If you’re an experienced yogi, chances are you already know the value of using props to enhance your yoga practice. Yoga teachers are the ones who grab several blankets, a bolster, a strap and at least two blocks, creating a veritable fort of props surrounding their mat. But if you’re a beginner or still new to the practice, knowing why and how to use the different props can be a mystery unless a teacher explicitly includes them in a class. While there are many types of props in the yoga world, we’ll focus on the basics here: blocks, straps and blankets.
Myth-busting time! Just one more thing before we get into the breakdown of each prop. It’s a common misconception that using props means you aren’t capable of doing the pose as it’s meant to be practiced. Here’s the truth: the ONLY way to do yoga correctly is to do it in a way that honors your body. Honoring your body doesn’t mean powering through or pushing beyond your limits but it also doesn’t mean going easy and not trying. Using props effectively will help deepen your practice, increase your awareness and create space to better experience the benefits of the poses.
Blocks = Your Best Friend
Blocks are your best friend on your yoga mat. They offer solid support when it’s most needed (for example, underneath your front hand in triangle or half moon) and they reassure you when you feel really far away from the ground (like in standing forward bend or forearm stand). Blocks create space in the body to better target the key muscle groups in a pose. Sitting on a block with crossed legs or in virasana will create space in the hips and low back so you can experience ease while focusing on the breath or meditation. When you hold a block between your thighs in chair pose or flow through a sun salutation jumping between forward fold and plank, blocks push you to work harder and test your limits. Held between the thighs in bridge pose, they focus your attention on the quad muscles instead of the glutes but when placed beneath the sacrum in the same pose, they comfort you and help you relax.
Try keeping a block or two next to your mat throughout an entire class. Whenever the floor is just out of reach of your hands, place the block on any of its three sides (three different heights) to help support you. Usually, putting the blocks beside your mat but near the top will be the easiest place to access them during class.
Straps = Your Co-Worker
Not the annoying one who leaves a mess in the microwave; the co-worker you admire and with whom you have a good-natured rivalry. Sometimes straps remind you of how far away your goals are but most of the time, they challenge you to do the best you can that day. Straps provide that extra reach when you can’t quite make it on your own (holding a strap between your hands instead of clasping them behind your back in standing wide-legged fold, prasarita padottanasana). Sure, it would be great if your shoulders were flexible enough that your fingers interlace and touch the floor behind you, but everyone has to work with the body they have. It’s better to use a prop and still experience that deep shoulder stretch than to try and fake it or worse, injure yourself. Straps can also bring attention to where its most needed as in extended hand to big toe pose, utthita hasta padangusthasana. With a strap around the ball of your foot, not only can you keep the lower back extended and free from pain by grasping the strap instead of your foot, the pressure of the strap on your foot reminds you to keep muscular energy in the lifted leg with the toes flexed, which makes it easier to keep the leg raised.
You probably won’t need to use a strap in every class. If you know you have tight shoulders or hamstrings (straps are great for seated forward fold, paschimottanasana) then it’s a good idea to grab one at the start of class, unroll it and leave it gently folded beside your mat. If you need it that day, it’s nearby and if you don’t, it’s easy to roll up at the end of class.
Blankets = Your Mother
Blankets offer support and unconditional love. Blankets always have your best interests at heart, like when they protect your knee joint from the hard floor in a kneeling lunge. When the padding of your mat isn’t enough and you feel pain or discomfort, a blanket is a welcome aide. After all, yoga is about taking pain away, not creating it! In plow and shoulder stand, several blankets stacked underneath the shoulders will decrease the angle of flexion in your neck, creating a safer alignment. Like a good mother, blankets offer only as much support as you need and allow you to do the yoga on your own. Maybe sitting on a block with the legs crossed is more than you need but sitting on the ground would be uncomfortable – grab a folded blanket instead. Lastly, a mother’s job is to cradle you no matter how old you are: during savasana, use a folded blanket as a pillow, a rolled blanket underneath the knees to release tension in the lower back or an unfolded blanket as a cover to keep you warm. Savasana without props is wonderful, savasana with props can be glorious.
Put one or two folded blankets at the back of your mat. Use them to flatten down the pesky rolling up edge of your sticky mat and as support underneath your hips for the first seated meditation. When you start moving into other poses, gently push the blankets off the back of your mat so they’re out of your way but nearby if you need them later.
Remember, props are your friends! Using props during class is a sign of conscientiousness and respect for your body, not a sign of need or inexperience. Surround yourself with abundant support and feel the difference it will make in your practice!