Props can be used for a multitude of reasons in our yoga practice. They have the capacity to transform poses and to add endless interest to a regular practice. Yet, so often, there is confusion around what we do with them, plus a common misunderstanding that if we’re using a prop, it’s because we’re struggling or worse, it can spin us into the mindset that we’re ‘not good enough, flexible enough, strong enough’ to practise yoga.
Yogamatters asked London-based yoga teacher Pippa Richardson to share with us her vast experience of using props and deep insight into how to get the most from the range of props on offer in today’s yoga world.
I use props in my practice and in every class that I teach and sometimes when I ask the group to get props from the cupboard, I am met with resistance. I’ve always been fascinated by this. The funny thing is that the more we understand our individual make up, anatomy and biomechanics, we see that no body is the same. Every single body needs something different in every single pose and props are just a wonderful way of supporting our unique structure.
BKS Iyengar is widely known for his influence on the use of props in modern yoga. Mr Iyengar championed and crafted their use and props became widely recognised as an essential part of the practice. Although still often associated with Iyengar practice, props can now be found in every studio in almost every style around the world and for some students and teachers, they are as essential as the mat themselves. Iyengar said “For me, prop is not only for the asana. It should contribute to the position of the body which in turn can let the mind be calm and state of ‘chitta vritti nirodha’ be experienced. Body is my first prop. The body is a prop to the soul.”
To end some of the myths circulating these objects, we want to introduce you to the wonderful world of props! If you’re new to yoga, then perhaps this is just the beginning of a new love affair and if you’ve been practising for some time, then I hope this sparks a flash of inspiration to roll out your mat and use your props in new and interesting ways.
So first things first, why exactly do we use props? Here is a quick run down on some of the most common reasons why we could reach for the prop cupboard.
- Restorative yoga is a wonderful practice that uses a wide range of props to support the body to come into a state of relaxation. The clever use of props can help to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ responses in the body. If you want to see props used as an art form, I highly suggest going to a restorative class – prepare to be inspired.
- Props can be used to ‘raise the floor’. Depending on many factors including the length of our limbs and flexibility – raising the floor can be a helpful way to keep our integrity in the pose we’re exploring without compromising.
- To provide more comfort or easefulness. We’ve all been there (or seen it!), a pose that for whatever reason just doesn’t feel good – we’re in discomfort and wondering if yoga is ‘for us’. This might have something to do with our bone structure, for example how our femur heads are orientated within our hip sockets – something that no amount of yoga is going to change! With just a little support, we could experience poses that appear inaccessible to us or open up the possibilities of a pose that we’ve felt ‘stuck’ in.
Be inspired but not proud. BKS Iyengar
With so many props available, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some of our most-loved and top tips on how to work with them…
A belt can be used in many different ways. Unlike a resistance band, they are sturdy and they vary in length and thickness. They can be used as extensions of the limbs and provide a supportive framework to explore asana. If you’re using a belt in an active way, be mindful of the tendency to ‘pull’ the body. We also often grip them very tightly which can invite tension into the neck and shoulders. Whatever pose you’re exploring, try to hold the belt with a soft grip, keeping the neck and shoulders relaxed.
Never worked with a chair? Perhaps start with this version of a downward facing dog. It’s a wonderful way to explore lengthening the spine without the same amount of weight bearing in a traditional dog. See if you can work on finding axial extension (a flat spine) and a relationship between the crown of your head and tailbone. Bend your knees as much as you need to, to maintain this integrity in your spine.
Chairs are also commonly used in restorative yoga. This example shows the use of a chair with an added extension to explore back bending and an inversion.
Blocks & Bricks
Blocks and bricks are probably the most common props across the board. Blocks are flatter and wider in shape. Bricks are exactly that – brick like in shape! Bricks are a great way of ‘raising the floor’ and can be used lengthways or on their shorter edge, depending on what you need.
Bricks are used in restorative yoga in many creative ways, but a really simple way is to rest your forehead on one in pose of child. This could also be exchanged for a blanket or a block.
Blocks are brilliant for most seated poses. They can raise the pelvis and depending on how you sit on them they can encourage the pelvis to tilt forwards which can help the spine to lengthen and make sitting upright feel more accessible. Another example of using them is in a supported bridge pose as per below. This could be done with 2 or 3 blocks and is a lovely way of exploring a supported backbend. The wide flat blocks are perfect for supporting the pelvis. To do this, have your blocks close by, lift up into a bridge and then slide the blocks underneath you.
If coming into pose of a child doesn’t feel restful for you, triggers knee/hip pain or your head doesn’t touch the floor, perhaps try inserting a block between your calves and heels – this could again be substituted with a blanket or bolster depending on how much height you need. If this still doesn’t feel comfortable, come onto your back instead. Even with the use of props, some poses might just not feel right for our bodies in that moment and it’s important that we honour this – for me, this is advanced practice.
The king of all props (in my opinion) is the bolster! In fact, we love it so much we wrote an article dedicated to it. Check it out here to learn our go-to poses using a bolster and how to care for them.
As a teacher, it is a beautiful thing to witness the moment we see a prop has been positively received by a student – normally if it’s a good ‘fit’, then we see a deeper exhale, or the student says something like ‘oh that’s much better’…these little signs are cues that we have ‘met’ the body and in particular in restorative work, it is crucial in providing the appropriate framework for the body to come into rest.
It is of course OK to practise without props, but I don’t think I know one person who hasn’t benefited from using a prop at some point, so I encourage you to be playful and explore. Whatever prop you’re using or being offered, be mindful that it needs to feel good and helpful. If you have any questions, get in touch – we would love to hear from you!