthita Parsvakonasana (Bound Side Angle Pose)
Begin standing at the front of your mat with your arms alongside your body in Tadasana.
Step your left leg back and angle your foot so it’s horizontal to the short side of the mat. Your front heel should align with the arch of the back foot. Bend your right knee until it’s directly above your right ankle. Balance your weight evenly between your feet.
Lift your arms to shoulder height with the palms facing down. Relax your shoulders away from your ears and find yourself in Warrior 2 Pose. Lower your right forearm to your right thigh and extend your left arm alongside your ear. After a few breaths, move your right hand to a block or the floor.
Bend your left elbow, reaching your arm behind your back, palm facing away from you in external rotation. Stay here for a half bind or, for a full bind, reach your right hand beneath your right thigh in internal rotation. Wrap your left index and thumb around your right wrist or hold a strap, towel, or belt between your hands. Start to turn your chest toward the ceiling. Breathe.
To come out of the pose, gently release the bind and unwind your arms. Step your left foot forward and return to tadasana before you repeat on the opposite side.
Prasarita Padottanasana C (Bound Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold)
Begin standing at the front of your mat with your arms alongside your body in Tadasana. Step your left leg back about 4 to 5 feet. Turn to face the left long side of the mat and bring point your toes in slightly. Clasp your hands behind your back. Both of your shoulders will be externally rotating.
Bend your knees slightly and fold forward, bringing your clasped hands up and over your head. Relax your neck and let your head hang. Keep your knees bent as much as you need to prevent strain in your hamstrings or back.
When you’re ready to come out of the pose, slowly rise, unclasp the hands, and step back into Tadasana.
This content was originally published here.