Some of my students have been attending my classes since the early ’90s. Over the years, it’s been interesting for me to watch my students using more yoga props, rather than fewer. In the early years of their practice, some people looked at props as being “crutches” that were only necessary for less experienced students.
Since then, my longtime students have gradually let go of the idea that “perfect” poses, fancy poses or poses that push our bodies past beyond healthy limits are the point of practice. My experienced students, many of whom are very flexible and fit from long-term practice, use yoga bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps willingly—usually without my suggesting it.
They understand that alignment integrity in our asana practice is much more important than how far they can push their joints. They understand that even the most fit and flexible yogi can more easily practice with alignment integrity with a little help from their yoga props.
What the Sutras Say
Why is alignment integrity important? Most people are familiar with the first sutra that describes asana (2.46): “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.” (Alistair Shearer, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). Augmenting our poses with yoga props can steady our poses and allow for more comfort. When we’re steady and comfortable in our practice, we can stop “efforting.”
The second of the three sutras on asana (2.47) is not as familiar: “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” (Alistair Shearer). This means that asana is mastered when we stop pushing and forcing. The sutra that defines mastery also fails to mention accomplishing fancy poses. If asana is to be a method for bringing us to the state of Yoga, pushing and forcing actually stand in the way. Pushing and forcing may tire us out, and that might mimic a state of relaxation, but I think there’s a more graceful way to practice.
Like my experienced students, over time we can begin to understand that how our poses look is not the point. How they feel is everything. Is our practice supporting the continuity of deep breathing? Are all parts of the body engaged? Is our foundation supporting us? Do we feel both steady and comfortable? And most important, can we relax into our poses—no matter what they look like—and be fully present to each changing moment of each asana?
In order to understand advanced yoga in the context of the Yoga tradition rather than in the context of our Western exercise paradigm, we must completely shift our perspective. We have to shift from the idea that asana practice is all about performance, to the understanding that practice is practice. It’s constantly evolving, in the direction of greater ease, rather than in the direction of collecting ever more impressive accomplishments. I believe this shift of understanding is truly the most challenging part of yoga practice for those of us who grew up in the West.
Using Yoga Props to Advance Your Practice
B.K.S. Iyengar invented yoga props to allow students of varying levels of strength and flexibility benefit from poses their bodies couldn’t normally practice with integrity. At the grossest level, yoga props help people avoid injury from over-stretching or misalignment. At subtler levels, props allow our bodies to achieve alignment continuity, so that our breath can be free, and our bodies can form shapes that allow for the free flow of energy through the nadis.
When I studied with Iyengar, he stated that the purpose of asana is to create a relaxed, peaceful environment for the mind to dwell—to be absorbed in the Infinite as sutra 2.47 says. If props help us achieve the structural integrity that allows for the free flow of breath, then at times “advanced” yoga practice might actually require that we use yoga props.
So how do you encourage students to try using yoga props to enhance practice? One way is to request that all students in a class—even the most experienced or flexible ones—use yoga props for a particular pose or set of poses. This not only normalizes prop use for the skeptics, but it also gives experienced students the opportunity to feel greater expansion in their own practice.
What benefits have you discovered from using yoga props? If you teach, what do you do to encourage students to try using props?