When I started practicing yoga three years ago, I’d enter the studio, unroll my mat, and sit patiently before the start of class. While others stacked blankets, blocks, bolsters, and straps around their mats, I avoided props due to the belief that they would make my practice less intense or even signify my weakness as a student striving to “improve” my practice. Now, as a teacher, I never do a sitting pose without a supporting prop, I often use blocks in poses like Trikonasana (triangle) or Utthita Parsvokonasana (extended side angle), and I finally “get” straps – I previously found them unwieldy and frustrating.
I often hear students say phrases like “I’m not that good at yoga” or “I’m trying to get better at yoga.” These phrases always baffle me. What does it mean to be “good at yoga”? I imagine most people would point to yogis that grace the front of magazine covers, bending their bodies at extreme angles. To be “good at yoga” is often used to mean having physical strength and flexibility, allowing for advanced poses that are visually impressive. This kind of thinking makes students push themselves without the support of props, often losing the integrity of the pose while rounding the spine to reach for the ground, swaying the back out in order to feel the hips open, or nearly dislocating the shoulders to do their twentieth chatarunga.
But here’s the thing. I would say that I have gotten “better” at yoga post my love affair with all-the-props. For one, I have (mostly) stopped worrying what my poses look like to an imagined observer. Yoga has become a much more personal practice that informs the way I communicate, emote, and breathe every day, on and off the mat. On a physical level, my yoga teacher training impressed upon me the importance of safety and integrity in the poses. In order to push ourselves, we often take shortcuts, which can lead to bad habits, and worse, injury. Some of the yogis I have most respected have strong boundaries and limits in their personal practices. Personally, I am now much less concerned with reaching the floor in Trikonasana, as long as I keep the integrity of the pose, hinging at the hips, engaging my core, and lengthening my upper body. This usually means using a block for support, and I’m frequently surprised that using props to do poses correctly often makes the poses more challenging, as well.
Props also provide support, allowing for both physical and emotional release. Instead of allowing the knees to hover painfully in Baddha Konasana (bound angle), propping the sit bones up on a blanket or bolster, and allowing the knees to rest on blocks will actually allow the hips to open more. It’s about creating trust. Rather than clenching for dear life, your hips are more likely to think, “okay, I guess I can work with this.” As the hips release into the supporting props, all of that nervous energy created by the gripping muscles dissipates; the mind relaxes, too.
Joy Yogis, I challenge you, too, to find ways to use props to make your practice more challenging, nourishing, and safe. Or just attend a restorative class and have your own love affair with all-the-props. But be careful – you may never go back!