How to Use Props: Excerpt From Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life

January 19, 2021
From Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life © 2020 by Dianne Bondy and Kat Heagberg. All photos by Andrea Killam. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. [[pg. 30-37]] Ch. 5

How to Use Props

Props are wonderful tools to enhance your yoga practice—whether you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner. Some students (and teachers) may feel resistant to using a prop, worrying that it shows they are not capable of a pose or are deficient in some way. We believe the opposite to be true! Props can dramatically change your experience of a pose, can make something either more accessible or more challenging, and can help you make wise choices for your body just as it is. We don’t see the use of props as a lesser modification, but rather a wonderful variation to help customize your practice.

Here are the props we use for many of the pose variations in this book along with suggestions for how to use them, where to find them, and common household items you can swap out instead. We also share some of the most common myths about working with props, followed by the truth!

YOGA BLOCKS

Also known as . . .
You’ll sometimes hear these referred to as “yoga bricks.”

Common uses
To “lengthen” your arms or legs, bringing the ground closer to or farther away from you; to squeeze or push into in order to activate specific muscles; to prop up body parts for added comfort; to give you a boost in arm balances and inversions.

How they vary
Blocks can vary in material and thickness (ranging from around two to four inches thick in general). Foam blocks are lighter and often cheaper, though less environmentally friendly. Cork, wood, or bamboo blocks are often greener alternatives and they’re also on the heavier/sturdier side.

Where to find them
Yoga blocks are ubiquitous these days! You can find them in athletic stores, department stores, maybe even your local supermarket, as well as lots of places online.

Easy substitutions
Many people recommend thick books as a block alternative, though it’s important for yoga teachers to keep in mind that depending on a person’s cultural background and/or religious beliefs, they may not be comfortable placing books on the floor. If you need something to place under your hands, sturdy water bottles, an upside-down (empty!) wastebasket, or a set of sturdy dumbbells can also be great block alternatives. If you’re looking for something to squeeze or press into, a rubber ball (like a child’s play ball) or folded blanket or towel can work great.

YOGA STRAP

Also known as . . .
A “yoga belt.”

Common uses
To lasso a limb that you can’t quite reach, to add resistance—to give you something to “pull apart” or “press out against.”

How they vary
Straps come in different lengths (often ranging from six to ten inches) and have different types of clasp (typically plastic buckles or metal “D rings”). We like longer straps because they’re a bit more versatile in their use. Metal D rings are often a little easier to cinch than the plastic buckles, and they’re more eco-friendly.

Where to find them
Straps are common props that you’ll typically find in all the same places as blocks.

Easy substitutions
A bathrobe tie, a dog leash, a jump rope, an actual belt, a necktie, a long sock (if you just need a little bit of length).

BLANKET

Common uses
To elevate a body part (like your seat or your heels), to add extra cushioning and support.

How they vary
Blankets come in different sizes, materials, and thickness. This is important to keep in mind if you’re allergic to any material (such as wool) or need to fold a blanket in a particular way. Blankets sold on yoga websites, at yoga studios, and those labeled “saddle blankets” are typically easy to fold up for common yoga variations.

Where to find them
Online, at yoga studios, from local artisans, maybe even on your living room couch!

Easy substitutions
Large towels; any blanket, afghan, or thin sleeping bag you may have around the house; a rolled-up yoga mat is often a great substitute for a rolled-up blanket.

BOLSTER

Common uses
To fill in space, to add cushioning or support, to literally “bolster” you in almost any way you can imagine!

How they vary
Bolsters come in all different shapes, sizes, densities, and heights.

Where to find them
Yoga studios, online, some places that sell other yoga props (such as department and athletic supply stores).

Easy substitutions
Thick pillows or cushions, a thickly rolled blanket. You can also put together an especially thick, firm, and cozy makeshift bolster by rolling up a couple of blankets (or even rolling up a blanket or two around a thick, rolled-up yoga mat), and then using a couple of yoga straps or belts to hold them in place.

WALL

Common uses
To stand in front of or next to for support, to press into for feedback, to climb up, to hold you steady in an inversion.

Where to find them
Your home, your yoga studio, or any indoor space where you practice.

Easy substitutions
If you’re practicing outside, a sturdy tree makes a lovely wall-ternative!

CHAIR

Common uses
To provide balance support, to “raise the floor” and/or elevate your hands or feet, to shift the symmetry of a pose in order to stretch and strengthen different muscle groups, to serve as a steady platform to begin to explore arm balancing. When practicing chair-supported variations, we recommend having all four chair legs on your mat in order to prevent the chair from sliding.

How they vary
You can buy special backless “yoga chairs” that can be more versatile to work with, but most of the time a simple folding chair or even your average kitchen chair will do.

Where to find them
You can find backless yoga chairs online (they’re sometimes referred to as “Iyengar chairs”); regular folding chairs are available in multiple places online and in many department stores and superstores.

Easy substitutions
Most of the time any sturdy chair will work just fine for yoga. Depending on the pose variation, you may be able to sub a sofa, ottoman, coffee table, bed, or other piece of furniture as well.

ROLLED-UP YOGA MAT

Common uses
To place under your knees for support and/or press into to engage specific muscle groups, to elevate your toes or heels in order to make a pose more or less intense, to support your back heel in standing poses.

How they vary
You can customize your mat roll as much as you like. In general, if you have a very thick yoga mat you probably won’t roll it up all the way, and if your mat is on the thinner side, you might.

Where to find them
Yoga mats are available in lots of places, ranging from your local studio to your local grocery store. And of course, there are tons of options online.

Easy substitutions
For many variations, a rolled-up blanket can take the place of a rolled-up mat—particularly if you want to practice on your mat and you don’t have an extra one on hand.

BUSTING COMMON MYTHS ABOUT PROPS

Myth #1: Props are just for beginners.
Nope! Props are tools used to facilitate a particular experience in a pose, something that applies to yogis of all levels. A prop might, for example, be used to enhance a specific action (like squeezing a block between your thighs to engage your inner thigh muscles), to accommodate your unique body proportions (no matter how advanced you get, your arms aren’t going to get any longer or shorter), to make a pose more restorative (we all need to kick back and relax sometimes), or to make a pose harder
(see myth #2).

Myth #2: Props are only used to make poses easier.
Sure, props can be used to make poses easier, and that’s great. Take a handstand press, for example. This is a very challenging transition where you place your hands on the floor, rise up onto your toes, shift your hips up over your shoulders and push your hands into the ground in order to rise up into a handstand without using any momentum.
Because it can be difficult to get the hips up over the shoulders, lots of people start by standing on yoga blocks, giving the hips a little extra lift from the get-go. After practicing that way for a while to get the hang of the mechanics, they might remove the blocks and try pressing up into a handstand without blocks under their feet. And let’s say they do it! And after a while, they’re ready for a new challenge. In this case, they might place blocks under their hands, which requires more upper-body strength and makes the press harder!
Or, for another example, try practicing a sun salutation while squeezing a yoga block between your thighs the whole time—and don’t let it drop! We’re willing to bet that did not make the sun salute easier. In this book we offer all sorts of prop options. Some might make a pose easier for you, others might make the pose harder, and still others might simply make it more interesting.

Myth #3: You’re not doing the “full” or “real” form of a pose if you’re using a prop.
We want to state this loud and clear: NOPE, NOPE, NOPE, NOPE, NOPE. The “real” version of a pose is whatever version you’re doing right now, right here in this reality. The “full” form of a pose is the way in which you express the pose most fully, truly making it your own. And the best form of a pose is whichever form best serves you.

Myth #4: The best way to make a pose accessible is to use as many props as possible.
As you may have guessed, we love props! And props are wonderful tools for making poses more accessible, but more isn’t always better. A ton of props can be overwhelming and sometimes unnecessary. The key is to find the props that facilitate the pose experience you’re looking for so that you can truly reap its benefits. Sometimes this may mean bringing in several different props, but other times it might be as simple as placing your hands on a wall or rolling up a blanket to place behind your knees. While we know teachers who love working with loads of props (and we think that’s great if it’s your thing), we both tend to think of ourselves as prop minimalists. While we adore props of all kinds, we can get a little flustered working with lots of different props at once and often prefer to see what we can do with one or two props at a time.

Myth #5: The best props cost a lot of money.
We’re not gonna lie, yoga props can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. When it comes down to it, a blanket is just a blanket, a strap is just a strap, right? Buying the most deluxe version probably isn’t going to make your practice any more fulfilling. And the truth is, many yoga props can be replaced with common household items, as we’ve mentioned, so you don’t have to break the bank in order to support your practice.

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