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My earliest experience in a movement class came when I was about 5 years old, practicing along with my mom’s Jane Fonda workout videos. In these aerobics-based sessions, we were instructed to use one- to three-pound weights to increase the difficulty of the movements. My mom didn’t have weights so I would use tomato soup cans instead. I suppose that was my first time making use of props in a movement practice—and my first time substituting a prop for a household item.
In my early days of practicing yoga, props were not a big part of my practice. I started out attending very large, mixed-level power vinyasa classes at a popular studio in Santa Monica. While there were blocks, straps, and bolsters available, there weren’t enough for everyone. Most of the teachers would give us the option to grab props if we needed them, but I don’t recall ever receiving instruction on when or how or why to use them.
Embracing yoga props
When I completed my yoga teacher training several years later, my teaching reflected a similar use (or non-use) of props. While I wasn’t necessarily averse to them, I did have a general sense that props were there to make things easier. Which was fine. But I thought that true progress would come from a more autonomous approach—one that didn’t require the use of props, but rather would require me to solely rely on my own body.
I have evolved! My understanding, interest, and use of props has developed. I now recognize that props are simply tools. And it’s not just about blocks and bolsters. Even a sticky mat is a prop (though it’s usually taken for granted—and most likely overused—if our aim is a truly strong, resilient, and adaptable body).
The mechanics and the tools
Over time I’ve developed a greater understanding of biomechanics, exercise science, and the principles of regression and progression. As I learned how our bodies adapt and respond to force, my considerations around the possibilities of an asana practice transformed. So did my understanding of the potential that props provide.
Biomechanically, there are many ways we can modify the complexity of a movement. More variability in how we experience a movement enhances our learning of that movement. And that ensures that the movement translates into other aspects of our lives. Props increase our options for movement regressions and progressions, deepening our levels of embodiment and cellular learning over time.
Props can be used to regress our movements (make them easier), or to progress our movements (make them harder). Some ways we can change the difficulty level of a pose or movement, include:
- Affecting its stability: Practicing Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) with both feet on a sticky mat vs. placing the back foot on a folded blanket that can slide on the floor changes the stability of our foundation.
- Opening or closing kinetic chains: In Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), if we reach our arms up while holding a block between our hands, that’s a closed kinetic chain. It gives us more feedback for where our hands are relative to each other in space than if we reach up with our hands shoulder-width apart.
- Decreasing or increasing intrinsic load: In Utkatasana (Chair Pose), a strap around your thighs closes the kinetic chain around your legs and gives you the opportunity for you to press into the strap, increasing the force of contraction on your outer hips. The same is true for your inner thighs when you squeeze a block between your legs.
- Decreasing or increasing the range of motion: Props are often used to decrease the range of motion required to get into a standing pose like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). A block “raises” the floor so you don’t have to bend or reach as far. In Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), you can increase the range of motion in your shoulders by placing your hands on blocks in Plank Pose, then lowering to the floor.
Finding props wherever you go
Just as there are many ways to use props in your practice, you have many options for how to use found objects in your environment as tools to enhance your practice. I’ve traveled around the world teaching yoga, and I’ve had to get creative with props, as each studio’s prop collection is different. (I’ve also had to get creative in my own personal practice, since I don’t travel with a suitcase full of blocks and straps.) Here are some useful substitutions:
- Block: To take the place of a block I have used books, paint cans, water bottles, and even shoes. As these all have different shapes they may not work for every instance where a block is needed, however. For this reason I recommend that every practitioner acquire 2 blocks for their home practice.
- Strap: Plenty of objects around the house can take the place of a strap—a belt, a towel, stretchy bands, and even my dog’s leash.
- Bolster: While it is hard to find a good alternative for a nice firm yoga bolster, you can often make do with pillows, folded blankets, or even your rolled up yoga mat. One time, while on the road, I stuffed a garbage bag full of my clothes to use as a bolster for my restorative practice.
Once you start to see the world as a giant jungle gym, there are never-ending resources to use in your exploration of mobility and strength.
See also: No Yoga Props? No Problem
Tools for evolution
As humans, we have always acquired new movement skills through our exploration of, and relationship with, our environment. I believe there is value to the more internally focused practice—the ones that turn us away from the world and encourage deeper awareness of our internal landscape.
But we do exist in a physical world. True resiliency of body and spirit comes in our ability to explore life in both directions—the external and the embodied—and use what we experience to inform a more holistic understanding of who we are in the world. The way we utilize tools to assist in our evolution is fundamental to our progress as yogis, and as humans.
4 practices that use props in unique ways
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore how to use props to enhance your practice, whether by regressing or progressing your movements.
Check out this practice now:
Here’s what’s coming up:
- Stick With It! Using Dowels to Open Shoulders and Hips
- Using Straps To Support Your Restorative Poses
- Video Practice: A Vinyasa Block Party
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