Thursday, April 15, 2010

All propped up

To prop or not to prop? It's a question that may often cross a yoga teacher or student's mind. On the one hand, props offer many benefits in terms of alignment, comfort and safety in a pose. On the other hand, they are bulky to carry with you to class, and some of them (like the rather abused yoga strap) might actually prompt behaviour that works against you instead of with you (like tugging hard on the strap to pull yourself further into a forward bend).

Traditionally in Ashtanga yoga, no props are used. Instead, poses are modified to suit the needs of the individual, and the student can gradually progress towards the full pose. A ready example is extended angle pose: instead of bringing the hand to the ground beside the forward foot, the student can place their elbow on their knee. This allows them to keep the chest revolved open and still stretch the other arm out over their ear. This modification is so useful for getting people to stay in alignment that I actually teach it in all my classes, with the full pose as an option only!

However, in other forms of yoga like Iyengar, props are used a lot, to help students find the correct alignment in a pose and also to protect them from injury. Examples are placing a block under your hand in triangle pose, or blankets under the shoulders in shoulderstand (although to be fair, most Ashtanga-trained teachers learn this one as well).

As a teacher, I generally don't use props in group classes. Partly this is an availability issue - not enough to go around!, but in big part it's because I teach vinyasa yoga, and props interrupt the flow and pace of the classes, plus take up space in a packed classroom. I choose instead to teach modified poses, and offer variations for students of different levels. I do however have a few students who bring their own props to class, which is great!

In private classes on the other hand, I'm a big fan of using props, depending on individual needs. I find the props give more confidence to some students to explore poses more deeply than they otherwise would. Mostly I use blocks: under the hands in low lunge (helps open up the chest), triangle, parsvottanasana, ardha chandrasana and the like. I also use blankets under the sitting bones for forward bends, and under the shoulders for shoulderstand. As you may have gathered from the first paragraph I'm not a fan of using straps in forward bends, but I do use them occasionally to help someone bind in a tricky twist, or as supports in restorative baddha konasana and supta baddha konasana. I have also occasionally used a strap to help me play with deep backbends like pigeon pose, which I have found rewarding but intense.

And then of course there is therapeutic, prenatal and restorative yoga, for which props are a must!

One of my absolute favourite therapeutic uses for a yoga block is also as a back-massage tool! Lying in various positions with a block placed under different areas of your back is like getting a deep-tissue massage. Try it! With your knees bent as if you were going into bridge pose, lift up your hips and place the block under your lower back, middle back, along your spine, or (my favourite!) the buttocks. Slowly release your weight onto the block and enjoy!

What about you, bloggers and blogettes? Have you used props? When or how have they been helpful to you?


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  2. I rarely use them in classes. Maybe a block under the occassional buttock to assist in forward bends and to stop slouching/align the hips. I find they take up too much time in a class situation, there are modifications we can make wiht our bodies instead.

    When I used to see an Iyengar teacher I felt we spent more time going backwards and forward collecting increasingly bizarre props than we did actually doing yoga!

    When I teach one to one I do use props depending on the client's wants and needs.

  3. I'm like you. My group classes are flowy, so I use appropriate modifications without props. Plus, at my gym classes, there are no props! But, for prenatal I use lots and lots of props! And, at the studio, I make sure everyone has a block handy and I used lots of props for savasana.

    I remember when I first went to a class with a lot of props and it totally bothered me. I could never bring my awareness in because I constantly had to get another prop. Now I love how I can explore poses with props. But, I won't ever teach that way!

  4. i am a fan of props, but maybe it's because i'm really not very bendy. Most poses are difficult for me (even seated staff pose). However, it does interrupt the flow for sure, which can be frustrating.

    Even postures like extended side angle, sure I put my elbow on my knee, but how do I gradually move that to the floor? A block really allows the same kind of stability and ground connection while gradually moving to the floor. Having my arm against my knee doesn't allow for any ground connection....

    anyhoo, I do agree with you. It's a personal choice and the strap thing is so true. I'm quite afraid of pulling something with a strap....

  5. I go through phases with props - sometimes I use them alot, sometimes not at all. I encourage my students to get familiar with them and to have the ones that are useful to them close by so they can use them easily, without interupting the flow, as needed. This is especially true for blocks in standing poses, like trikonasana and ardha chandrasana. It really doesn't break things up if you have things in the right place to start with - Cyndi Lee of OM Yoga in New York gives many great examples of prop assisted vinyasa.

    I also like to use the blocks at the begignning of class for ab work in supported bridge and at the end of the class to work with a nice relaxing supported bridge / modified shoulderstand / supported fish... or all of the above in sequence. This is heavenly in every way!

    In an ideal world I'd have a whole pile of blankets and blocks in a corner to just pull out whenever the mood strikes me :)

    I've also gone off straps for forward bending although originally, I thought they were the best thing as I had very tight legs. I've found other ways to work with this now but occasionally if confronted with a muscley male student who is just beyond frustrated at his limited range of movement in this direction, I'm still really grateful to have the straps around, a little gentle strap work can make a huge difference to understanding how that whole movement works at the hips and give the mind something to work with instead of falling into despair at the seeming futility of it all. "Gentle" is the key!

  6. I should ask my partner to make me a block. I do yoga at home mostly, so having a couple of homemade props would be very helpful, especially when I want to explore more and not feel inhibited by my inflexible body :).

    When I went to yoga classes, I used them for some poses. But, I also liked the additional challenge of not using a prop. Does this sound strange? I wanted to see how far I could push myself .. . which can be both a good and a bad thing.

    There are times I use a thick cotton tie for my bathrobe to stretch with. i can't justify spending the money on such a thing, so I use what I can find around the house. It works for me :).

  7. I used to be vehemently anti-prop, for all the reasons you mention. But I have to admit that I'm now a huge block fan, for certain reasons.

    I have a very chesty lady in class and she hated lunges. She could never get comfortable. We just used a block on each side and all of a sudden her chest opened up and she felt great.

    Half moon is immensely easier with a block, even if it's only psychological.

    I think blocks (and other props, I'm sure), can give students an extra confidence-boosting step on the way to feeling successful (for lack of a better term) in their postures.

  8. Thanks everyone for your insightful comments!