When I first started doing yoga, I had to use a lot of props — blocks, straps, wedges, bolsters, etc. As I became more flexible, though, my use of props decreased, until I eventually stopped using yoga props altogether.
Now, more than ten years after I started doing vinyasa flow yoga, I’m using props all the time. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve (mostly) outgrown the silly notion that using props makes me a beginner. For whatever reason, though, a lot of yoga practitioners seem to think that props are only for newbies, and that it’s somehow a sign of weakness or inadequacy if you use props. The truth, however, is that intelligent use of props can actually help you get a lot more out of certain yoga postures. (If you don’t believe me, just ask B.K.S. Iyenger!)
Parsvokonasana, aka Extended Side Angle Pose, is a classic example of this. So many students want to go to what they perceive is the most advanced version of this posture — i.e., binding their hands behind the back. But there’s really no point in doing this, if it means you’re also sticking your butt out to the side, collapsing your hips, and turning your chest down towards the floor. When you practice like this, you are not doing the pose — you’re just doing something that vaguely looks like the pose. And poor form tends to reinforce itself over time, so the more you insist on doing the “advanced” version of a pose, the less likely it is that you’ll ever be able to do it correctly.
I’ve been seeing this a lot in class lately, but since I’m not the teacher, I don’t say anything to the other students. I sometimes wish, though, that the instructor would take the time to discourage students from putting themselves into mangled positions that do not in fact engage the posture in the correct way. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers present asanas in an unhelpful manner — e.g., in Triangle Pose, “If you’re a beginner, put your lower hand on your shin. More experienced students, place your hand on a block. Level 2-3 students can put their hand to the floor.” When a posture is presented in this way, almost everyone in the room goes for the last option!
The challenge is to ignore a teacher who presents postures in this way, and to just do what makes sense for your practice on that particular day. In Triangle Pose, for instance, I will sometimes use a block. Other times, I put my hand on the floor. If I’m feeling stiff, I may just go down to my shin. It all depends on how open I am that day, and how much internal heat I’ve built up. Most importantly, when I’m in the pose, I try to gauge the appropriateness of my chosen hand position by seeing if I’m actually engaging the pose properly. Am I able to extend through both sides of my torso? Or is this position causing me to collapse? Am I able to maintain a sense of buoyancy in my upper body? Or is this position causing me to dump weight into my arm? Am I able to rotate my chest and shoulders open? Or is this position causing me to close my chest and shoulders towards the floor?
A simple thing like putting a block under your hand in Parsvokonasana or Triangle can help you to build the strength and flexibility necessary to really do the pose. Remember, the point of these yoga postures is not to contort yourself in a certain way, or to put your hands or arms or feet in a certain spot. Yoga is not a game of Twister! A better way to think about the poses is from the inside out — i.e., think in terms of properly rotating and extending through your limbs and/or torso, engaging your muscles, and, of course, breathing.
In the coming weeks, I’ll try to post some pictures and examples of simple, but highly effective, ways for yogis to use props in their practice. The first step is just to grab some props at the beginning of each class. When you have blocks and a strap nearby, you can always try them to see if they help. Most importantly, by setting aside your ego and using some props, you can begin to “work the pose,” as I like to say, and not just “strike a pose.”