I am sitting at home, typing on my mat, surrounded by: 2 low sitting blocks, 2 bricks, a bolster, a sandbag, a yoga wheel, an eye pillow, a strap, a cleared wall space, a chair, blankets folded neatly and some physio balls in a sock. What is not to love when you are a child in this playground designed for your own personal comfort and ease.
Back in 2019, I wrote a wee blog on my website in praise of the use of props in Ashtanga practice https://amyhughesyoga.com/props-and-preps-in-mysore-practice/ and am a passionate advocate of their use. I had been experiencing some prop heckling and felt the need to give full vent to my plea for those still drunk on the dogma that Ashtanga is a ‘no props practice’ to take a walk in my shoes. Many Ashtangis like to tell you it ruins your meditation, but my morning in Meadowlark’s Zoom Room is full of observing incredible practitioners holding steadfast in focus as children crawl on them, dogs nuzzle them and the household around them wakes up and makes itself known. When I lived in an ashram in Haridwar in the Himalayas for a winter, I once said to my teacher that I had experienced a truly clear mind up in the high Himalayas around Everest. She told me this anecdote had only shown her that I was still very young in my meditation practice. What I needed to focus on was finding the quietness of the high Himalayas in my mind in busy Delhi. This has often come back to me when intrusive sounds or events interrupt a meditation. How disruptive can a supportive block really be?
I also struggle with those who say we will outgrow our props. Depending on your proportions and constitution you may always need props to find your own deepest expression in asana. However, more importantly, just because I don’t need a prop, doesn’t mean it is not my right to commit to that prop for life if it brings me greater joy. In my own experience, some props I have outgrown, but many will always be my favourite place to go depending on the day. Props can be used for (1) comfort, (2) safety, (3) progression. If you are not already a believer, I implore you to reconfigure your thinking around props to move away from the idea of them as crutches toward the idea that they are our support network for a lifetime of comfortable practice.
Another Ashtanga teacher Joey Miles opens this excellent article on the use of props https://www.ashtangayogaleeds.com/blog/to-prop-or-not-to-prop/ far more creatively than me with this re-rendering of Shakespeare’s famous speech from ‘Hamlet’:
‘To prop or not to prop? That is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the body-mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take blocks and bolsters against a sea of troubles,
and by supporting end them.’ (Joey Miles)
Props for Comfort
Placing a bolster behind your knees in savasana (corpse pose) or a block under your hand in parsvakonasana (side angle pose) because your arms are shorter and you feel less compressed in the lower waistline when you are a little higher, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. In choosing to prop, you are taking care of yourself by offering yourself comfort. Over time, even in dynamic practice we must balance muscularity with comfort, sweetness, even – dare I say it – relaxation. Otherwise, we tend to overwork and this often leads to suffering.
What about strapping our elbows in salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or pincha mayurasana (forearm balance) so they don’t slide. In this instance, I am using the strap to guide the body into correct alignment. Doing it once with the strap and once without is good, but on days where you need your support network, such actions are always worth it.
Sitting on a wedge or block if you have a posterior pelvic tilt is a game changer and whilst some might outgrow this, many will not. I love to open and close my classes kneeling in virasana (hero pose) and sit on one slim block as it brings more space in my knees and feels nicer. I think that will always be true for me.
Props for Safety
So there are a lot of examples of propping for comfort, but what about safety. I personally don’t touch my cervical spine to the floor in shoulderstand. However, when I have time, I will always use blankets or blocks to support it. This is because shoulderstand is not only a problem when we weight load the neck or press on C7, but it is also bad to send the neck into extreme flexion, which we do when we go for a perfectly straight shoulderstand, more here: https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/protect-the-neck-in-shoulderstand/. I feel more comfortable with my head lower than my shoulders and whilst I don’t get pain here, what I have read makes me think it is a wise choice.
I also don’t like it when people don’t let others use the wall for inversions. I learnt all my inversions near a wall as I have a wonderful aversion to collapsing on the floor. I also think a habit of rolling and falling out all the time is hard to break. Why not never develop that samskara (psychological inprint or habit)?
Props for Progression
Then there are the props that change. I learnt advanced backbends, finessed jump backs and played with press lift handstands from blocks and they are all gone now, but I loved every step in the journey and learnt faster using this progressive method than others who were learning prop free around me.
If you are not sure what to ask for this Christmas, then think of some wonderful supports to add to the network that comforts, protects and progresses your practice.