To Prop or Not to Prop?

The use of props in yoga is the the subject of much discussion.  Is it ‘cheating’ to use props to get you into a posture?  Should you keep practising without props until you have fully mastered the posture?

There are some schools/styles of yoga where props are not available, students are required to persevere, finding their way into postures without the props.  In other schools/styles of yoga props are actively encouraged and even required. 

Students also have their own views on whether they should or shouldn’t be using props – irrespective of the teacher’s suggestions or invitations to utilise a block or a brick many students press on without, feeling that they are not doing the posture properly if they need to use a prop.  In my view, a prop is no different to receiving an adjustment from a teacher.  It allows you to get deeper into a posture, offers another foundation for support, provides comfort, allows you to find space and openness and allows some postures to become more accessible, or even just accessible.   

Yoga practice is just that – practice.  Which means repeating things over and over again until you have them mastered.  That might require the use of props and adjustments in the beginning so that your body can ‘feel’ the posture and create the muscle memory for future.   As you progress with your practice you can gradually move away from the prop, for some postures, however, you might always need that block/brick/strap to get you there.  We all have different body proportions and so what is right for one person doesn’t work for another so it’s good to experiment.  If you have short arms relative to your torso sitting in dandasana with your hands by your hips is impossible without slouching down, losing the integrity of the posture, and it will always be the case unless you can get your arms to grow!

And, just because we’ve mastered a posture it doesn’t mean we should ditch the props.  Our bodies change over time – for example pregnancy, injuries, ageing, losing/gaining weight – which might change our yoga practice and mean props becomes necessary, possibly temporarily or longer term. 

Even if you don’t feel you need to use a prop access a posture it can be nice to to take a step back from time to time and see what happens when you use a prop. You may create more space in the body for the posture, find something new and different in your practice.  Always consider what your reason is for using the prop.  Is it to create space? Is it to make the posture accessible? Is it to get additional depth? Is it to correct alignment? If you are using the prop as an aid to make the posture accessible and to feel the posture in the body make sure you gradually move away from using the props as your body becomes more flexible and you become more confident in your ability.

So what are we talking about when it comes to props and how can they be used?

Foam blocks and bricks, belts and straps, bolsters and cushions, walls, headstand aids, wheels……

Foam Blocks and Bricks

You’ll find these in most studios and they are incredibly versatile. 

The flatter blocks can be used to level the hips in postures such as Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One footed Pigeon); to tilt the pelvis slightly in Paschimotanasana (seated forward fold) particularly where students have tight hamstrings; to rest the elbows in Utthan Pristhasana (lizard) releasing tension from the body where it’s not required.  The blocks can also be stacked and sometimes one just isn’t enough!  For some students in Tiryang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimotanasana – placing a block/blocks under the buttock of the straight leg to take pressure off the knees can move the posture from being inaccessible to accessible.

The sturdier bricks offer a stable foundation for a number of postures, bringing the ground up to meet the student or offering an additional ‘leg’ of support.  Particularly useful for Trikonasana (triangle) raising the ground up and allowing more openness through the chest and space between the hip and the waist; Providing additional stability in Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle); Similarly providing support, space and bringing the ground up in Parsvakonasana (Side angle).  A particular favourite is placing the brick under the sacrum in Setu Bandha (bridge) to provide more openness through the chest.  Bricks are also helpful for balance postures such as Ardha Chandrasana (half moon), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) by offering an additional ‘leg’ of stability while you gain confidence in the balance.

Belts/Straps

Belts/straps can be a bit more fiddly to use than other props.  As with bricks and blocks they are great for getting deeper into a posture or making a posture accessible, providing some additional support.

Consider using in Padangusthasana (standing hand to big toe) and Supta Padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe) to allow the leg to straighten without curing through the spine: Natarajasana (Dancers pose) hooked around the raised foot to draw the foot towards the head. If using in standing postures make sure to release your hold on the strap if you feel you are losing your balance – it makes for less injuries if you do fall!

Straps also give you something to hold onto in postures when you can’t quite reach such as Gomukhasana (cow face pose) and can assist in getting into bound postures.  Also useful around the tops of the arms to bring them closer together in Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) especially if they tend to veer out to the sides –  you might need some help in getting into the posture once your arms are bound together!

Bolsters and Cushions

A requirement for any restorative yoga practice to support the body and allow it to release tension.  Bolsters can be used for restorative forward folds giving something for the torso to rest on and are great for supporting the back in reclined postures – pop one length ways along the spine for a supported Matsyasana (fish) or Supta Badha Konasana (reclined bound angle).  Placing a bolster behind the knees in Savasana can reduce pressure on the lower back.

Cushions also provide additional padding for under knees which many students require in kneeling postures.

Walls

Walls are great for any balancing postures (standing/handstands/headstands) initially when trying to get into the posture.  Having a wall behind you can allow you to move into the posture without fear of falling over, even more so if you have balance issues.  As you become more confident in the posture and the body remembers it you can gradually start to move away from the wall.

A wall can also provide support for the legs in restorative postures such as legs up the wall, it can provide something to push against in Urdvha Dhanurasana (upward facing bow)

Headstand Aids

If you haven’t come across these they are like a cushioned stool with a space to place your head. Your shoulders are supported and you can move into the inversion without pressure on the head.

Yoga Wheels

Also called dharma wheels.  The wheel can be used for backbends like kapotasana (full pigeon) where the back is arched over the wheel; hanumanasana (monkey pose) by placing the front leg on the wheel you can roll the wheel forward and ease into the posture

Teaching with Props

If you are a yoga teacher getting students to utilise props can sometimes be challenging.  Some students think that they aren’t doing the posture correctly if they need to use props and so will compromise the posture.  Even more so if they are the only one in the class that’s using a prop.  No matter how many times you invite them to use a prop and offer suggestions!

Some ways to encourage students to use props:

  • Consider what it is you want the students to gain from the posture – depth, foundation, space.  Make a mini workshop out of it for example “this week we are looking at creating space”.
  • Get the students to do the posture with and without the prop and see what differences they feel in their own bodies.  This is a great way to empower students to make their own choice in future as to whether they want to use a prop or not
  • Use the prop as you teach the posture.  If students see you using the prop they are often more likely to follow your lead than when you offer it as a suggestion or invitation.

Most importantly, have fun & experiment!