Iyengar Yoga is characterized by several qualities, primarily precision and alignment, timing of the poses, sequencing of the postures, and the use of props. The use of props in Iyengar Yoga has been one of the fruits of Mr. Iyengar’s innovative genius. Misunderstood by many, it has also been the object of ridicule and jokes. However, because of Iyengar’s in-depth work with props, people of all ages and health conditions can perform the asanas with ease and thus experience a plethora of benefits from yoga.
Is there literature describing the function of props? Not that I am aware. There are noncommercial publications with pictures or illustrations of prop usage, but there is not a descriptive reference. However, let’s take an overview of prop function. The way the prop is used, what is learned from it, and how that learning is applied will depend upon the experience, maturity, and caliber of the practitioner. For an injured student, a prop may be a support for physical or mental reassurance; for a mature student, the identical prop may be the means to refined penetration into the pose and one’s being.
For students with ailments or limitations, the use of a belt, bolster, or block is a saving grace that allows the student to do poses that they would otherwise be unable to do—certainly not classically. With props, students with heart ailments, respiratory problems, or neck or back problems are able to relieve their suffering and begin to heal. As they improve and can do the poses independently, the props may be eliminated.
Many asanas bring us face to face with our fears. The prospect of inversions or backbends may be terrifying to a student. In this case, a prop can be used to face, alleviate, and overcome the fear. For example, learning to do Sirsasana (Headstand) at the wall helps the beginning student to overcome the fear of falling. Once fear has abated, doing Sirsasana at the wall aids in developing needed stability, proper alignment, and refined balance—qualities needed to do the pose independent of the wall.
Props also support staying power in a pose. Increased duration in a pose develops physical and mental stability, poise, and concentration. As we stay in a pose, the mind draws inward, unnecessary thinking is quelled, and we experience more objectivity and humility. Patanjali calls this citta prasadanam, or “even distribution of consciousness.” This leads us on the inward journey toward the Self.
In sum, then, we use props in yoga according to the circumstance, situation, and maturity of the practitioner. Think of the way a carpenter uses some tools for crude or basic tasks and others for refined, artistic work. Props can be used to heal an injury, tone the body, remove fatigue from the body and mind and replace it with lightness and energy, and to develop gracefulness, poise, and understanding. What we learn with support we can use to refine and improve the classical execution of the postures and way we live our lives.