In January, I wrote a short piece on including yoga props as part of one’s practice in order to access or go deeper into certain postures which otherwise would be extremely challenging for some of us. Below is an extract of the same:
“While props did not initially feature in a traditional yoga practice at the ashrams, over time the asana practice has evolved just as people’s bodies have undergone a significant change. A sedentary lifestyle, desk jobs and lots of digital consumption later our hips, hamstrings, lower back and neck/ shoulder area are left fairly vulnerable. Props are a great way to access postures that otherwise would be plain awkward if not impossible. Attempting them at any cost, a mindset which many practitioners adopt, is a major cause for injuries. Using props especially as a beginner practitioner is a safe and wonderful way to understand present body limitations and work towards overcoming them. I still use props for specific postures as they allow me much freedom to experience the asana without worrying about over-extending myself.”
I have lately received a few requests to discuss props in my writings and videos from a few students and practitioners. Hence in this piece, I will go a bit deeper into some of the most commonly used props, their significance and how to specifically use some of them in certain standing or seated postures. It is an urban reality that our bodies have now adjusted nicely to our work chairs and couches.
Research shows that many of us are spending 70% of our active waking hours sitting, working on our laptops or phones or engaged in some other sedentary activity.
We have lost connection with the ground beneath thanks to our elevated couches, chairs and desks. Traditional societies were deeply rooted to the earth. Families sat on the floor and ate their meals. A variety of seated postures were used for several different activities in everyday life that ensured we connected our sit bones at the base of our spine to the ground or at least not too far away from it. For example, squatting was a common way to sit as well as to eliminate waste. Sitting cross legged or on the heels was extensively used during meal-times in South Asia as well as the Far East.
As our lives got “elevated’, in more ways than one, our postures also naturally changed. And here many of us are now – with shorter and tighter muscles, tight hips, sensitive lower back and stiff neck.
Bearing the current physical limitations in mind, the yogic asana practice must also be open to adaptation. Props are a wonderful tool to experience different postures comfortably and three of the most significant benefits of using props are:
- Access to postures that we would otherwise be difficult to perform comfortably.
- Allows us to hold posture longer, with better alignment and safety.
- Helps mind become calmer and brings in a better focus on breath, once there is less struggle to maintain a posture.
However, I am of the opinion that one must wean off props slowly, in order to explore and challenge our body’s limitations as our practice develops. Use them intermittently by all means, especially in challenging backbends or inversions but also allow for the body to rely on its own strength and capabilities. This is one way to also find out how well you are progressing in your asana practice and improve confidence in one’s body.
While there are a variety of props being used especially in restorative and yin classes, let us look at four most widely used props in a regular yoga practice:
Blocks are one of the most widely used props in a regular hatha yoga practice. At a beginner level practice, where many practitioners experience compression and tightness in their muscles and joints, blocks provide immense support for creating more length in the muscles as well as in decompressing and stretching the spine to its maximum capacity in a safe and controlled way. This creates improved alignment, enables us to hold posture longer and thereby improves muscle strength.
Another extremely useful tool for those with stiff shoulders and upper back or tight calf muscles, hips and hamstrings. Straps can be used in many creative ways to lengthen and stretch various muscles, releasing deep tissue tension and helping blood flow and energy circulation throughout the body. They provide an effective way to explore range of movement for various muscles and joints, which otherwise would take longer to open up. Straps help many beginners to attempt challenging stretches in a safe and supported way.
I love using firm cushions or bolsters for various seated or supine postures. Sitting on a firm cushion or bolster offers elevation and great support to the spine, especially if our hips are very tight. Many people with such issues struggle sitting cross legged, hunching their backs, leading to severe discomfort in their hip joint, groin and inner thighs. Cushions can also be used to explore several other seated postures and those that involve hip openings. They are the cornerstone of a restorative or yin yoga practice.
This is my favourite prop. Comes at no extra cost and is super steady and reliant. The wall can be used in so many ways to stretch, strengthen as well as to balance. It is a versatile prop and probably the safest one to use for an inversion practice.
While there are many ways through which yogic postures can be explored and deepened, I will take you through two short sequences that will give you a better idea.
Watch: Standing Sequence
Watch: Seated Sequence
I wish you all a safe and smooth practice with your props!