Props: Who Needs Them?

If you grew up (yogawise) using props, you may be surprised to learn that the props we know and love are less than 50 years old. For many, yoga would not be yoga without: mats, straps, blocks, blankets, chairs, sand bags, bolsters, and other more elaborate paraphernalia (think: the wall or ropes and rings, resembling medieval torture implements) installed in some studios).

To me, one of the beauties of yoga, and one of its greatest draws, is the fact that it doesn’t require special equipment, special clothes, specific weather conditions, mountains, waters, plains, or trails, flights or drives, hotels or resorts. It doesn’t require a backyard or even a roof over your head. But people like stuff, and they like to go places to do stuff with other people, and companies like to make money by producing and selling stuff and by moving people around and charging them for doing so. So, we now have not only props with legitimate uses in the studio, but also designer mats (last I heard, which was a while ago, Gucci was offering a $1500 yoga mat), fancy mat bags, calendars and posters and statues. Seventh Avenue yogi-fashionistas have contributed designer yoga clothes; a store in the West Village sells yoga-inspired jewelry.

But to get back to the beginning. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the premier yogis of the twentieth century, is the genius behind yoga props—though I don’t think he had a product line in mind when he first experimented with bricks and blankets. As Iyengar labored to bring his contortionist yogic prowess down to the level of mere humans, he realized that most of us don’t just bend in half (forward or backwards) like flexi-straws. He saw broad-brush patterns: tight hamstrings, rounded shoulders, creaky joints, cobwebs in the hip sockets. To make certain poses possible for students, he invented simple props: straps to loop around the feet in seated forward bends, when touching the toes was out of reach. Bricks and books to place under a hand in triangle pose. Blankets to tip the pelvis forward in seated poses. Bolsters to lie back on to open the chest. The yoga mat itself was reputedly “invented” by Angela Farmer. Studying with the Iyengars in Pune, India, she found the slippery concrete floor challenging in the warm, humid studio. So, she cut a piece of industrial rubber to her size and voila! The sticky mat was born.

The evolution of props from these humble beginnings has not kept pace with the progress of other arenas, such as technology and medical research. In fact, props look pretty much the same now as they did 50 years ago. We still have mats made of environmentally suspect blends of rubber, plastic, and petroleum by-products, coated at the factory with noxious, slippery glaze that mitigates their ability to be “sticky” until run through the wash. Bikram students have mat-sized towels to absorb the skid in 105-degree studios; students practicing in Mysore, India favor rough-weave cotton blankets given to prison inmates, and Yoga Paws has created little socks and gloves with nonskid treads that eliminate the need for mats at all. In a latter-day effort to recoup eco-sensitive integrity, Gaiam and others are making “organic” mats from jute and other bio-sustainable plants. Bricks and books have morphed first into solid wood blocks, then hollow wood blocks, and finally foam blocks (once again of dubious environmental value). Straps have metal C-rings and D-rings and plastic buckles that only a NASA scientist could maneuver into place. Chairs are still chairs. Blankets are still blankets (though, at least in the Iyengar tradition, the amount of attention given to how students are to fold the blankets borders on the insane/compulsive).

Given that props are here to stay, who needs them? We all do, at some point. Props extend our limbs (blocks under hands or feet, straps to join hands or loop around feet), provide traction (sticky mats), enhance alignment (blankets under the butt) and awareness (having a block to extend a foot toward can remind us to extend evenly through the four corners of the foot), provide support (under the thighs in hip openers, reclining on bolsters). Recently I’ve been inventing and cataloguing ways to use props to make poses harder—thus lifting the stigma of props as remedial.

But they can also hold us back. Students get inexplicably attached to props. This probably stems from our innate resistance to change; we tend to cling to what we know and to assume that what we heard first is good for all time. I know this because, as a teacher who views props as training wheels, as temporary solutions until a student gains the flexibility/stability/awareness to sustain good alignment prop-free, my frequent attempts to remove students’ props invariably meet with scowls and distrustful glares. I have disturbed homeostasis, I have not let well enough alone. I have tacitly asked someone to step into the unknown. They don’t feel ready, and can’t understand why I think they are.

Nonetheless, I persevere. Because props used beyond their use are worse than training wheels: they are like asking a growing child to wearing shoes they’ve outgrown. They can make you contort and compensate in ways that cause more problems. It’s as bad as contorting to hold a pose without props when you really need them.

Props also hold you at a certain plateau, in a certain geometrical configuration—and maybe not even one that’s right for your size and proportions. Because in the world of mass-produced props, one size fits all. You can’t order a 6B or a 34L, a P or an M or an XL. But even if you got the size right in the first place, your body is going to outgrow it as you gain strength, flexibility, and balance. BKS Iyengar realized this early on. In teaching himself to do back handsprings (vipariti chakrasana), he began by lifting his feet up off the ground on two telephone books. He then removed a page from each telephone book each day, until he could make the jump without any artificial lift.

Hands-on adjustments are my preferred alternative to proppage. When I touch a student to enhance flexibility, I can feel the innate degree of resistance in their muscles on any given day, and adjust accordingly. As a student gets stronger or steadier in a balance, I can loosen my hold. Touch also allows for energetic transmission, that intangible “hit” or slow, steady increase in well-being you experience during massage or in a loved one’s embrace. And it creates a connection between student and teacher that goes way beyond words. That said, many teachers hesitate to touch, or avoid touch altogether—either because they doubt their own ability to adjust intelligently, or because they have never received great adjustments themselves, or both. For the gift of giving and receiving confident and effect physical adjustments, I remain grateful for my ten years of Ashtanga practice, where the only communication between teacher and student came through touch. Woe be to yogis who miss this bliss.

Everything we do on the mat has repercussions off the mat. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. When we cling to a prop beyond its use, it conveys something else to our internal wiring: the signal “I’m stuck, and I choose to be.”

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