There are many yoga practitioners out there who feel that they have moved beyond props. You may know them or you may have seen them before, stretching to the point of strain, holding a posture with chronic misalignment, or muscling themselves into postures like Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle) with much contortion and shortness of breath. There are countless times I have been in a class where I’ve seen other students refusing the offer of blocks to support a pose, and often they end up rounding the spine or bending and twisting into awkward, unnatural positions. Some may guffaw at props, stating that ancient yogis didn’t have such luxuries to practice with. But documentation of using props in asana practice goes back to at least 1200 in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. So props may not be as modern an invention as one might imagine.
Some just don’t know any better. Many suffer from an inherent believe in the ladder system that is so omnipresent in our modern culture... a system of climbing, of surmounting levels and ending up at a certain point, or attaining a specific, definitive goal. Perhaps these are the same people who groan at the thought of swimsuit shopping, or ask questions like, “How fast is your mile?” or “How much can you bench press?” Granted, most of us have the tendency to be this person at times, and the pressure of a fast paced society and having very strict, narrow definitions of what defines physical beauty do not help much. I admittedly am guilty of being in Ashtanga class and pushing it too hard. Unsafely, I would come forward in Ardha Baddha Padmotanasana (Standing Half Bound Lotus), for example, just because my arms are long enough to reach the bind on the big toe, and then the floor upon bending forward. How many times have I done that posture, restraining from grimacing, just because I could do it? It never felt good on my knees, but I did it anyway. It is only recently that I realized that I am not impressing anyone, and I have resolved myself to keeping upright in this posture. My shoulders stack over my hips, and my knee dangles happily towards the floor, free from strain.
I honestly feel that yoga asana class, while a wonderful place to sweat and build strength, is also an opportunity for us to be gentle with ourselves, to grow without pressure. There are yogis who can contort into numerous positions, yes, but also yogis who are 200 plus pounds, who are in their nineties, or who suffer from a wide array of injuries and limitations. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. It can be refreshing to rediscover the humbleness of your yoga practice, and to see if a new release or opening can come from backing a little bit out of postures, or coming into them in a more slow, gentle way.
Take Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), for example. There are many students who lean too far to land the hand on the floor, throwing the knees out of alignment and bringing the hips up higher than the shoulders. This can lead to a slight stress in the knee, lower back, and hamstring, and perhaps worse of all, can force the practitioner to miss out on the lovely twist and stretch. All of this could be abated with the assistance of the lower hand resting on a block on any of its three settings.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know when it is appropriate for one’s body to use the aid of a block. When in doubt, it can never hurt to try one. Understanding the way misalignment feels can be very difficult, especially when you find yourself in a posture that requires balancing with the limbs extended in the air. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) is this kind of posture, which is inaccessible to many without the use of a block under the supporting hand. The full expression of the pose involves the gaze spinning up to the ceiling, with one leg and arm fully extended outwards and upwards, the others grounded on the floor with the foot turned out ninety degrees. I was only able to attain this pose without a block after many years of taking that block with me to the floor under the supporting hand. The block assisted in my body opening up and becoming used to the different points of stretch in the pose for the first two hundred or so times I practiced it. If I hadn’t had the patience of practicing with a block, I likely would still have my standing knee bent, standing foot turned in, and my hip completely collapsed in Ardha Chandrasana.
More gentle and less obvious props can also be distinctly helpful. A rolled up blanket under the knees in Balasana (Child’s Pose) can bring a great amount of relief to people with lower back and hip injury. Placing a folded blanket under your hips in any seated posture with the legs extended (Dandasana/ Staff Pose, Paschimottanasana/ Seated Forward Bend, Ardha Matsyendrasana/ Seated Half Twist, for example), can give that little bit of lift in the hips to ground more fully in the sit bones and prevent the lower back from rounding. Blankets can also go under the knees in any weight bearing posture for cushioning. For those with neck injuries, supporting the shoulders in Shalamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) with a folded blanket is an essential prop to assist with a gentle arch in the neck, preventing compression. Come Savasana (Relaxation Pose) time, the blanket can be unfolded and donned, providing that extra layer of insulation and averting the body from cooling down too fast.
Perhaps the most underused but most divine prop is that of a bolster. Bolsters are about torso length with the perfect balance of softness and firmness. If bolsters aren’t available, pillows can work as a great substitute. Bolsters can go under the knees in Savasana, under the spine in Matsyasana (Fish Pose), under the hips in Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall), or under the knee and arm in Ayurvedic Lie Down Posture (reclined on the left side of the body). Restorative yoga is all about using bolsters, blocks, straps, blankets, and pillows to bring the body into a deep relaxation. It is usually during a restorative class where bolsters are used. To try a propped restorative posture yourself, sit it Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) with a big pile of pillows stacked behind you, and one to either side of your knees. Take a strap, belt, or tie, and affix it around your waist, over your knees, and under your ankles. From here, let the inner thighs relax. Prop each knee with a pillow and then lean back until you are comfortable on the pillows behind you. Close your eyes and sit for at least five minutes and see how lovely props can make you feel.
Props can be essential when working towards more advanced postures and vinyasas as well. A block under the forehead can help ease a fear of falling forward in Bakasana (Crane Pose) for example. For some who can fold all the way forward in Paschimottanasana, taking a block at the feet and reaching the hands to grip the block can allow the spine to lengthen that much more. In Ashtanga class, I use blocks under my hands to practice jumping from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) to Dandasana (Staff Pose). Someday, maybe, the practice of this repetitive action will help me build enough core strength to execute this motion without the use of props. But every time I practice it, I strive to become unattached to that idea.
For many of us, in our first yoga class we were taught Child’s Pose and asked if we had any injuries. This basic introduction to yoga is meant to be gentle and to honor the body of a beginner. It is important as we progress in our practice to not let that notion of where we think we ought to be dictate and direct our movement. It is imperative to keep the ‘beginner’s mind’ while practicing, to really tune in and notice when the body is crying out. If we ignore the messages that the body tells us and continue beyond our limit, we are allowing the ego to dominate the practice and are therefore no longer practicing yoga.
By Shanti Caiazzo