Five Ways Using Props Will Deepen Your Yoga Practice

B. K. S. Iyengar and yoga teachers strongly emphasize the use of props, such as blocks, blankets and eggs. Here are five ways these props and more will help to deepen your yoga practice.

1. More openness and freedom. Got short hamstrings? In many asanas, hamstrings hold some back like reins, tempting them to fight back by rounding the spine and collapsing the front body, which in turn shortens the breath. But add a folded blanket underneath the hips in seated forward bends, and the spine—and breath—can stay lengthened while entering the pose. Do this, and over time one can reduce the height of the blanket, stretching the hamstrings gradually, thus preventing injury. Too slow, you say? Not compared to healing a hamstring tear or a strained back.

2. Greater stability and strength. Daily activities—sitting, walking, reaching forward—tend to overemphasize certain muscles while neglecting others. When the muscles needed to anchor an asana aren’t strong enough, there’s a tendency to compensate by straining or struggling. For example, if the hip muscles aren’t able to stabilize the pelvis in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), we might torque the base of the spine or hyperextend the knee of the standing leg, triggering an anatomical “train wreck” as other muscles and joints follow the misalignment. Rather than reinforcing bad alignment habits in order to balance, touch a wall or hold the back of a chair, then focus on developing the muscle memory (proprioception) and strength needed for stable alignment.

3. The Best rejuvenation, ever. If you’ve ever been injured, ill, or just plain tired, you know how tempting it can be to skip daily asana practice because it “takes too much energy.” With blankets and bolsters to support poses, Restorative Yoga can give (not deplete) energy. Even something as effortless as lying back on a rolled towel or a bolster during pranayama can recharge your inner batteries.

4. Keener self-awareness. “One size fits all” is a lie when it comes to yoga pants, and it’s not true for asana, either. Proportion, bone structure, strength, flexibility, and other factors vary from person to person, but all too often, we try to match our asanas to the teacher’s because that’s the “right way.” Except that it’s not. How an asana feels, not how it looks, is a better guide. Experimenting with props can help you learn to recognize the inner cues that tell you when something doesn’t fit and why. Wonky hips in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose)? Try a folded blanket under the low hip. Struggling to breathe deeply in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)? Place the hand on a chair instead of the floor so that you can open both sides of the ribcage.

5. Sharper concentration. When a prop can free us from the distracting struggle to overcome short hamstrings or other challenges, then the mind can become fully focused. This is essential during seated meditation poses, and lifting the pelvis by sitting on a folded blanket that the back muscles won’t have to overwork to support the pose. Props can help us reach a state of awareness in many other asanas as well.