I’d like to talk about using props in yoga practice.
I have noticed that some newer students, and even more seasoned yogis, are sometimes bashful about using props in their yoga practice. They might think that to use a block or strap is to display inexperience with a pose, inability or weakness. Early in my practice, I too had the “I’m fine, I can do it myself, I don’t need props” attitude. The truth is that props have nothing to do with inadequacy or a lack of experience. The use of props can help build your practice in several ways: understanding your anatomy, exploring alignment principles, building strength and balance, and honestly accepting where you are right now in your yoga practice.
I use props often, but not in ways other people might expect. At times I use them to train my legs to stay strong during back bends or inversions (like a headstand) by placing a block between my upper inner thighs and squeezing it. Or I’ll do backbends over a large ball or chair. The added support allows me to investigate the pose and refine my breath.
Most people can benefit from using props at some point in their life to train them to be strong and honest in their practice. In many ways, anatomy is destiny with yoga. Some body proportions can bring challenges to certain postures. Props can “level the playing field” and help us achieve better balance and ease rather than compensating, which leads to strain and over work.
It is important to note, however, that props should not be used as a crutch. Relying too heavily on a block or strap to complete a pose can hinder our real progress. I can’t stress enough, especially to newer students, that it takes a lot of work and a lot of physical strength to establish and then keep a practice going for a lifetime. Props are not just for older or weaker people. They are very useful tools for everyone! All the advanced yogis I have ever known make great use of props and bodywork to help them open their stiff spots and relax their tight spots.
It is so easy to cheat or compensate in yoga, so the wise use of props is really the only way I know to stay honest in a practice. “Cheating” leads to imbalance and injury because we never really know when we are overcompensating or slightly out of alignment. Even an expert teacher cannot watch us every second during our practice. If we don’t learn to do the asana with an understanding of alignment, it can eventually lead to strain and injury. Your instructor will help you as much as he or she can, but in a class of 10 students or more, it just isn’t possible for your teacher to watch everyone equally all the time.
If you are a yogi that doesn’t know how to use props and your instructor doesn’t explain it during class, you might want to investigate and seek out an alignment based teacher in a more fully equipped studio. It is good to be informed about all the possibilities that exist for learning this great art. If you are an instructor, don’t assume that your students will grab a block when they need one – and don’t wait for the challenging poses to start explaining it. If the studio you teach at doesn’t supply blocks and straps for everyone, that would be a very good investment for the owner to consider. Blankets and chairs are a real plus and a godsend if the studio can afford to purchase and store them.
Honesty, or Satya, is one of the Yamas, or ethical guidelines of Yoga. Be honest with yourself about what is going on in you body and don’t be ashamed of or afraid of knowing about your limitations. We all have limits! Some people are more bendy than others, some are stronger, but we all have places where we need to grow. It’s okay to get a bit of help from a block, a strap, a wall when you need it- even from another human being. It is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of intelligence.
(Restorative yoga – Props are used extensively in restorative yoga. We’ll talk in detail about that in another post)