Thursday, October 14, 2010

To Prop or Not to Prop

That is my question... 

For those of you newer to my blog, I lead primarily Ashtanga and Vinyasa sessions and occasionally a Hatha class or Yin class.  I prefer a flowing class myself, to just let the breath take me from place to place. 

However, I recently co-led a Yang-Yin class: one hour of vinyasa followed by one hour of restorative yin.  Back to back, no break in between other than a few moments in deep relaxation to facilitate the transition.   This was the first time this session was offered at the studio and we didn't know what to expect.  To every one's great amazement, it was incredibly well received.  Folks who usually do restorative Yin got to warm up with Yang, and those folks who primarily did Vinyasa, got to slow down and melt into the Yin poses. 

But what amazed me, was the amount of props my co-leader used.  I had a couple vinyasa folks comment on the amount of props and I've been contemplating it ever since: to use props or not to use props.  I use very few and on an individual basis.  And now I am questioning myself: Am I not using enough?  Should I be using more? 

Currently, what I find is they usually just get in the way.  A person spends an inordinate amount of time futzing with the prop, rather than using their breath and body to move into the pose. They are adjusting, wiggling, prodding or fluffing rather than just breathing and looking inward, feeling the pose internally.  With props, the focus seems to be outward - I can almost see the thought process - the prop isn't close enough, it's not high enough, it's to far away, it's now too low, it's not squishy enough; you get the idea.  Maybe you've been there yourself.

 In an ashtanga or vinyasa session, we are only in the poses for three to five breaths before moving on.  I have observed that by the time a person has propped them self, we're switching sides.   So it becomes an excuse not to do that pose.  It becomes a crutch rather than an asset.  I've observed the...almost panic...when someone realizes they forgot a prop and then go running to the closet and by the time they come back, we've moved on. Again - this isn't to say I never use props.  Blocks are handy when sitting in hero's pose, to deepen bridge pose, to move farther into extended side angle or triangle and to use to establish balance in ardha chandrasana; zafus have been good for my folks who have had knee surgery or knee issues; a blanket nearby for shoulder stand or to put under knees during camel or similar poses.  I tend to use a block in class when working on technique, guiding people into the nuances and layer or levels of the pose. 
But for me the question remains.  Should I be using more?  How would it affect the flow of the class?  Would I be facilitating a dependence rather than strengthening a practice?  Or encouraging someone to move deeper into a pose they didn't think was feasible?  

So I ask of you, what are your thoughts on propping in the lineage you teach in or participate in?  Do you wish for more props if you don't have any available?  Or do you find you prefer minimal props?  My guess is the answers are going to be as varied as a field of flowers.  

Editing to add: Sara from Do Restorative Yoga asked the exact same question back in September.  Please take a moment and see what she had to say on the topic from a Restorative viewpoint:  To Prop or Not to Prop.   Thanks Sara!

All photo's are from


Sara said...

Hi Kristin -

I suppose you know where I come down on this issue (as the co-teacher who used all the props - ha ha).

But seriously, I think the same things you think. Sometimes props are way too futzy. In a faster paced class they do get in the way. But in a Yin or Restorative class the whole idea is to slow down and allow the opening at its own rate. With support, the body can relax a little more, and some of the fear based gripping can be relieved by this support.

In my Hatha class I sometimes do flow based Hatha for the first half of class and then slow it down for the second half and use props to hold poses longer.

I don't think there is any right way to do yoga. It's fun to try many different ways.

Interestingly, I recently wrote a blog post with the same title as yours, talking about my own experiences with using props or not and in it I also re-posted an article from YJ with the same title. Here's the link if you are interested:

Thanks for getting the conversation going. ~ Sara

Kristin said...

Hi Sara,

Thanks for chiming in and the link. I must have missed your earlier Prop Post - I've added the link to the main body of the blog now.

The fear-based gripping is a great case-in-point: even in a flow class I've observed the comment "I can't do this pose because X Y Z," when the addition of a block/strap would facilitate the asana. But then they don't want to use the prop - perhaps out of greater fear that they will seem "weak" in a "power" class. Props are "okay" when everybody else is using them, but not if it's "just" you.

I have also noticed in my sessions when I have the whole class use a block, how many people just push them aside when my intent is to work on technique and less on full expression. So I end up asking myself, if nobody is going to use the prop, why bring it to the floor? And my answer is, because it may help *one* person acheive more comfort or stability.

Shrimata Sharan said...

My thoughts,

When you read the classical texts, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita, etc......there is no mention of props. They sure had walls, blankets, and belts back in those days. I don't use props when I teach, besides a blanket to sit on to get the hips above the knees, and a blanket to protect bony spines in shoulderstand. The Yogacharayas I studied with have said the same, forget the props and use your body, so I stick with that.

Jay Shiv Shakti

YogaSpy said...

For beginners, props are almost always necessarily to facilitate decent form. What's the point of doing Urdhva Mukha Uttanasana if the thoracic spine is rounded down (convex) rather than up (concave) because one cannot easily touch the floor? Why struggle into Trikonasana with bent spine and knees, again because the floor is too far away? For such poses, blocks are both helpful and simple to use. If the floor is too low, raise it with blocks!

As an Iyengar students and teacher, I believe in props as a means for a non-perfect yogi (all of us) to feel the power of asana when our bodies are restricted. Otherwise we are essentially struggling and hindering physical openness and mental stillness.

I would just vary the "complexity" of props depending on type and level of class. For vinyasa, less is more, eg, blocks and straps. For an Iyengar class, I might do backbend warmups through a chair or do Sarvangasana with stacked blankets. And, of course, more-advanced students will generally need fewer props.

Bottom line: Props are beneficial, versatile, and adaptable to various types of classes.

Erika Frykman said...

What an awesome discussion! I love it. I had to put my two cents in...

I used to dislike props (as a student), I felt weak if I needed one, as if my body wasn't good enough to do the pose. I have since changed my perspective-- when I experience a nice propping situation for my body, I am able to feel my breath flowing, and gripping tension leaving my body. I feel supported. When the ego can let go of that need for that "perfect looking pose", real yoga can be found.

Clearly, we look to the ancients as role models in the practice of yoga, but we have very different lives than they did (sitting slumped in cars and office chairs most of the day), and consequently, very different bodies-- you would agree by looking around the classroom and noticing how difficult Easy pose is for our Western spines and hips... a pose that actually is easy for some Eastern bodies. I come to the conclusion that yoga has to serve the body, not the other way around.

...and I agree that in a flowing vinyasa class, props just get in the way. There again, the question arises what is the individual body capable of. We have seen from experience that vinyasa is typically a more advanced practice-- not safe for some bodies, but oh so luscious and spiritual for others.

Finally, and most importantly, there is no such thing as bad yoga. Its all yoga. We all find our style.

Thank you so much for bringing this up! It’s sort of a heated topic, isn’t it? As much as there would be in the yoga world. Hee hee!

anjplanetyoga said...

I love to lay all the way on my back in hero’s pose. I always feel like it’s a little reprieve in the middle of class. I found Leeann Carey has a great free yoga video on hero’s pose that your readers might want to check out: