Why do so many yoga students shun props? Once, a majority of asana classes were Iyengar-influenced, and teachers emphasized using props—blankets, blocks, straps, etc.—to help students shift poor alignment habits, develop strength and awareness, and experience asanas more deeply. Recently, however, vinyasa flow classes have dominated the studio scene, and pausing for props is awkward during a light, quick practice. Plus, a room cluttered with blocks and blankets can be hazardous. But if that’s led you to think “I don’t need to use props,” think again. Here’s what’s in it for you:
1. More openness and freedom. Got short hamstrings? Yeah, me too. In many asanas, my hamstrings hold me back like reins, tempting me to fight back by rounding the spine and collapsing the front body, which in turn shortens the breath. But add a folded blanket underneath the hips in seated forward bends, and the spine—and breath—can stay lengthened while entering the pose. Do this, and over time you can reduce the height of the blanket, stretching the hamstrings gradually. Too slow, you say? Not compared to healing a hamstring tear or a strained back. (Preventing injuries is another good reason to use props.)
2. Greater stability and strength. Daily activities—sitting, walking, reaching forward—tend to overemphasize certain muscles while neglecting others. When the muscles needed to anchor an asana aren’t strong enough, there’s a tendency to compensate by straining or struggling. For example, if the hip muscles aren’t able to stabilize the pelvis in Vrikshasana (Tree Pose), we might torque the base of the spine or hyperextend the knee of the standing leg, triggering an anatomical “train wreck” as other muscles and joints follow the misalignment. Rather than reinforcing bad alignment habits in order to balance, touch a wall or hold the back of a chair, then focus on developing the muscle memory (proprioception) and strength needed for stable alignment.
3. Delicious rejuvenation. If you’ve ever been injured, ill, or just plain tired, you know how tempting it can be to skip daily asana practice because it “takes too much energy.” With blankets and bolsters to support poses, Restorative Yoga can give (not deplete) energy. Even something as effortless as lying back on a rolled towel or a bolster during pranayama can recharge your inner batteries. (Learning how to receive or how to practice self-kindness, for many of us, is a lesson in itself.)
4. Keener self-awareness. “One size fits all” is a lie when it comes to yoga pants, and it’s not true for asana, either. Proportion, bone structure, strength, flexibility, and other factors vary from person to person, but all too often, we try to match our asanas to the teacher’s because that’s the “right way.” Except that it’s not. How an asana feels, not how it looks, is a better guide. Experimenting with props can help you learn to recognize the inner cues that tell you when something doesn’t fit and why. Wonky hips in Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose)? Try a folded blanket under the low hip. Struggling to breathe deeply in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)? Place the hand on a chair instead of the floor so that you can open both sides of the ribcage.
5. Sharper concentration. When a prop can free us from the distracting struggle to overcome short hamstrings or other challenges, then the mind can become one-pointed. This is essential during seated meditation poses, and lifting the pelvis by sitting on a folded blanket or a meditation cushion means that the back muscles won’t have to overwork to support the pose. Props can help us reach a state of focused awareness in many other asanas as well.
Your teacher can show you how to adjust poses using props, but if your favorite class isn’t prop-appropriate, use them at home to deepen your practice. Sofa cushions can stand in for bolsters, belts or ties for yoga straps. A sturdy chair can be useful for everything from standing poses to backbends to Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). The best prop of all, a firm blanket, can be folded or rolled into different heights. Be like Goldilocks—sometimes you may need to experiment with more or less support until you find a place that’s “just right.”
What’s your favorite prop solution?