About 15 years ago, a student I’ll call George showed up for my class one day. He was in his early 60s and had been a runner. But he’d chewed up his knees from years on the pavement, so he started working out at the gym where I was teaching instead. His chiropractor told him he really needed yoga and recommended my classes. George embarked on his yoga journey intent on doing the hardest poses in the most strenuous fashion, all while gritting his teeth or, alternatively, wincing.
When he first starting coming to my classes, I would directly request that he use a prop. But he ignored me. My next strategy was to discretely sneak a block next to his mat. But it would just sit there, lonely and untouched.
“Come on George,” I’d quietly urge, “It will feel a lot better.”
“Props are for wimps!” he retorted with a good-natured chuckle. “I’ll loosen up eventually.”
If I knew then what I know now, I would have said, “It’s nice to be optimistic, but flexibility is not just a matter of will, it’s dependent on how you’ve used your body throughout your life, as well as your age, sex, and genetics. If you don’t use props for some of these poses, you might hurt yourself.”
George might sound like someone who doesn’t really understand yoga – self-compassion, nurturing, non-competitiveness, and self-acceptance were not on his radar.
But it’s not an isolated perspective. I once taught a workshop in a studio that had no props, well they had mats. . .but that was it. Super bare bones. I asked the studio owner about it and she said, “Well, I just don’t want my students to become dependent on them.”
Another studio owner once told me that if I just pushed myself harder, I would look like her in a few months.
Gasp. . .Choke. . .Breathe. . .
Even though I didn’t understand much about the science of flexibility at that time, I knew that I could hurt myself if I overdid it and I wasn’t interested in that.
I’d rather be a little tight but still able to walk in 10 years, thanks.
If you have a short torso, long arms and legs, hypermobile joints, and a cheerleading history, you might make it to the cover of Yoga Journal performing any number of gravity-defying, Instagram-ready positions.
For the rest of us, there are props.
Eventually, I figured out how to help George. I started making the whole class get a block, bolster or blankets depending on what we were doing. Everyone, myself included, would do the same pose with the prop and then I’d say things like, “You may choose to do this without the prop if you like, but I’m going to show it and teach it this way.”
Somehow this shift in my teaching gave George the permission he needed to accept props. I noticed that he began to struggle less and enjoy class more. He stopped gritting his teeth and wincing, he even began staying for Śavasana instead of hustling out with an excuse that he was late for something.
George got a little more flexible, but mostly, he started to find a little more quiet within himself, and a weekly opportunity to take a mini vacation from his strive-drive.
I believe that if yoga teachers can help people feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin, a little less stressed, and give them a chance to take a small reprieve from their self-punishing tendencies, then we’ve done something positive, we’ve given students the space to explore a way of being they may not have access to anywhere else in their lives.
Great tips and sensible reasons why we love our props!
If props are for wimps then I am the biggest wimp and love it !
Absolutely agree! It’s about getting the best benefit from the pose. #useprops
You have helped me guide a friend in my class to use the block for her tight hamstrings
Loved this article. I was a George for so many years … it was what I believe was required to be successful. Now, I enjoy teaching yoga practice with props. I finally wised up.
I like the sentence I heard once “Get the ego out of your fingertips”. Thats it – get the ego out. It isn’t weakness to use blocks, no it is wisdom. I love your words!
As a person with a short torso and longer legs, even the thicker blocks under my hands won’t allow me to step forward from plank when doing sun salutations. How do you feel this body configuration is conducive to Instagram-like poses?
Of course it also has to do with the length of your arms and your general flexibility. And YJ cover models are probably showing the poses that they can do best. It is a generalization of course, but you can’t do a pose like this without long arms https://www.yogajournallibrary.com/view/issue/194/#page=1
Not taking away anything from her strength, but there are lots of folks who could not get their butt off the ground in this pose, regardless of strength, because there arms are too short, shoulders too broad, torso too long, etc.
I once worked with a wrestler, there was no way he could ever bring his elbows together to do mayurasana, his shoulders were too wide and arms too short.
Here are a few more examples of my long limb theory.
I love using props and teach my students how to use them as well.
OMGosh I do the same thing with props in my classes! Everyone gets them lol. myself included and I teach that way. I love your content and I really identify with your message. This is how I have been teaching anyway. I struggle with finding consistent clients to stick to the slow stuff because they are often adrenaline junkies! Thanks for helping me find the science and the words behind what I already knew in my heart!
This is so helpful and encouraging. As I have just started my teaching journey one of the most common things I hear from people is that they are not flexible enough for yoga. Neither I am if I’m comparing myself to the super flexible people featured in the yoga books. We all have to start somewhere and props are the perfect starting point.
Thanks so much Cyndi! I agree that we all have to start somewhere. And I also think being okay with wherever you are is more important than nailing that one-armed handstand you saw on Instagram. I’m much more interested in longevity and functionality than I am in “peak” poses.
Thank you for giving affirmation to accept my body as it is.
I refer to my block as “my personal assistant” ?
i turned my laptop upside down to look more closely, it looks real, hair hanging down/gravity, and she looks relatively content but the leg arrangement is boggling my mind and making me feel a little queasy 🙂 To each their own, so grateful for props, supportive instruction and excellent teachers (like you!)
George is lucky that he has you as a yoga teacher, most of the students just really need support and encouragement. So nice of you to share this story. -Mindy
Excellent, excellent, Kaoverii. This resonates with me and many, I’m sure, who have been teaching for long enough to have encountered such situations. Hail to Master Iyengar, the “furniture yogi” for his development of using props. If he could use a steam roller, can’t we use a chair? (He can be seen doing a backbend over a steam roller in one of her early films)
From many years of practising and teaching yoga I came to realisation that having props or not having props is not a real question to ask. It all depends on the way a person approaches their practice. Sometimes using props can encourage a person to push themselves harder.For example using a belt to bring your chest closer to your legs in sitting create a push and it becomes gal orientated. I pracsise Scaravelli inspired yoga, where we work with gravity, breath and the ‘wave’ – a response in the body/mind which leads to lengthening, opening, liberating. Props can be used but not really necessary as we are working from within. props can instil wrong objectives. I use blocks as support in sitting and for some people -under the head in lying. If I had to use belts, they have to be treated almost as an extension of the limb, so a person can still feel the forces of gravity through it….
What a great point Irina! Yes, props can also be a hindrance to practice. However, here I’m more speaking to the idea that people somehow have come to equate the use of props with wimpy or uncool or inept yoga and I think that is a real problem. And people get hurt because they think they have to do the toughest postures with no help. I believe that what you are talking about (and my understand of Scaravelli taught) is, for many people, a level beyond this conversation. For people to begin to achieve a level of awareness where they can access the “wave” for many, requires a willingness to move beyond form and into an interoceptive flow that can take a while to access. Depending on one’s early development and also one’s history of usage, it can be quite challenging to even have enough proprioceptive awareness to begin to undertake postures. What I’ve witnessed, from my 24 years of teaching subtle practices, is that the ability to access subtle awarenesses of the body, for example myofascial releases, can take a while and requires diligence and a certain level of listening capacity. I believe that if we started teaching these skills to people as children, they would have a much greater capacity. However our education tends to be much more proprioceptively focused (if at all), via sports, then interoceptive skill building – which just really, very rarely is taught at all.