So if you’ve done any yoga at all, you’re probably already familiar with the idea of props—those blocks, straps, bolsters and blankets that help our bodies go where they may not be ready (or built) to go.
I find that students in my classes are often reticent to include props in their practice, that somehow the use of them is an admission to not being enough (flexible enough, practiced enough, strong enough, etc). Ironically, the free use of props in practice (and knowing when you need them) is a sign of flexibility—in the mind.
Self-consciousness around the use of a block or a strap to get more fully into a pose is no more than an issue of pride. And when you break down that emotion, what is pride? It’s fear—fear of not being accepted, fear of being judged, fear that you’re someplace you don’t belong. To dissect this further, what is fear?
Well, it’s what we keep coming back to again and again—the ego.
It’s that little voice rearing up telling you that you’re just not good enough. And, really, I think that eradicating our servitude to this little nagging voice that seeks to sabotage us at every turn is the true goal of yoga. Who cares if you do yoga for years and years and still can’t touch your toes in Uttanasana (standing forward bend)? As long as you can be happy that you’ve got the time to stand around, forward folding, that you’re awake and aware enough to enjoy the sensation of movement, that you took the time to appreciate the way your neck releases in the inversion, or the way your toes look from this perspective, then you are already an accomplished yogi; if you aren’t focusing on what you can’t do, but what you can and are doing, then you are doing yoga.
Some of my best moments as a teacher come when I introduce a student to the use of props.
Suddenly, a pose they were struggling with, using every ounce of their strength to stay in, suddenly becomes effortless. Their bodies slip into the correct positioning, and they feel the delicious release of yoga asana (posture). The hips suddenly open, or the spine twists, or, with the help of a block, they can touch the ground in Prasarita Padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend), feeling the opening in the hamstrings and the back of the neck.
I mean, hey, I have short arms. I’ve been studying yoga for 15 years and I still need a block to assist me in Tolasana (scale pose–and a good photo of using blocks in this pose here). There are some poses, due to the nature of my bones, my height, my build, that I will always need props for. Without them, I’d never get to feel the full expression of these poses and that is the real tragedy of a prop-less practice.
So, props in yoga=good. Props in life=bad? Well, yes and no.
Props (or, I suppose, we could call them ‘vices’) in any context are used to help us to adapt, to adjust to a particular situation so that we can get the most out of a particular experience. But when you think about props such as alcohol, drugs, codependency then you can see how they get a bum rap. But are all vices all bad? I’m going to go out on a controversial limb here and say no (that’s a no with some qualifiers, mind you, but a no nonetheless).
Have you ever noticed that when you have a terrible day or something truly tragic happens in your life the first thing, in general, you want to do is one of the following: eat, drink, smoke, or sleep, depending on your personal preference. The reason we have these desires is because we need something to soften the shock, to keep a buffer between our core and the external experience.
And I think this is okay (to an extent). Of course, one of the benefits of yoga is learning about the bag of tools you already possess in the form of breath, asana and meditation. But we aren’t all at the point where those tools are available to us and, until we are, sometimes a form of external buffering might be exactly what we need.
Alcohol and drugs, when used moderately and responsibly, have the ability to soften reality. Occasionally they help us to see the bigger picture (much like meditation does). Now, these aren’t solutions to our problems, obviously, and when their use becomes a constant, numbing crutch, then we have a situation that needs to be dealt with. But when they are used as a brief coping mechanism, I don’t think we should judge ourselves for resorting to their use.
If we are serious about self improvement, then we will find our way around these props and, through yoga, find cleaner, purer ways to cope with adversity.
Hey, I’ll make an admission. I have props of my own for when things get sticky. Yes, I try meditation and asana practice first, but on occasion I need something external, something comforting. Once upon a time, this was cigarettes and now it’s the occasional drink or food binge (chocolate, mostly). As I go further and further into yoga, this kind of coping mechanism admittedly leaves me feeling unwell and unfulfilled.
When I’m honest with myself, I admit that what I truly need isn’t a form of comfort I can ingest, but a form of comfort that already exists within. Enter meditation and yoga, breathing and long walks.
But we all know about the benefits of a mindfulness practice.
We all know that that’s where we should retreat to in times of stress. And, yes, over time, this works. But even the so-called ‘accomplished’ yogini can still find herself in need of external soothing. And much like how the use of props in yoga triggers pride issues, trust me, being a yoga teacher (and all the ego stuff that role entails) and finding yourself in desperate need of a cigarette for the first time in years, and then smoking said cigarette, triggers them all the more (read: failure).
But, seriously, why do we judge ourselves so harshly when we backslide into old habits?
I think, really, props are tethers—they are lifelines which keep us from going over the edge and, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else, they can be a tool for self-exploration and self-comfort. It’s when we hide in our props, use them to numb our experience rather than deal with our experience, that we find ourselves in trouble.
And, as always, this is a practice in non-judgment. You never know why a particular person needs a particular habit or vice; you can’t possibly know what anyone else is dealing with. All you can do is face each day the best way you know how and as long as you’re acknowledging a breath or two during the day or making one better choice for yourself, then you’re on your path—one foot in front of the other.
Amy Jirsa is a writer, wanderer, yoga instructor and master herbalist. She makes her home at her studio, Quiet Earth Yoga, in Lincoln, Nebraska and on her blog. And if that’s not enough, you can also find her at Twitter @QuietEarthYoga or on Facebook (Quiet Earth Yoga).
Editor: Tanya L. Markul