For many people the idea of using props feels like cheating or something you only use for restorative yoga but not me....I'm a big fan of using props.
There are so many ways you can use props, lots of reasons you may want to and a whole range of different benefits and experiences to be had. So if you are or have been someone who has never really used props or even thought about them read on and maybe you’ll be inspired to start playing with a brick and a strap (or whatever you can improvise with).
Starting Out With A Pose For The First Time
There might be a pose that you want to try but something is stopping you. It could be that you don’t know how to get into it - and I’m not talking fancy Instagram-poses here, I’m talking about any and all postures. Maybe you have an injury or condition that you need to be mindful of. Maybe it’s fear of falling or maybe you’re a beginner when it comes to a specific pose or the whole practice, and you want or need, to take your time building up. And if you don’t like thinking of yourself as a beginner because yoga is easy...it’s just stretching right?, let’s remember that one of the lessons we strive to learn in yoga is to let go of our ego and meet ourselves where we are, not where we want to be. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to do something, it can be really fun to try things and understand that some things may be easier than others and to accept that some things require prolonged effort and practice, and there may be some simple poses that may never be completely accessible to us (have you seen my standing forward folds??).
Maybe you really want to try Crow but you are scared about falling on your face and that's stopping you from giving it a go. There are lots of ways you can use props in Crow both to start and progress the pose but let’s start with overcoming a fear of falling.
Something under the head to remove or reduce that fear might be all you need to get started. You could start with blocks stacked so that you can rest your forehead on them to start experiencing the feeling of taking your weight forward and initially coming on to your toes. Then you could start lifting one foot off the floor, then both feet. Then you could swap the stack of blocks for a bolster so you practice shifting the weight forward without resting your head on anything but with the reassurance that if you overbalance you’ll end up on something soft.
Once you’ve overcome that initial blocker you can start thinking about the other elements of the pose; what goes where, how you start to shift the weight, what you engage, what you relax and so on. Even if you always practice with a blanket under your head and never quite build up to moving it, so what? If it means you’re able to try the pose it’s a win in my book (but you know I’ll always try and nudge you towards trying it without the blanket just the once).
Or perhaps you are recovering from an ankle injury and you want to start strengthening your ankles to avoid future injury and you have decided that Tree is the pose you would like to try but you’re not sure how your ankle will respond initially and your balance isn’t great. You could stand side onto a wall and start with fingertips touching the wall so that you can support yourself if you need to and reduce the load on your ankle and then as it starts to strengthen you can gradually move away.
Progressing In A Pose
There are probably poses that you do where you just can’t get past a certain point. Of course there may be reasons that any number of props won’t help with; you might need to work on strength or mobility or maybe your body just isn’t suited to a pose but props can be an incredibly useful way of exploring progressions in your practice.
Let’s say you’ve started to practice Wheel and you’re struggling to press up off the floor. You can use bricks angled against the wall to help make it a little easier so you can get up into the pose, possibly reduce compression in the back, see what it feels like and build strength in the pose rather than spending all of your time trying to lift up and getting increasingly frustrated.
Or let’s say you want to work on dropping back into Wheel from a standing position but just don’t know how to get started. If you stand with your back to a wall and start to walk your hands down the wall to come into the posture, it completely changes how it feels versus pressing up into the pose. Trying this can start to build your confidence and experience without feeling that you just have to throw caution to the wind and drop back without having an idea of how it is going to feel or if you can do it.
There might be poses that are really easy for you. If you have relatively long arms and find a Seated Forward Fold really accessible and you don't get anything physical from the pose then putting a block against the soles of your feet effectively lengthens your legs and will deepen the pose for you.
Changing A Pose For A Different Experience
There are number of reasons you might want to change a pose; maybe it doesn’t work for your body type but you still want to practice it as you get a mental or spiritual benefit from it, maybe you’d like to change it from a pose that requires effort to a more easeful pose or maybe you’d like to change the focus of the pose to experience it in a different physical way.
If you are feeling discombobulated and crave a feeling of grounding then standing on a brick to practice a balancing pose like Tree might be just what you need. Tree is already a pose that can calm a busy mind, by standing on a brick you’ll be more aware of the micro movements that you automatically make in the ankle to keep you upright and balanced which may increase your awareness of your connection to the Earth and amplify feelings of comfort and connection.
Even if Tree is a new pose for you and you’re using the wall to provide that bit of extra support that I’ve already talked about you can still stand on a brick and get the support AND experience the micro-movements in the ankle.
And if you close your eyes you'll REALLY feel that ankle work.
Or it could be that you really want to focus on the twist in a pose like Revolved Triangle but your biggest challenge is getting your hand on the floor without falling over and consequently you never get to think about the twist. If you rest your hand on a block or a brick you might find you have more space and stability to concentrate on rotating your rib cage and torso to allow you to focus on a different specific element of the pose. Get the twist then maybe focus on the fold to get the hand to the floor.
And of course props can be used to make active poses passive, removing all muscular effort, translating them into restorative poses or poses that you can hold for much longer to
allow the soft tissue to yield and encourage flexibility. An example is Reclined Bound Angle pose where you are on your back, soles of the feet together, knees out to the side. If the muscles on the inside of your legs are particularly tight this might be a really uncomfortable position for you and one where you find you get more tense as your body tries to protect your muscles from overstretching. Using padding in the form of blankets, bricks or blocks under your knees sends a message to your central nervous system that you are supported which allows your muscles to relax and slowly you’ll start to go a little deeper and the knees will fall a little lower.
So if you’ve always been a prop-avoider why not give them a go and see how you get on?
Having said all that, if you don’t want to use props for whatever reason, then don’t.
At the end of the day it’s your practice. And remember it is a practice, we might talk about ‘doing yoga’ but yoga is something that we are always practicing and our practice varies from one day to the next and therefore what it looks like and how we approach it should vary too.
Head over to my Workshop page to see details of my upcoming 'For The Love Of Props' Workshop on the 14th November 2020.