Purvanga is Sanskrit for preparations and Krama means a step by step approach. These traditions were key to the late teachings of the father of modern yoga; Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in his ViniYoga work with his son Desikachar. However, since the work of many scholars including Mark Singleton in ‘Yoga Body’, the term ‘traditional’ has been brought into question when falsely used as a prefix to suggest an ancient connection to many types of Modern Postural Yoga like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Now that our understanding is that many of our beloved postures like trikonasana are distinctly modern and were not practiced for 5,000 years by yogis, maybe we don’t need to draw on claims to traditionalism in order to validate what feels right and good in our own bodies. What if the wisdom of our own breath and the skilful means of our interoceptivity were allowed to speak for themselves. This would involve a radical act of listening (sravana – deep listening) rather than commanding the body.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught prescriptively in sequence, without preps or props, is only for a very elite few practitioners and even they may very well have a secret practice for their self practice in which they allow themselves less dogma. It presumes a certain body type; that of its original practitioners young healthy Indian boys. Unless we are willing be bend the rules this will remain an exclusive practice. For example, how do we invite all the people in: those who are old, young, large, small, with different proportions, bones structure and constitutions, those who have arthritis, adrenal fatigue and a lifetime of non-yoga activities crystallised into their tissues.
The style of the surya namaskars immediately assumes a level of fitness and flexibility beyond that of most normal people, so if we can’t break some rules we will injure people or turn them away. Similarly, if the hips are not extremely open there is no legacy from the late Pattabhi Jois (Krishnamacharya’s student and the founder of Ashtanga Yoga) as to how to prepare the body for the swift approaching lotus posture in the standing postures. In fact, many Mysore Style Ashtanga teachers are vehemently against props and preparatory postures in a Mysore room even for those with a lot of restricted movement. Of course, the nature of the Ashtanga series as fixed sequences means that any additional purvanga is viewed as a break from tradition. Whilst I understand that these might be procrastinations or ‘faff’ for some practitioners, ‘preps’ (as they are commonly termed) might be essential self care for those with more complex bodies. In a time when notions of ‘best practice’ are being extricated from tradition, post the Pattabhi Jois abuse revelations, it seems a good time to consider whether we are against props and preps for any legitimate reasons or whether ruling them out is yet another way to privilege the few who can practice without them instead of welcoming the many, who (to remain injury free) might need them. I feel increasingly aware as I age in the practice how important it is to throw off the shackles and practice in the way that feels comfortable and safe to me. Every day in the west we are faced with students whose bodies tell the story of a western life with plenty of tightening from stresses, sports and some long periods of sitting in chairs. These bodies are ill prepared for sitting on the floor, let alone lotus-ing a leg – bring on the props and preps.
I also don’t believe we have to grow out of props. I am currently strapping my thighs in some back bends to encourage internal rotation of the femur and it is proving a wonderful new venture for me. Even as we practice more advanced postures, props and preps can be worth their weight – using blocks to drop back to rather than the floor when we are learning is excellent. Also, however ‘advanced’ someone’s practice looks, their thinking is not advanced until they are willing to back off and take it easier some days – there is no balance in smashing it six days a week, a different full series each day for the whole of your adult life. Something will break. The only warnings when adding postures or additional gestures, is not to cool down too much if your room is not warm or to lose meditative focus. Stay steady with the breath.
Here are some suggestions for students as to how and when to integrate preps and props:
- Do some preparatory postures before you sit for practice. In this way they can be diagnostic. For example if you do some simple lunges before you practice you may notice some tightness in the flexors which, if registered then, could save your back when it comes to the backbends. It also means once you have chanted, you can stay in the vinyasa and keep the heat of the practice. For some practitioners drop knee lunges rather than warrior one in surya namaskar B would be a perfect option.
- If you are integrating preps before the posture you are preparing for, why not count your preps, for example if you are doing agni stambhasana to prepare for lotus count your breaths there, maybe even vinyasa between sides.
- Do some research on the most potent preparatory postures or krama (step by step) work for the posture that you are struggling with.
- Sometimes doing a posture once with a prop and once without helps. For example, strapping the elbows in Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and then doing it without or squeezing a block in Pincha Mayurasana (forearm balance) and then practising it without. The muscle memory of the propping might still be there on the second attempt.
- Plank to updog with no chaturanga in Surya namaskar
- Low lunges in Surya namaskar B instead of Warrior 1
- Using a block to put the hand down to in trikonasana B
- Head on a block in Prasarita Padottanasana
- Placing the foot of the extended leg on the wall or resting on a radiator for Uthitta Hasta Padangushtasana
- Purvottonasana with one leg bent to table top, this foot can push strongly into the earth so the other leg can get straighter and pelvis remain higher.
- If the leg is a long way off lotus in Adha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana then place the shin in a pigeon shape, foot resting on a block to the outside of the straight leg. This is an excellent hip opener. If fact all lotuses can be pigeons when needs be
- Wedge shaped blocks are rarely used but are excellent for correcting posterior tilting pelvis OR to drop weight back into the sitting bone that is lifting if you place it under the opposite buttock in Triang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana
- Strapping to complete binds or choosing not to bind at all in Marichyasanas and sitting on a block or wedge to decrease posterior pelvic tilt or the feeling of falling backward
- Feet on blocks to let gravity drop the torso through to find head behind heels in Supta Kurmasana
- Hands or feet on blocks at the wall for Urdhva Dhanurasana
Some personal favourites for Intermediate Series
- Pasasana with heels on a block, wedge or towel for Achilles lengthening
- Wedge a block under the corner of opposite buttock to one of the lifted leg in Krounchasana
- Dropping to block stacks in Laghu Vajrasana
- Dharma Wheel for Kapotasana prep or doing Urdhva Dhanurasana to prep the backbend more
- Eka pada sirsasana prep with baddha konasana, pigeon or kashyabhasana or a placing the eka pada foot on a chair out in front and drawing the head under the chair seat or to the foot as feels good
- Squeezing a block between my hands to stabilise the ribs for Pincha Mayurasana . Strapping the elbows can also be very exciting for the external rotation of the shoulder
- Dropping back to block stacks for drop backs if they are not well established OR hand stand drop overs onto them and jumping back off for viparita chakrasana
I also use props in a restorative fashion regularly, especially for finishing practice. I sometimes do this with lots of restorative options. Remember balance in all things find the tools that best support you.