That is the question!
Well we can safely say that most of us fall into two camps here when it comes to using props in a yoga class, and for good reason too. Here I take a look at each perspective, both for and against, to shed a little light on the subject.
There are some forms of yoga that use props such as Iyengar yoga and Yin yoga. Teachers believe that certain props give a “positive” amount of stress known as tension or compression to those who need it i.e. to assist in lengthening and opening the body, or even to make the posture possible at all. Overall they believe one can deepen their physical practice and address the need for support with the use of props.
The props that are generally used are bolsters, belts, blocks and blankets etc. These are sometimes available at your yoga studio or you may bring your own along with you. Each prop has a different purpose, for example:
- Bolsters may provide support to the back, under the knees or be used as a head/body resting place in certain postures.
- Belts can provide length in forward bending and the like when the flexibility is not there or the arms are not long enough to reach and hold onto the body directly. They are also used to pull oneself closer giving more extension and lengthening.
- Blocks can provide a support or act as a gap fill when there is room to stabilise and save one from toppling over.
- Blankets aid in providing a softer surface when pressure is applied from the body onto the ground i.e. under the knees in a lunge or across the shoulders in a shoulderstand.
Of course this is by no means an exhaustive list of props and their purposes and you may come across more depending on the type of yoga class you attend i.e. ropes, chairs, walls etc. Each teacher and class is different and they may ask you to utilise the props in various ways. Those who are beginners, injured or pregnant may benefit greatly from the extra support given from the use of props during a yoga class.
Not to Prop
Some other forms of yoga do not use props at all for example Sivananda yoga and Ashtanga yoga. These teachers believe that the body should not be put into postures that put any strain on it i.e. by pushing and pulling the body into positions that are beyond what the person is capable of doing at that time. This in turn can possibly cause discomfort and pain, could over-stretch the ligaments and muscles, and even cause serious injury.
The word asana means steady pose. The body itself being a solid form is better controlled on its own rather than using an external object which could in fact make it become less stable.
Further yogic philosophy tells us that the purpose of the yoga asanas is not about how far you can get into the posture or how advanced you can become – its not a competition! But it is about how present you are on the yoga mat at the time of your practice and then subsequently in daily life. To accept and be fully where you are now, breathing and allowing the body to let go and not to be forced into anything beyond its current ability. Over time with regular practice the body will naturally open and become more flexible, however this is considered to be a mere side effect. The main goal of yoga is for the body to become strong enough and the mind to be completely focused, which will in turn allow one to sit for long periods of time in meditation, eventually attaining moksha.
Of course, it’s totally up to you if you choose props or not – whatever works! But if you use props, please do make sure you are not forcing your body into postures that you are just not ready for yet. Use them as a support to let go and create a safe place for practice, rather than to push and pull. And… breathe deeply when you are there.
Picture: yoga bolster and belt with Buddha taken by Three Harmony