Yoga classes that use a lot of props, mainly restorative style ones, have always reminded me of suddenly being upgraded on a flight, from economy class to business…lol
You close your eyes and as your back melts into the big cushy bolster underneath, you rest your head on a block, and your knees, on multiple rolled up blankets. You ask for extra cushions for your arms to rest on, and another blanket to cover yourself with… and then a few seconds later, a lavender scented rice pillow is placed on your eyes…you feel so relaxed, so spoiled and so pampered… and you wonder in that state of absolute bliss, whether you could switch all those torturous power yoga, ashtanga or fitness classes in your monthly plan, for more of these lazy and cozy sessions. After all, Mc Gregor’s Theory X which suggests humans are lazy by nature, does ring to be true “here and now”. And if we are lazy by nature, and yoga is about being true to your nature, then why in the heck do you need vigorous exercise at all? Ahh, it all finally makes sense. Finally, you have figured it out! You will just lie on top of cushions all day long. Not that I am sharing my daily inner dialogue with you…lol
And although being able to relax, is definitely one of the reasons behind props, when B.K.S. Iyengar, aka, “the father of modern yoga” first introduced them in his teachings, it was to help students find their ideal body alignment and stability in a given posture. These mainly include bolsters, blocks, straps, blankets, cushions and chairs, that are nowadays widely used in other yoga styles too, apart from Iyengar.
Even in the more vigorous and active, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which traditionally frowned upon the use of props, many modern day reputable teachers do encourage their use, especially when it comes to supporting the beginners’ experience in class. Therefore when it comes to yoga postures, we have to come back to the very basic advice from Patanjali’s yoga sutras, stating that “Posture should be steady and comfortable” (In Sanskrit: Sthira Sukham Asanam).
So how do we apply this principle to prop use in our regular modern day practice?
Whether you are practicing at home on your own, taking online classes, or in a studio, here are some simple guidelines for using props that I use in my own practice, and with my students.
A prop is normally used to:
1. Enhance your experience in a posture
This means, you should still be using your own strength and effort, and feel stable and comfortable in the posture, but the prop may give you that little extra stabilizing support. However, the prop is not there to replace your effort. This is where you need to be careful to not get into lazy mode, and just sort of passively chill into the prop, as opposed to engaging your muscles and being fully present.
I’ll give you one example that often shows up in class. You grab a strap to go deeper into a forward bend, but you don’t really engage your core, align your pelvis, nor lengthen from your lower back. Instead , as compensation for not doing the former, you end up compressing the neck, rounding the back and reinforcing a poor posture, while using a prop that is supposed to help you do the exercise correctly.
Therefore, in order to avoid this, before folding forward, you want to first lengthen through the lumbar spine, open the chest, relax the shoulders, and breathe fluidly. While maintaining integrity with your own effort, you simultaneously fold forward with the help of the strap, and even bend your knees slightly if it feels more comfortable.
Remember, progress in yoga doesn’t have to be visible from miles away, rather, it’s more about millimetric lengthening and refined inner movement, that only you can feel. And also, instead of forcing yourself into a perfect asana (not a great term I know, as there really isn’t one, but let’s say it’s a general idea of what an ideal version of a posture should be), which is unattainable for many folks due to their constitution or a certain condition, think about your intention. Bottom line, props are not the objective, but a means to reach a certain postural experience. On the other hand, don’t feel any less if your teacher suggests you use a block or strap in a dynamic style class such as an Ashtanga Vinyasa or Power Vinyasa for example, as using these won’t make you a worse yoga practitioner. I love using props for different reasons, and at different times
2. Help you stay in a posture for more time with less effort
In this case, props are used to help you passively stay in a posture for a longer time without feeling discomfort, typically in a restorative class or, as part of a relaxation sequence at the end of a more dynamic class. Passive stretching with the support of foam rollers, blocks, tennis balls, bolsters and cushions can do wonders for myofascial release. If you spend a long time sitting at your desk, in the car, and feel really tight and tense, the use of props can help you target problematic body areas, and help you relax and breathe better. Below is one of my favourite restorative setups that I usually add in at the end of a more vigorous practice, or on days I just feel like taking it easy.
If you need more personalized support and have any questions, feel free to reach out to me.