20 July, 2016
The One Thing Your Yoga Practice Might Be Missing
Yoga props have been stigmatized as a crutch for lack of flexibility, strength or balance. But even master yogis use props to enhance their daily practice. All practitioners — from beginners to seasoned yogis — can benefit from props for a variety of reasons, including:
- Progressing in challenging poses
- Achieving proper alignment
- Finding stability
- Gaining strength
- Sharpening self-awareness
- Enhancing focus
- Facilitating rest and relaxation
- Holding a pose longer
- Allowing physical and emotional release
“The body is the prop for the soul. So why not let the body be propped by a wall or a block?”
—B.K.S. Iyengar, the father of Iyengar Yoga
When it comes to yoga props, check your ego at the door. Instead of getting embarrassed that your yoga instructor placed a block next to your hand while you’re twisted in Revolved Triangle, consider taking advantage of the prop to deepen the pose — and your practice.
1. Yoga Blocks
Blocks are one of the most versatile and universal props. And they have a number of uses: to teach proper alignment, deepen a pose or challenge a yogi’s balance.
Beginner Yogis: Take advantage of blocks to help modify the poses as you learn the fundamentals of yoga. For example, place a block underneath your hand in poses like Triangle to lengthen the spine and deepen the stretch if your hand can’t reach the ground. Or use the block for balancing in standing poses like Half Moon.
Seasoned Yogis: Use a block to help guide you into arm balances like Crow or inversions like Forearm Stand. For Crow, you can use the block to elevate your feet or under your forehead to assist with balance.
Restorative: Blocks are used for physical support. Beginners and seasoned yogis can support their lumbar spine in cooling poses like Bridge by placing a block underneath their sacrum, or deepen the stretch in their chest and shoulders by placing it horizontally on their mid-back.
2. Yoga Mat
The mat is every yogi’s magic carpet. While many yogis choose this as their only prop for stability, cushion and grounding as they move from pose to pose, there are other ways you can use it.
All Yogis: If you have a sensitive tailbone, roll up your mat to protect it in poses like Boat. Or roll up the back of your mat and prop up your heels in poses like Garland.
Restorative: The mat provides extra cushion between you and the ground, of course, but if you have limited access to props, rolling it can also make a comfortable pillow underneath your head or knees.
3. A Wall
This is one prop you most likely have access to. The wall can be a helpful tool to build strength, find balance, increase flexibility and gain confidence.
Beginner Yogis: Standing with your back and pelvis against a wall allows you to recognize the natural curve of the spine. As you progress, walls can help you find balance in standing poses and build confidence and strength for inversions.
Seasoned Yogis: Take advantage of the wall to add challenge to poses like backbends and inversions. For example, get into a backbend by walking your hands down the wall until you plant your palms on the floor, then challenge yourself to kick up into a handstand with your toes touching the wall. Walk your hands away from the wall a few inches, and then bend your elbows and use the wall to support you in handstand push-ups.
Restorative: When you need to unwind, use the wall for therapeutic support with poses like Legs Up the Wall.
4. Yoga Wheel/Whale
Up your backbending yoga game with this new yogi favorite. The yoga wheel deepens backbends, massages the spine and makes flexibility and spinal mobility more accessible.
Beginner Yogis: The yoga wheel will help you not only get acquainted with backbends, but, if you spend your days hunched over a desk, it also helps with your posture by opening up your back, shoulders and chest. Sit on the ground with the wheel against your low back and sacrum. Reach your arms overhead and arch your spine over the wheel. You can place your hands on the ground behind you or keep them lifted and begin to roll the wheel back and forth.
Seasoned Yogis: Deepen your backbend in advanced poses like Full Pigeon, open up the hip flexors and stretch the quads in poses like Monkey. Challenge your balance and strength in arm balances and inversions, or use it to tap your toes on in Scorpion pose.
Restorative: Substitute a block or bolster in poses like Reclining Bound pose or Supported Bridge pose to open your chest even further.
Another supportive yoga prop, the sandbag provides extra weight (usually between 7 and 10 pounds) to facilitate a deeper opening as you stretch.
Beginner Yogis: Speed up your flexibility by get into a hip-opening pose like Bound Angle pose and place the sandbags on top of your knees. Or learn to root down your sitz bones in seated positions like Seated Staff pose by placing a sandbag on top of your thighs.
Seasoned Yogis: Allow the sandbag to not only serve you physically, but also mentally. If you’re having any mental blocks, place a sandbag to deepen certain poses and keep it there for at least 10 minutes. As you recognize the sandbag getting heavier, you may experience resistance and feel the urge to get out of it. Breath deeply to let go of the tension. When it’s time to come out, allow whatever feelings or sensations you may be experiencing to resonate.
Restorative: Sandbags help you stay grounded and allow your muscles to relax. In Legs Up the Wall pose, place a sandbag on top of the soles of your feet to deepen the stretch in the hamstrings and calves, release tension and relieve lower back pain.
6. Yoga Straps/Belts
Straps are a great hack for yogis who can’t quite reach their foot or want to deepen a stretch.
Beginner Yogis: Use yoga straps to deepen your backbends in Bow and Dancer poses. Or try looping the strap around the arch of the front foot during Seated Forward Fold or Head-to-Knee pose. You can also build strength in forearm balances by looping a strap just above your elbows.
Seasoned Yogis: Time to get bendy with a friend! Help guide each other into a backbend from standing. Begin facing each other, and then the supporting partner will loop the strap around the receiving partner’s lumbar spine before she bends back into the full position. When in full backbend, the supporting partner will unloop the strap, then walk around to loop the strap around the receiving partner’s chest. Gently pull the strap for 20 to 30 seconds to open up the chest and increase spine mobility.
Restorative: Relax into the strap in hip-opening poses like Bound Angle pose, or Supta Baddha Konasana. In a seated position, loop one end of the strap through the buckle and set it just around and above your hip bones. Place the other looped side around your feet and lie back.
Blankets are commonly used in cooling yoga styles like Yin and restorative, but they can also help protect against injury. The traditional Mexican blankets are a yogi favorite for their thick and comfortable (yet stiff) support.
All Yogis: If you have a sensitive tailbone or knees keep a blanket by your side for extra padding whenever they make contact with the mat. Or have one nearby for a comfortable cooldown. You can either place the full blanket on top of you during Savasana or fold it and use it as a pillow under your head.
Seasoned Yogis: As an extra challenge, fold a blanket in half and try any inversion or standing balance pose. You may notice that the softer cushion makes stabilization harder.
Restorative: If you don’t have a bolster, a blanket is a more cost-effective substitute. Open up your chest by rolling the blanket into a burrito shape and place under the back aligned with the spine. Allow the arms to rest by your sides, take deep breaths and relax.
Similar to the blanket, the bolster encourages a sense of ease by providing extra cushion. These large, pillow-like props are commonly used to elevate reclined and seated poses.
All Yogis: See what Savasana is like with a bolster under your knees. Or place the bolster between your knees to keep them from painfully pressing on each other in Child pose.
Restorative: Bolsters are a restorative yogi’s best friend because they stimulate blood flow and allow you to ease into relaxation. During Legs Up the Wall pose, place a bolster underneath your sitz bones and sacrum. Or open up your chest in a reclined heart opener by placing the bolster vertically along your spine.
9. Your Table
Sitting at a desk all day? Take advantage of this useful yoga prop — yes, yoga prop — and begin to use the desk to increase flexibility in your hips and quads.
All Yogis: Open your hips in Standing Pigeon by placing one knee and ankle parallel to the edge of the desk. Keep your standing leg straight and as close to the table as possible. Stay here for five to 10 breaths and repeat on the other side.
If you don’t have access to most of the other props, grab a chair. Your nearby gym may even have a yoga class dedicated to using chairs (aka chair yoga). Chair yoga is also great for older adults and people who can’t stand or have a difficult time standing for lengths of time.
Beginner Yogis: You can increase spinal mobility in your chair with poses like seated Cat Cow. On an inhale, arch your back and draw your shoulders down and lift your chest, then as you exhale, round your spine, draw your navel in and bring the shoulders forward as you drop your chin toward your chest.
Seasoned Yogis: Challenge your Scorpion pose by tapping your toes on the seat. Or, if you can press up into a handstand, try it on a chair.
Restorative: Similar to Legs Up the Wall, de-stress by trying Legs On a Chair. Lie down on the floor with your butt close to the front of the chair. Swivel your legs on top of the seat and bend your knees so that your calves rest on the seat.
What Do YOU Think?
What props are you willing to test out to enhance your yoga practice? Are you new to yoga? Remember that props can be your best friend for increasing flexibility, strength and balance. Are you a seasoned yogi? Challenge your flexibility, strength and balance by getting creative with all the different props. And if you’re a restorative yogi, simply breathe into the props to encourage relaxation.