To Prop or Not to Prop

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Walk into most yoga studios today and apart from the omnipresent yoga mat, you are bound to notice a few items unfamiliar to other fitness center equipment. Seasoned yoga studio patrons would recognise them as bolsters, straps and blocks, but a new practitioner, may, at times, even feel overwhelmed at the paraphernalia that exists in the space that would be promoting inner awareness.

Props, as a tool of practice, are intended to support the practitioner. The debate of bringing in external tools to support or even improve an asana is one that is prevalent in almost all circles of yogic conversations – from the technically proficient, to the more modern promoters of the practice.

Naysayers would often be seen frowning upon involving props in their practice or their classes. A few reasons would be that the original yogis didn’t use props and the over-commercialisation of yoga, to the more driven and Type A, Pitta personalities, who would be looking to ‘prove’ their ability to perform without any assistance –  an opportunity to prove beyond measure the lack of any ‘weakness’ within. In short, as the number and experience of practitioners varies, so does their outlook and preference when it comes to assisted yoga.

So why have props after all?

Yoga International, in its article, ‘Why Use Props? (by Leann Carey, August6, 2015 https://yogainternational.com/article/view/why-use-props) calls a prop as ‘just that – a prop’ and that ‘the central purpose of using a yoga prop is to address a need for support.’ While some schools of yoga have gone to the extent of calling the usage of props as cheating, it is often found that the supportive element of a prop-approach often helps the practitioner find a space of acceptance for their own practice within what is available to them in themselves and their environment.

As a culture, our youth are often battling with a constant self-depreciating image of lack and poor self-worth. Where yoga is attempting to help practitioners reach for the strength within themselves, many aspiring yogis are grateful for the sense of achievement experienced in approaching a new, or often daunting posture with the help of props.

This is where well qualified and grounded teachers come into effect by gently guiding their classes and students to approach their bodies with a state of ahimsa (non violence) and at the same time, treat the prop as an interim means to develop their own practice – as a support structure and not as a crutch. It is easy to see how the block, bolster and strap may innocuously evolve into every posture of a dependent yogi and yoga instructors are often found to be providing encouraging words to their practitioners to ease away from the dependency and realise that the asana is within after all.

Another major factor of using props is the fundamental requirement of safe practice. While injuries are a part of most of our lives, yoga classes are a space to allow practitioners to build greater awareness of their bodies and any existing injuries, but all the time promoting safety in entering and getting out of the postures. Props are often of benefit when helping students and beginner yogis to avoid over-stretching and inviting injury by allowing themselves to gently experience the asana with assistance.

Iyengar yoga immortalised the usage of a variety of props in their practices – from suspended ropes and belts to the freely available chair and bolster. This school of yoga works on proper alignment with the use of the props. Prenatal and restorative yoga sequences are often completed with the usage of the entire variety of props like bolsters, blankets, belts, friction jelly pads and ropes to help the yogis experience the practice in a safe and restorative setting.

Whichever way you seem to look at it, props are here to stay. A yogic way of looking at it would be on a more philosophical note. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2.46), yoga is sthira sukham asanam – a posture that can be maintained with stability and comfort. If a prop would help a practitioner achieve that, even for a start, it would be a far more wholesome experience that a disheartened and frustrated experience of no yoga at all.

Allowing ourselves the freedom to accept the existence of props as an evolution of yoga to meet the needs of the current yogi would redeem us from the unnecessary mental agony of having to maintain the authenticity of yoga – because, yoga just is. Yoga, thus, delivers us from the obsessive need to obliterate a welcome addition to the family of tools that would help reach a larger group of practitioners – for every one’s needs are different and where the case may arise, there just may be a prop that would help in overcoming that obstacle.

If you’re still uncertain about using yoga props in your practice, here are a few reasons that may help you decide, or at least give you something to discuss with your yoga instructor.

  • Makes the practice safer and more accessible for you – headstands and inversions included!
  • Really good for passive stretching
  • Opens up your chest and shoulders
  • Fantastic for the hamstrings
  • Encourages proper alignment in the posture
  • Ideal for pregnant women and those looking for a restorative practice
  • Brings creativity to the practice
  • To avoid aggravating an existing injury
  • Avoiding new injuries

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The principles laid out in Patanjali’s yoga sutras dating back to 500 B.C. are still very relevant today, even in our modern information world. Yoga has evolved a lot from the days of Patanjali; it has taken different forms to meet the varying needs of practitioners all along its journey. Yoga continues to accept all changes, like the ocean accepts the river, absorbs, assimilates and grows. (A distinctive feature of sanaatan dharma of India)

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