When you walk into your yoga studio for class, do you grab two blocks, three blankets, and a strap? Or do you tend to skip the props, thinking you don’t really need them?
If you fall into the latter camp, San Diego-based yoga teacher Desirée Rumbaugh says it’s time to start using all the props.“If you don’t use them, chances are you rely on cheating or compensating in postures, neither of which are sustainable long term,” she says. “Using props is really the only way to stay honest in a practice.”
This is true for even the most seasoned yogis. Even Rumbaugh says she has had moments where she’s taken an I-don’t-need-props attitude. Now, she uses them every time she rolls out her mat. “The truth is that props have nothing to do with a lack of experience,” she says. “Using props is about three things: building strength, understanding your anatomy, and honestly accepting where you are right now in your yoga practice. All the advanced yogis I know make great use of props to help them open—and relax—their tight spots.”
Ready to prop yo’self? These 6 poses use props in a surprising way:
1. Foot Work with a Block
Lay on your back and bend your knees slightly. Squeeze a block between your feet and then lift your legs skyward. Holding the block here strengthens your arches, toes, and inner thighs, and trains your legs and feet for all yoga poses where the legs are extended in any direction.
Simple, non-weight bearing poses like this prepare the feet to be active and strong in standing poses, too. Strong arch support and toe extension is the initiator of total core strength. With this type of training, your whole body will feel lighter and more integrated.
2. Advanced Tree Pose with a Block
Place a block on the top of your head in Tree Pose to learn how to integrate your strength from the bottoms of your feet through the top of your head. No matter what type of shape of skull you have or what amount of hair you have, the block will give you just the right amount of feedback for your pelvis and thoracic spine to stack vertically.
Root down into the floor and extend up into the block simultaneously. If the block keeps falling off your head, you may need to draw your lower belly in and up, take the base of your rib cage back, or draw the sides of your throat back and extend upward from the base of your skull. In fact, you might need to do all three of these actions. The block is a fantastic teacher for standing poses, and it will also help you find your vertical stacking whenever you go upside down.
3. Shoulder opener with a broom
Take a break from sweeping the floor and use a broom handle to open your chest and shoulders. Hold onto the broom stick and place it behind you against your lower back. Holding onto it with two hands, slowly roll it up towards your head until it won’t go any further. Breathe steadily as you do this, enjoying the feeling of pressure at the base of your shoulder blades and the release in your chest and shoulders. This stretch is great for your posture and will help with poses like backbends and shoulder stands.
4. Lateral pulldown with a strap
Use a strap like a lat pull down bar that you find in a gym: Hold the strap above your head with straight arms. Then, bend your elbows and pull the strap down while you lift your chest up. Avoid letting your rib cage poke out and keep your front body integrated, which will help you get stronger in your upper back.
5. Salabhasana with a Strap
Lay on your belly and extend your strap overhead with straight arms. Look down at the floor (holding your head this way will strengthen your neck muscles), engage your glutes and hamstrings, and lift your arms and legs simultaneously. Then, gently release the strap, place your hands beside your chest, lower your legs and feet, and press your toenails down firmly to come up to Cobra Pose. Notice how great Cobra feels when all of your back muscles are this engaged. If there is any discomfort in your back, lift your lower belly and draw your ribcage and neck back until you feel more supported.
6. Shoulderstand (variation) with Blankets and a Pool Noodle
Grab two or three blankets, depending on the length of your neck. (The longer your neck, the more blankets you might need.) With a sharp knife, cut a foam pool noodle in half and lay those halves side by side. When you’re ready to practice, lay down on your blankets with the pool noodles on top, so your spine rests comfortably between the noodle pieces. Kick your legs over your head and allow your spinal muscles to sink into the noodles. This will be a myofascial release for your back and neck, and gives you the benefit of a deep tissue massage.
In time, you may be able to balance in Shoulderstand with these noodles. I have been using this prop setup for 20 years. I like it because it protects my C7 vertebrae from too much pressure. However, fair warning: For many, this is not always love at first prop.
About the Author
Elizabeth Marglin is a yogi and writer in Lyons, Colorado.