Yoga Gear and Prop Products

Then + Now: 40 Years of Yoga Gear

In honor of our 40th, we asked veteran teachers to take us back to 1975 and the props yogis were working with then. Here, a brief history of yoga gear.

cool gear hot yoga

In honor of Yoga Journal’s 40th anniversary, we asked veteran teachers to take us back to 1975 and the props yogis were working with then. Here, a brief history of yoga gear.

When the first issue of Yoga Journal was published in 1975, the yoga room was a very different place. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were no props, just bodies. The practice was less about asana and more about meditation, community, and spirituality. Over the past four decades, yoga has evolved exponentially, and the equipment, apparel, and culture surrounding the tradition have kept pace. We asked a handful of longtime YJ contributors and events presenters for their thoughts on the metamorphosis of yoga gear and its impact on the practice as a whole. Time travel with us.

Towels

Then

Towels might seem like a new addition to the prop arsenal, but they can actually be considered one of yoga’s first accessories. In the ’60s and ’70s, many ashrams had carpeted rooms, and legendary yoga teacher and founder of Dharma Yoga Dharma Mittra recalls fresh sheets being laid down before each practice for cleanliness. Students brought their own towels to class to lay over them for the sake of hygiene and comfort, before blankets and mats were the norm.

In the early ’90s, revered senior teacher and SmartFLOW creator Annie Carpenter remembers the first skidless towel cropping up in India. They were called “prison mats”—and for good reason. When practicing Ashtanga in Mysore, yogis would take cabs out of town to the prison, where prisoners wove their beds tightly with cotton. These mats fit perfectly atop sticky mats and absorbed sweat with ease. Carpenter and friends would bring a bag, pretend they were visiting, and secretly barter for the mats. “It was like a right of passage the first time you would go to Mysore,” she says.

Also see 6 Yoga Accessories to Take Your Practice Outside

Towels

Now

Today, yoga towels come in all shapes, sizes, fabrics, and styles. And skidless towels are essential to those who practice Bikram. These modern hybrids have come a long way since the prison mat era and continue to keep yogis’ hands and feet from slipping mid-stretch, especially in 100-degree heat.

Also see Gear to Keep You Cool in Hot Yoga: 6 Asana Essentials

Blankets

indra devi workshop, 1975

Then

Many people used blankets in the 60’s and 70’s, though they became more customary as yoga schools and studios grew. In India, white cotton blankets were standard, but in the US, yogis would seek out Mexican cotton blends, as well as wool.

Iyengar Yoga teacher and physiology researcher Roger Cole remembers traveling to Mexico to buy some of his first blankets. And in the late ’70s, students at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco collected surplus blankets from the Spanish army. They were rugged and uncomfortable, but could be bought in bulk and never wore out.

Also see 5 Ways Props Enhance the Practice

Blankets

Now

Like towels, yoga blankets come in every variety. Some yogis prefer cotton, others wool. But the general consensus is firmness is key, especially when it comes to supporting demanding poses.

“I will never let someone do a Shoulderstand without a few blankets,” Carpenter says. “I’m very into alignment these days.”

Also see Stack Your Shoulderstand

Straps (aka “belts”)

Then

Back in the day, yogis would use anything they could get their hands on as props. Straps are a case in point. Mittra would make straps out of cloth, sewing together different fabrics. Longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar and founder of Purna Yoga, Aadil Palkhivala used neckties, ropes, and pant belts before Iyengar created a belt specifically for yoga in the early ’70s. These first belts were made of high-quality cotton with a sliding bar and stainless steel buckle. They were sturdy but often hard to loosen when pulled tight.

Also see 6 Yoga Props to Boost Your Practice

Straps

Now

Cole prefers a modern strap with metal buckle, modeled after the original strap, but easier to adjust. Iyengar’s straps were traditionally narrow, about an inch across, but today, they’re typically wider. Cole says there are uses for both kinds, depending on the student and the action being practiced. “The wide strap is more comfortable, but the narrow is more specific when focusing on a particular part of the body,” Cole says.

Also see Q+A: How Can I Get More Out of My Yoga Practice by Using Props?

Blocks (aka “bricks”)

Then

After the blanket and the belt came the block. In the ’70s and until quite recently, blocks were almost always made of wood. People would make their own blocks, often leaving sharp edges, and the size was never uniform, Cole recalls. They weren’t easy to transport, especially for B.K.S. Iyengar, who traveled to and from Bombay to teach for years, before opening his first institute in 1975. Mittra’s first version of a block was a large telephone book covered with foam and cloth.

Also see Prop Up Your Practice

Blocks

Now

Modern foam, and more recently cork, blocks are clearly the winners when it comes to easy storage and transport, but many yogis still prefer wood for stability. Palkhivala is also a big fan of curved egg blocks, a more recent innovation. “We have over 100 eggs in our studios, used for all sorts of things, even help people sit properly,” he says. “We could never do that with a traditional block.”

Also see Give Yourself Props in Hero Pose

Mats

Then

Like many others of his time, Palkhivala first started practicing yoga on a hard slippery floor, often in pain. He remembers feeling gratitude when first introduced to mats at least a half an inch thick imported from Germany in 1975. Cole’s first experience with mats was taking a trip to the local carpet store to buy rubber pads used to keep rugs in place. They called this first mat the “the blue miracle.” It was thin, foldable, and didn’t tear easily, but also didn’t keep its shape. “It was more like mesh than a solid surface, but other pads tended to disintegrate,” Cole says. “We worked with what we had.”

In the early 80’s, Angela Farmer introduced her pale green sticky mat “Molivos Mat” to the masses. It was a bit thinner and less springy than what’s typically used today, but served as the first mat specifically designed for yoga. Palkhivala, Mittra, Carpenter, and Cole all recall using the Molivos mat for several years, before other adaptations came onto the scene. “Mats helped students to be more stable in stationary poses,” Mittra says. “This also allowed for asana practice to become more advanced.”

Also see Asana Essentials: Yoga Mats to Enhance Your Practice

Mats

yoga mats

Now

Today, this yoga staple is as fashionable as it is functional, available in an endless variety of colors and designs. The yoga mat has become so integral to the practice that many people consider it their second home—a place to let go, get centered, and relax.

Its sticky, easy-to-grip texture is relatively universal, but many companies are beginning to use eco-friendly materials that offer comparable support and footing. One can find both thick and thin variations, but Cole prefers medium thickness. “I like to be able to feel the floor through the mat. If I do a handstand, I don’t want the mat to move.”

Also see YJ Editor Picks: Best Sticky Mats of 2014

Bolsters

Then

Pillows were used for pranayama, meditation, and relaxation long before yoga was brought to America. But during the ’60s and ’70s, teachers began to experiment. Meditation was a key component of many classes, and instructors sought out the best ways to ease students into relaxation post-asana. Mittra used to hand-sew pillows of different sizes and shapes for sitting. And in 1976, after much trial and error, Iyengar created a hard bolster, which offered strong support for both beginner and experienced yogis. Cole remembers the first bolsters they used were produced in a furniture factory, stuffed with cotton, and very stable.

Also see Green Your Practice: 39 Eco-Friendly Yoga Essentials

Bolsters

Now

Bolsters sold in yoga stores today are smaller than Iyengar’s originals and are typically filled with foam. But Iyengar yogis continue to use firm bolsters made entirely of cotton. “Soft bolsters are a waste of time,” Palkhivala says. “They don’t support the body because you sink into them.” Cole still has a number of high-quality, non-synthetic bolsters that have stayed in pristine shape since the ’80s.

Also see The Nature and Use of Props in Yoga Practice

Apparel

sri dharma mittra

Then

When people first started practicing yoga in the US, clothing was all about concealing the body and increasing focus on the asanas, in line with Indian culture and tradition. Male Iyengar yogis’ first uniforms were balloon pants, made with cotton and elastic placed at the waist and thighs to conceal their privates. “We didn’t have cotton knit back in those days, which is flexible, unlike regular cotton,” Palkhivala recalls. Men went shirtless and women wore full-body leotards. Iyengar always wanted to see the body to make sure no one was getting injured, but he never let students get away with sloppy apparel. And wearing black was forbidden.

Carpenter remembers first wearing loose cotton clothes and then switching to form-fitting unitards when she began practicing Iyengar Yoga. But very little skin was shown—nothing was too flashy. In Southern California, Cole says, there was an apparent transition in trends from the age of the hippies in the ’70s, when many newbies didn’t bother to change out of their jeans and t-shirts, to the Jane Fonda revolution in the ’80s, when women wore bright tights and leg warmers and men rocked their running shorts.

Also see Summer Style Must-Have: Yoga Harem Pants

Apparel

Now

Today, yoga apparel is so ubiquitous it has begun to outsell the one-time king, the blue jean. And the revolutionized fabrics and designs bring many benefits to the practice, but our experts share mixed reviews. “I like the idea of yoga apparel because it grew out of a real need for function,” Cole says. On the flip side, Palkhivala thinks modern yoga attire is a catastrophe, mostly due to the popularity of dark colors. “Dark clothing is the opposite of what yoga is about,” he argues. “I enjoy light, bright, happy colors to bring more joy through yoga.”

Carpenter and Mittra have stuck with simple, mostly cotton clothing over the years, in the face of a growing yoga fashion industry. “I don’t want to look at shiny patterns. I want to see your body,” Carpenter says. “I’m fine with form-fitted, but it’s about what you’re doing and aligning your body, not about showing off.” Mittra loves that new fabrics allow yogis to bend and stretch, but agrees that they should always come to class clean and neat, without showing off too much, which takes away attention away from the practice.

Also see What Yogis Are Wearing Spring 2015

The Yoga Wheel

Sri Dharma Mittra

Then

In 1978, after using handmade rings regularly in class for a few years, Mittra crafted a wheel out of thick industrial plexiglass, with the goal of opening up the back and stretching the entire body. He experimented with the new tool daily in his studio and developed a variety of applications. When Mittra offered the wheel for all to use, he says it soon became so popular that there was a line of students waiting to use it before class.

Also see Ask the Expert: How Can I Protect Myself in Backbends?

The Yoga Wheel

dharma wheel

Now

Thanks to his son Dov, Mittra’s Dharma Yoga Wheel is now sold worldwide. They produce both handcrafted wooden wheels and, more recently, plastic wheels with mat cushioning in three different sizes. Mittra’s wife Eva also invented a half-wheel with padding for seniors and others in need of extra support. “I love the yoga wheel’s simplicity and feel, and I’m always finding new possibilities of what one can do with it as a tool,” Mittra says.

Also see Backbend Fearlessly with the Dharma Yoga Wheel

Special Props

Iyengar Teaching

Then

When most teachers first introduced props to their students in the ’70s, they would only give them to those who couldn’t do certain poses. “We all tried to use as few props as possible,” Palkhivala says. But this mentality changed when yogis began to develop the practice of therapeutic yoga and restorative yoga. Iyengar invented a number of wooden props for people with restrictions, including special benches, blocks, chairs, planks, bungees, and ropes.

Also see Yoga Must-Try: Iyengar Rope-Wall Workshop

Special Props

Restorative Dec 14 Legs on a Chair Pose

Now

Palkhivala, Mittra, Carpenter, and Cole all use props generously when teaching, especially restorative yoga. Palkhivala says he’s constantly developing new props with therapeutic functions. “We need to be creative,” Palkhivala says. “We’re constantly coming up with new ways in which to make the practice easier for students who have limitations.”

Also see 6 Tips for Teaching Yoga to Plus-Size Students