By Frank Jesse
It’s not surprising that Iyengar yoga is known for its use of props such as blankets, block and bolsters. Using such props was one of many innovations Mr Iyengar bought to yoga practice. Using props is intrinsic to this system of yoga. However, the reasons for their use are often misunderstood.
Some students, especially those used to flowing styles of yoga, believe that props are hindrance to their practices. However Mr Iyengar developed their use to help students move more carefully into the pose without undue risk.
As Michelle Goldberg wrote in her excellent article in The New Yorker recently: “[Iyengar] knew from experience the dangers of forcing oneself into poses prematurely, and he set about developing a slower, more anatomically precise type of yoga, using props like blocks and blankets to help students find correct alignment.”
Ramamani Iyengar’s role
It all started during Mr Iyengar’s early practice. When he wanted to get into more advanced postures, Mr Iyengar sometimes asked his wife, Ramamani, for help and support. He then began experimenting with using bricks or pieces of furniture to help him in his yoga practice. Later, he started using various props in his classes to help students deepen in their practice.
This is how Iyengar’s use of props evolved.
Support, therapy and an entirely new possibility
A mat, a bolster, foam or wooden block, cotton blankets and a belt are the basic kit for Iyengar yoga.
These are used throughout a practice to support students who are stiffer. For example, we can use a belt in Gomukhasana if our fingers do not touch behind our back. In Trikonasana (triangle pose), we can rest our hand on a block if we cannot reach the floor. In shoulder-stand, the shoulders are supported on a number of blankets so we can move into a more upright position without straining our neck. In fact shoulder-stand done without the support of blankets can, with time, be harmful, by overstretching the tendons of the neck and flattening its natural curvatur.
In other cases, props can be used therapeutically. In poses like dog pose, using a block to support the head make it more restful and is excellent for students with high blood pressure. Supporting the legs through ropes in downward dog pose allow us to stay longer in the pose and get more of its benefits.
Specialist props, such as ropes fixed securely to the wall, open up the range of postures students can try. For example, it means we can do headstand in the ropes without putting any weight on the head, which is especially useful for people with neck problems.
In my view, the ropes are fun; they add interest and an extra dimension to our practice. But I know they can be scary for people are first, until they are used to using them.
Without props, we really could not do a restorative yoga session – which is a whole new style of practice that Mr Iyengar introduced. We can do Sirsasana (headstand), Halasana (plough pose), Setubandha (bridge pose) and even forward bends using props to support us in a restorative session, which involves less effort in getting our alignment and allows us to hold postures for longer.
In a restorative yoga session, we can relax more while still doing a powerful sequence of postures. Restorative practices are very useful when we are fatigued or recovering from an illness.
I’m surprised sometimes at people’s resistance to props. One student told me “I don’t like props!” Actually, yoga is not about what we like and do not like – it is about observation and awareness of our body, mind and emotions. Using props is integral to Iyengar yoga. If you do not use props, you haven't fully experienced or understood Iyengar yoga.
Everything can be a prop in our yoga practice. If you rest your feet against the wall in handstand, the wall is a prop. The floor is a prop, if you like, providing you a surface smoother than the rough ground. So every form of yoga uses props!
Props do not necessary take the challenge out of our practice, but rather make it possible to get the correct alignment. In fact the real challenge in yoga, as stated in the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali, is “stilling of the fluctuations of the mind” -- in other words, learning to remain completely focused in our practice, without letting our mind become distracted.
They may seem to add an extra level of complexity to the pose, especially for beginners who need to be introduced to props gradually so they can appreciate their purpose. However the props allow for better alignment and will help you experience asanas that may not be possible for you to get into without props
Props make Iyengar a very democratic system of yoga – people of all ages, abilities and disabilities can maintain an Iyengar yoga practice with just a few basic props. Using props helps people recovering from injury, or those who are just feeling low in energy when they come to their mat.
Props help us to look at asana in a new light, add interest, and help and support to our yoga practice
Observe your attitudes to their use: are you fearful, frustrated or confused? The use of props is just another way to build knowledge of ourselves.
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