Every yoga studio in the land has a jenga style stack of blocks, a nest of blankets and a tangle of straps in the corner of the room. (It’s likely that they start out stacked tidy, but that’s a story for another day.) New students are always curious: What are they for? Are they ‘just’ for beginners. If you use yoga props does it mean you are terminally inflexible?
Let’s explore how you can encourage your students to use props to enhance their yoga practice. Find out why yoga props are key to creating an accessible yoga practice to suit all body types. And lastly let’s channel your inner craft queen to help students practicing through lockdowns to make their own yoga props. This is something they can try at home!
Let’s chat first about skeletal variation: Back in the pliocene epoch, when I started my yoga practice, students were expected to wrangle their bodies into various yoga shapes. There are still styles of yoga that will not allow students to attempt the next pose until they mastered what came before. This left many students discouraged, thinking that they cannot ‘do’ yoga as they were unable to progress past a primary series.
We now recognise that some yoga shapes are impossible for some of us, simply because of how we are built. The ratio of our arm length to our torso will make arm balances tricky for those of us with shorter arms. Hips that externally rotate mean that doing hanumanasana (that’s the splits, there’ll be a test later) will not happen in this lifetime. The length and angle of some people’s spinal processes (the sticky-out bits of the vertebrae) will limit the capacity of some of us to find depth in backbends. Some of us backbend from the lumbar spine, some from the cervical spine and some of us use our capacity for excellent hip extension to find our way in the pose. It’s individual. Just like you.
Limited joint mobility plays a part here too. It’s widely recognised that yogis from Asian descent have softer joints. And many people who are drawn to yoga (and who sometimes become teachers) are naturally hypermobile: they were born with joints that easily and safely move a little further beyond what is considered normal range. This appears to make them ‘good’ at yoga but in reality it’s simply how they are built. Joint mobility changes as we age. As we acquire wisdom and depth in our practice, it creates an opportunity to embrace aspects of yoga beyond asana.
A little history lesson: When Mr BKS Iyengar brought his style of yoga to the west, he quickly recognised that his students were unable to perform even the simplest of poses. In India, where he was born, school children sat on the floor for their lessons and were very comfortable sitting crossed legged. Not so for westerners who sit on chairs from kindergarten. Noticing this, he developed blocks and straps to support western yogis to practice with stability and ease.
Modern yoga celebrates our difference. It’s what makes us all more interesting after all. The yoga world has also innovated to find ways to make yoga shapes more assessable to a range of body types. As yoga teachers we are becoming educated to cue based on how the pose feels from the inside and to let go of the external aesthetics. Each student may look different externally as they practice, but if they are able to feel the pose in the target area directed by you the teacher, perfect!
Enter Yoga Props! [Stage left] We use them to deepen our yoga stretch and maintain alignment. Pretty much the best thing since yoga pants! Here’s a list of common yoga props and how to encourage your students to use them:
- Yoga Blocks: these are usually mode of cork, wood or foam. They bring the earth a little closer and are a wonderful innovation which allows students to more comfortably reach the floor. They help to open the shoulders in reclined backbends, they elevate the hips in bridge and extend the length of the arms to allow for tricky arm balances. I still remember the ‘ah ha’ moment I had when a teacher offered me a block when I was doing a side angle pose. At first I was miffed, because I thought I was rocking the shape, but when I placed a hand on the block as instructed I was able to open more through the chest. I felt stable! Strong! It was a revelation! When you offer props, use neutral language to bust the myth that they are for beginners. Lead by example and use a block yourself when demonstrating.
- Yoga Straps: There are countless ways to use a yoga strap. They provide support, improve posture and help you to get an even more incredible stretch. In seated poses, yoga straps can be used around the feet to hold poses. Perfect if you have tight hips. In standing poses where balance is key, the strap can be looped around your foot to increase your stability and stretch without losing your form. Yoga straps will allow you to get a more intense opening for your shoulders and chest. Lastly, for arm balance poses like shoulder stand, the strap can be used to keep your elbows stacked under the shoulders creating a more stable base. You’ll find dozens of ways to make it a part of your personal practice. Pro tip: Remind your students that straps are not used to pull yourself into a pose. It’s to gently support them to move deeper into the experience.
- Blankets: Yoga blankets make savasana, everyone’s favourite pose, more cosy and delicious. They have other uses too: A rolled blanket tilts the hips anteriorly to make sitting on the floor more comfortable. They can be used to elevate a hip in pigeon pose, to add a little extra padding for knees in kneeling shapes or to support tight hamstrings in a seated forward bend. Encourage your students to experiment with a yoga blanket and they’ll see for themselves!
- Bolsters: Yoga bolsters are large firm cushions, often sausage or oval shaped. They are used mostly for yin and restorative yoga. By supporting the body, they allow your student to relax deeply into each shape so that myofascia, which we target in these yoga styles, can be released slowly and patiently. Your student will feel comforted and cocooned allowing the mind and body to rest and find calm.
- Yoga Mats: While it’s undeniably nice to have a stylish pair of yoga pants, in reality (sadly) they don’t assist your yoga practice at all. On the other hand, if you teach vinyasa and other flowing styles of yoga, having the right yoga mat is a gamechanger for your students. It will improve their balance, cushion joints and keep them stable and strong in every standing pose. Choose a mat which is grippy and environmentally friendly. Some have a lifetime guarantee. Pro tip: Steer your students away from buying a cheap mat from a discount store. They are usually too thin (or conversely too spongy), they breakdown and flake quickly and end up in landfill.
Home-made Yoga Props: A little DIY project for lockdown. With a little creativity, your students can create yoga props with stuff they have lying around at home.
- Faux yoga blocks can be made by wrapping a couple of thick paperbacks together with cling wrap or thick elastic bands. (Russian novels and anything by Daphne du Maurier are about the right proportions.) Tupperware containers work too. I’ve even seen students use jars of tinned peaches. Creativity thrives in these strange times!
- Two or three beach towels rolled up together and secured with string or elastic bands make a great makeshift bolster. And of course students can raid the couch or their bed for pillows and cushions.
- A hand towel, maybe with a couple of drops of essential oil is a lovely eye pillow for guided meditation, yoga Nidra and savasana.
- Yoga Straps can be made from anything long and skinny. Dressing gown cord, hubbies best silk tie and towels all do the job.
- Encourage your student to get the mood right too: Students can create a little oasis of calm at home by find a quiet spot, keeping their mat rolled out as a reminder to practice and perhaps they might light a candle to set the mood. A cosy blanket, a cushion or pillow, an herbal brew and they are ready to go!
Finally: As a teacher, whenever I see a student reach for a prop, I’m giving them a little internal high five. It shows a maturity and capacity to listen carefully to their body so that they can get the most from each pose, each breath, each practice. By encouraging your students to use props wisely in every yoga session, they’ll squeeze even more juice from their class. They will feel the poses in all the right places, find stability and hopefully, fall in love with yoga just like you did.