who’s afraid of the big bad yoga props?

Since i fell and sprained my ankle almost two months ago, i have had to completely re-invent my yoga practice. Initially, i felt frustrated that i had to turn the intensity of my practice down – but it’s been an AMAZING experience to simplify my practice, to return to the origins of alignment, and discover how to re-align my body in asana (posture), literally from the ground up. A major part of that re-invention has been working with props. i have to admit: i have always enjoyed using props in my yoga practice. They help me to feel specific muscles activate, they give support to my body, and offer space for my joints- enabling me to find the lines of energy more clearly moving me toward healthy alignment and full body connection. As i have grown more and more in love with using props in my practice, i have simultaneously noticed students who are really hesitant and even opposed to using props… hence, this blog! My hope is to demystify the use of props- clarify how beneficial they can be- and hopefully, inspire any hesitant yogis out there to find a fresh perspective of using props in practice.

Why use props? What can they do for us?

Props can be excellent tools for building strength, creating awareness, and teaching muscles how to engage. Imagine (or do): take a strap (secured in a shoulder-width loop) around the forearms, just below the elbows. Then, imagine you want to “break the strap apart.” Press the forearms out into the strap, and feel the muscles of the upper arms firm in. Keep the chest broad, the shoulders rolling open. Can you feel how the muscles of the arms and upper back engage? Or… place a block between the inner thighs, and squeeze the block. Feel how the muscles of the legs engage, even as you try to lift the block up with the inner thighs…

There are many creative and fun ways to bring props into the practice. Not only to engage muscles, create stability and build strength- they are excellent tools for creating sensation and awareness. Even yogis with an advanced practice can benefit from getting in touch with specific muscles in action.

Props can give support and space to the body. Whether in a restorative or active posture, props can hold, support, give lift and create space. They create positive conditions for the body to respect areas of limitation or resistance, and to help us move toward healthy, optimal alignment- in which the body is open, and the lines of energy can clearly connect the entire physical form in harmonious balance.

For example, placing a block under a hand in a standing posture can lift someone out of constriction in their hips, give lightness to their pose, encourage space for their spine to lengthen- and create a more conducive environment for deep, refined breath. i took these pictures of my friend and yoga teacher, Szymon, at the Center for Yoga in Los Angeles. Szymon has a very beautiful, refined and advanced practice- and yet, notice the difference between these two images. Because he may have restriction in moving his hips to the side in Trikonasana (triangle pose), when he takes his hand to the floor, it forces the spine to round to the side. Notice in the image to the left how the bottom side of his torso is shorter. The ribs on the left side are constricted- this will make breathing more difficult. And if he tried to rotate his spine as in a twist (which we do when we turn the gaze to look up) this would be potentially injurious to the discs in his spine. In the picture to the right, Szymon is using a block- and by raising his bottom hand, notice the difference in his posture. When we lifted his bottom hand a little higher, this enabled him to respect the limitation of movement in his hips, and he was then able extend the spine more evenly on both sides. Can you see when Szymon used the block, the lines of energy are clearly moving through his body- integrating his entire structure? There is harmony in the integration of his limbs with the core of his body- his whole body is connected. When he took his hand on the block, this subtle adjustment gave him more space to lengthen his spine, he was able to turn his torso to the side, his chest opened with breath, his shoulders rolled open, and he was even comfortable enough to turn his gaze to look up. With the block, he looks strong and stable- and yet, he is open and expanded. Now the pose is unfolding for him. He looks more comfortable, spacious and with ease.

From the ancient wisdom of the Yoga Sutras, the great Patanjali described the way we experience asana (posture): Sthira Sukham Asanam. “Asana is a steady comfortable posture.” (Satchidananda). Asana (posture) should have the dual qualities of steadiness and comfort- to be both stable and spacious- with strength and with ease. Moment by moment, we continually seek to discover this delicate balance in our practice. If using props gives the body more stability and space, more strength and ease- the freedom for the spine to lengthen and for the breath to deepen- i believe we are honoring this ancient wisdom. It is not a crutch to grab a prop- it may be a key to unlock the brilliance of yourself in perfect, refined, harmonious balance.

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