Props can be a divisive subject among Yoga
practitioners. Some gurus extol their virtues while others disdain
them as “furniture.” The fact is, props are in heavy use in the
mainstream of many Yoga classes and if we start with the premise that
they can be useful, what are props for and how can we use them more
I would offer the idea that using props isn't about sagging into support. Using props is about expanding your brain and body and letting them both know what's possible. Without the support of a prop, you might get to the point of feeling that particular opening on your own, or you might be able to get your hand to the floor, but with the prop your brain can get a bit ahead of the game to feel the "is-ness" of the pose, and I would argue (as I'm sure many yogalilans would) that when your brain can get there first, it can communicate informative/reassuring messages to the muscles and get you there sooner and safer.
Since July’s focus is on standing poses, I will concentrate on that essential prop in many Yoginis’ standing practice: the block. Wood, cork, or foam, the block can be a useful and surprisingly versatile tool in your practice. The obvious use is clear: you can use a block to support you in standing poses where your hands do not reach the floor (yet). There are more uses for this humble tool, however.
Ambition (and its ugly stepsister, Ego) can sometimes cause us to set aside props too early. “I will get my hand to the floor!” has probably been the introductory line for all too many injuries. But ambition can also come at the price of alignment. A novice might be able to place her hand on the floor in Ardha Chandrasana, but may compensate for her short hamstrings by excessive curvature of the spine and compaction of the side of the body closest to the floor. With a block’s assistance, however, the student can feel the length on both sides of the body and the body can memorize that feeling. When she is finally ready to place her hand on the floor, better alignment will follow more easily.
What about the student who is too eager to reach for the floor in Uttanasana? The full weight of the upper body on the hamstrings may cause a panicky reaction in the student’s brain, causing the muscles to tense and contract: the opposite of the desired result. With a block, he can “reassure” those panicky hamstrings that they aren’t about to be jerked or yanked, and the relaxed muscle can gain more benefit from the asana.
Another use for a block that is surprisingly effective (and deceptively simple) is this: stand in Tadasana, and raise your arms to Urdhva Hastasana. Observe any feelings about the energy in the arms and shoulders in this pose. Release the arms back down so you are standing in Tadasana again. Now, do the same exercise holding a block in front of you, pressed gently between your palms. Raise your arms up over your head into Urdhva Hastasana, continuing to hold the block. Feel the firmness in the shoulders? See how easily the shoulder blades stay on the back?
This observance of how props can help can then be brought back into the pose without the prop- try Urdhva Hastasana again now, without the block, but imagining it is still there. Enjoy the prop’s role as a tool for enlightenment, breathe, and enjoy.