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May 19, 2014

3 Things All Yogis Can Learn From Using Props. ~ Colin Hall

Yoga Props Blocks Breathe

In most yoga studios there is a shelf or two stacked with all kinds of wonderful little tools.

There is the standard collection of blankets, straps, bolsters, and blocks, and occasionally, there are ropes, dowels, chairs, sandbags, balls and pool noodles. Before my classes start, the question I hear most often is, “What props do we need?”

I remember teaching a class a few months ago where we were using chairs, wood bricks, straps, and blankets in triangle pose.

One student was visibly unimpressed with this sizable array of props. She would start using the props, but as the class progressed she started ignoring instructions more and more, and she began just practicing the pose the way she normally did. Not being one to make a scene, I quietly asked her why she didn’t want to use the props.

“I don’t need them… I’m pretty flexible already”

I am not about to stop a class and interrupt a group of people happily practicing in order to make a point.

I’ve seen teachers do this before, and it always feels a little awkward because it feels like the teacher transforms into this severe yoga nun chastising us for our yoga sins.

But, after class, I made a point of tracking this student down to explain why we were using all the props.

Some History

The use of props in yoga goes pretty far back.

In medieval India, yogis would suspend themselves from trees by using ropes to hang upside down.

Many of the props we use in contemporary yoga were development by BKS Iyengar. He was fairly unhealthy and inflexible when he started practicing yoga asanas, and so he could not easily pop himself in and out of the postures like his fellow student Pattabhi Jois.

Instead, Iyengar developed props that enabled him to work on postures that were otherwise inaccessible to him. Later, he developed even more props that enabled his students to work on  postures that would have been impossible for them otherwise.

This brings us to the reasons why we should use yoga props.

1.) Props Build Confidence

Yoga props enable us to do things.

Holding a headstand for twenty minutes requires a tremendous amount of strength and balance, but ropes and rings on the wall will help make that possible. Doing a backbend with the fulcrum at a precise point in your back requires a tremendous amount of awareness and mobility, yet back-bending over a chair helps to makes that possible.

When you do something that you have not done before, props opens up new worlds of possibility.

Yoga props are like bicycles that way.

When I was a kid my neighborhood seemed so huge. Traveling from my house to the water tower took a long time, so traveling from the water tower to the mall seemed impossible.

Until I got a bike.

What had been impossible soon became normal as the bike began to open up a new understanding of my neighborhood. Soon I started thinking about where else I could go, and I started to feel a sense of ownership and mastery of my “hood.” Next thing I knew I was out riding on the highway.

In yoga, our “hood” is our body, and props give us access to areas of our body that we would not normally visit.

2.) Props Help Us Expand Our Awareness

Which brings us to reason number two.

The increased confidence that arises from increased access is a side effect of expanded awareness.

The use of props creates subtle changes in the postures, which allows you the space to explore the posture further—exploration is the result of a curious mind seeking greater understanding.

For example, cultures and countries outside of our own are simply not in our awareness until we begin to learn about them. We can learn about other cultures through Google, books, or travel—but until we start that process we remain in the dark.

Exploring the postures through the use of props is like using different tools to more fully know our own bodies and the spaces that surround our bodies.

Props can make postures easier, but that is not the only reason we use them.

Holding a prop in your hand increases your awareness of your hand. Securing a strap to your thighs increases awareness of your thighs. By changing the postures using props, we can cultivate a more thorough and integrated understanding of the postures and of our bodies.

Simply put, we can expand our minds.

3.) Props Allow For Safer Travels

The confidence I built from exploring my neighborhood on my bike did not come without risk.

Playing in your backyard is safer than riding your bike on the highway, but who wants to stay in their backyard forever?

The trick is to enhance the benefits of exploration while minimizing the risk—in the case of the bike, road safety, good footwear, and a bike helmet are all ways to reduce the risks involved in exploration.

Similarly, the exploration of the body-mind in postural yoga practice is not without risk, and yoga props can provide us with a safer means of travel.

Shoulderstands are a perfect example.

A long hold in shoulderstand is an excellent opportunity to feel the effects of reversing gravity and re-learning how to support yourself and keep yourself upright. It builds phenomenal strength, endurance, and awareness, but it can also do real damage to your neck.

In Iyengar Yoga, a number of blankets are folded and placed under the shoulders to protect the neck in shoulderstand, because without the blankets, we can run into a number of dangerous situations.

Most likely, the chin-to-chest position together with your body weight pressing down on your head could cause an over-stretching of the ligaments in your neck, which is not that big of a deal—you’ll just be stiff and sore for a few days.

But a more serious situation arises if the sticky-outy spinous processes of our cervical vertebrae in our necks end up bearing all of our body weight on the floor. They are simply not designed to bear weight, and can fracture as a result. Broken neck. Kind of a big deal.

Alternatively, the pressure applied to the vertebrae could squeeze the intervertebral discs to such an extent that they rupture, or herniate, causing extreme neck/shoulder/arm pain, weakness, or numbness that often requires surgery.

In particularly rare cases, extreme neck flexion has even caused damage to the carotid artery, which runs through the cervical vertebrae and provides your brain with blood.

But rather than indulge in scare tactics about what could happen if you go for a yogic adventure, I suggest that you practice safe travels.

Use props to protect yourself and minimize the already somewhat marginal risk of injury in your yoga practice.

Bonus: Some Tips for Exercising Our “Proptions”

1.) Play a game of what happens when?

What happens when we strap our thighs together in mountain pose? What happens when we strap our shins? Our feet? Just try using different props on different limbs. We don’t play “what happens when” so that we can do it right, we play the game simply to explore the territory and expand your awareness.

2.) Always try new variations and prop uses that your teachers suggest with an open and playful attitude.

It might be the greatest thing you have ever done, and it might not even be helpful or useful to you in any way—but you might learn something, feel something, or experience something new.

3.) Be experimental. Our body is our lab.

We can try to use different pieces of furniture as an example. What postures can we do on a couch? How could we use a dining room table in yoga? How about kitchen counters?

4.) Think about what we want to achieve.

What part of our body do we want to mobilize or stretch? For Example, if we want more mobility in our shoulders, we should try using something under the spine other than a bolster— a rolled up yoga mat, a pool noodle, a rolled up blanket or creative combination of those props.

5.) Never rush a prop.

With props, its ok to take our time. Fidget a little. Adjust. Re-adjust. Sometimes we are two inches away from a really nice variation of a posture, but if we discard a prop because it doesn’t immediately feel good there is a good chance that we would miss some yoga magic!

6.) Stop thinking about props as crutches.

We are often limited by the belief that props are there for people who can’t do the real pose—this is nonsense. Props are tools that can be used like levels (the wall or the floor) or levers (bolsters). For example, tools are not for contractors who can’t just rely on their bare hands—every good contractor has a big collection of tools and knows how to use them.

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Apprentice Editor: Brandy Mansfield / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Amanda Hirsh/Flickr

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Colin Hall May 23, 2014 9:26am

Thanks Addie!

Addie at Bodhi Tree Pose May 22, 2014 9:35am

"Play 'what happens when'"…I love that! Great article.

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Collin Hall

Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has an M.A. in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.