Props for props: enhancing your yoga practice

Yoga teacher Kim Cherry travels everywhere with her bag of tricks. Need to deepen a lunge? She’s got two blocks handy. Ready to pull up into Dancer’s Pose? She’s there with a strap. Tight hips? She has a blanket ready to roll up for support.
Her aim is to enable her students to experience yoga postures more profoundly and more safely, creating new sensations that can lead to growth.
Certainly you may know that a good sticky mat helps keep your hands and feet from slipping in yoga class. That skid-free surface might be all the help you need to make for a masterful downward facing dog. But when one neighbor pulls out an array of bolsters from her bag, and another spends time before class arranging towels around his mat, you may wonder if it’s time to further explore the world of yoga props.
“Props are an instrument to get you into some semblance of a pose, to find those places where you can make space in the body. Props are a stepping stone to finding integrity,” says Cherry. “If you have someone trying to reach to their toes forcefully, you’re being counterproductive and creating a feeling of fight or flight. By using a strap you can experience the stretch of your hamstrings and keep the integrity of the pose.”
Cherry says initial resistance to using props is common, especially for practitioners that may go into a pose the same way every time.
“You have to leave your ego at the door if you want to get all the juice, all the nectar available in the expression of a pose” she says, as she begins to practice, warming up with a series of Sun Salutations enhanced with props.
“People think that they don’t need them, but that’s bull,” she says, opening into Triangle pose, then Half Moon, demonstrating how she can expand into long lifted lines of torso, arms, and legs simply through the use of a block. “Props are your friends.”
Yoga instructor Anita Jarowenko admits to the same misconceptions when she started out.
“Coming from strong fitness background, I felt like using props was cheating. I would muscle through poses because I wouldn’t put my hand on a block,” she recalls. “But it’s not cheating, it’s enhancing.”
As she moves through a flow of asanas, Jarowenko reaches for props that augment each posture, allowing her a greater range of experience and sensation.
The soft, colorful props that support her knees, then wrists, then low back and neck, as she moves from Camel to Wheel to Savasana (Corpse pose), are of her own design.
Jarowenko invented her own props, initially to help her “bony-knee-d” husband be more comfortable as they practiced together.
“First I made these amoebas out of fabric that I stuffed with rice, but they weren’t right. Then somebody gave me a gel-filled wrist pad for using with the computer and I realized oh my gosh, this is it,” she says. Trial and error resulted in the development of YogaJellies, (yogajellies.com), which since their launch in September, have become a popular prop for yogi practitioners around the world, of all ability levels.
The soft supports serve as transitions for those working up to more difficult poses, as well as making the practice itself accessible for those who need a more cushiony surface.
“That little break that you can give people can be huge. I hear from so many people with arthritis or carpal tunnel or knee replacements who say ‘you’ve given yoga back to me’,” says Jarowenko. “I’m creating one happy set of knees and hands at a time.”

Restorative Yoga teachers count on a multitude of props to enrich their classes as well. Blankets, bolsters, straps, blocks, wedges, and best of all, eye pillows all come into play. Classroom walls and folding chairs also offer support.
“Props are an absolute necessity in Restorative Yoga,” says instructor Meagin Lamson. “They can make or break a pose.”
Her favorite props include a strap to tie around her legs, “because opening your hips without engaging your muscles is so difficult,” and a blanket, “because you can fold it for support, you can put it on your body to add weight and create grounding, and it adds warmth in Savasana.”
Restorative yoga master teacher Staci Jasin says that props “optimize alignment, and in doing so, optimize the energetic flow as well as the physical safety of the pose.”
“There can be an amazing difference in Viparita Kirani (legs up the wall) when the thighs are tied or not tied. When tied, the body and mind don’t have to keep swapping signals to draw the legs together,” says Jasin. “Props also ideally fill the space between the ground and the joints or other anchor points of a particular pose. This grounding prompts the process of letting go – the non-gripping of muscles, tissue, and thoughts.”
Students in Restorative classes can place many of the props themselves, but often the instructors are needed to add the finishing touches, like the subtle weight of eye pillows in palms, or a rolled blanket to create a cocoon of warmth.
“Restorative Yoga is so refreshing because it gives your mind and body a break,” says Lamson. “We don’t realize how tired the body is, how tired the mind is, until we give ourselves permission to slow down and let go and be okay with doing nothing. But the courage to give yourself a break is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.”
These replenishing classes support the body in sustained postures to encourage deeper relaxation as they simultaneously create a flush of renewed energy.
“In a Restorative practice, props are essential to support the physical body and allow the mind to rest,” says Jasin. “Poses are held for an extended period and there is a gradual passive stretching taking place. In turn, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated when the brain sends signals that the body is supported, safe, and comfortable.”
She says the lessons learned in a yoga class have relevance in the larger world.
“There are many magical metaphors to using props and life,” she says. “Where is your support in life so you can let go?”

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