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We want to bust this myth: Props are only used to make poses easier.
Sure, props can be used to make poses easier. But try practicing a sun salutation while squeezing a yoga block between your thighs the whole time—and don’t let it drop! We’re willing to bet that did not make the sun salute easier. Some prop options might make a pose easier for you, others might make the pose harder, and still others might simply make it more interesting.
Props are wonderful tools to enhance your yoga practice—whether you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner. Some students (and teachers) may feel resistant to using a prop, worrying that it shows they are not capable of a pose or are deficient in some way. We believe the opposite to be true! Props can dramatically change your experience of a pose, can make something either more accessible or more challenging, and can help you make wise choices for your body just as it is. We don’t see the use of props as a lesser modification, but rather a wonderful variation to help customize your practice.
Here are the props we use for many pose variations, along with suggestions for how to use them, where to find them, and common household items you can swap out instead.
Also known as: yoga bricks
Common uses: To “lengthen” your arms or legs, bringing the ground closer to or farther away from you; to squeeze or push into in order to activate specific muscles; to prop up body parts for added comfort; to give you a boost in arm balances and inversions.
How they vary: Blocks can vary in material and thickness (ranging from around two to four inches thick). Foam blocks are lighter and often cheaper, though less environmentally friendly. Cork, wood, or bamboo blocks are often greener alternatives and they’re also on the heavier/sturdier side.
Where to find them: Athletic stores, department stores, as well as lots of places online.
Easy substitutions: Many people recommend thick books as a block alternative, though depending on a person’s cultural background and/or religious beliefs, they may not be comfortable placing books on the floor. Sturdy water bottles, an upside-down (empty!) wastebasket, or a set of sturdy dumbbells can also be great (non-weight-bearing) block alternatives. If you’re looking for something to squeeze or press into, a rubber ball or folded blanket or towel can work great.
Also known as: yoga belt.
Common uses: To lasso a limb that you can’t quite reach, to add resistance—to give you something to “pull apart” or “press out against.”
How they vary: Straps come in lengths ranging from six to ten feet and may have plastic buckles or metal “D rings.” Longer straps because they’re a bit more versatile in their use. Metal D rings are often a little easier to cinch than the plastic buckles, and they’re more eco-friendly.
Where to find them: In all the same places as blocks.
Easy substitutions: A bathrobe tie, a dog leash, a jump rope, an actual belt, a necktie.
Common uses: Folded to elevate a body part (like your seat or your heels), to add extra cushioning and support.
How they vary: Blankets come in different sizes, materials, and thickness. Blankets sold on yoga websites, at yoga studios, and those labeled “saddle blankets” are typically easy to fold up for common yoga variations.
Where to find them: Online, at yoga studios, from local artisans, maybe even on your living room couch!
Easy substitutions: Large towels; any blanket, afghan, or thin sleeping bag you may have around the house; a rolled-up yoga mat is often a great substitute for a rolled-up blanket.
Common uses: To fill in space, to add cushioning or support, to literally “bolster” and support your body.
How they vary: Bolsters come in all different shapes, sizes, densities, and heights.
Where to find them: Yoga studios, online, places that sell other yoga props.
Easy substitutions: Thick pillows or cushions, a thickly rolled blanket. Create a bolster by rolling up a couple of blankets (or even rolling up a blanket or two around a thick, rolled-up yoga mat), and then using yoga straps or belts to hold them in place.
Common uses: To stand near for support, to press into for feedback, to hold you steady in an inversion.
Where to find them: Your home, your yoga studio, or any enclosed space.
Easy substitutions: If you’re outside, a sturdy tree makes a lovely wall-ternative!
Common uses: To provide balance support, to “raise the floor” and/or elevate your hands or feet, to shift the symmetry of a pose in order to stretch and strengthen different muscle groups, to serve as a steady platform to begin to explore arm balancing. Safety note: keep all four chair legs on your mat in order to prevent the chair from sliding.
How they vary: You can buy special backless “yoga chairs” but a simple folding chair or even your average kitchen chair will do.
Where to find them: You can find backless yoga chairs (“Iyengar chairs”) online; regular folding chairs are available online and in many department stores and superstores.
Easy substitutions: Any sturdy chair will work just fine for yoga. Depending on the pose variation, sub a sofa, ottoman, coffee table, bed, or other piece of furniture.
ROLLED-UP YOGA MAT
Common uses: To place under your knees for support and/or press into to engage specific muscle groups, to elevate your toes or heels in order to make a pose more or less intense, to support your back heel in standing poses.
How they vary: You can customize your mat roll as much as you like.
Where to find them: Yoga mats are available in lots of places, ranging from your local studio to your local superstore. And of course, there are tons of options online.
Easy substitutions: A rolled-up blanket can take the place of a rolled-up mat.
Making Yoga Yours
We firmly believe that all bodies are yoga bodies. So it is not the student’s body that needs adjusting in a pose, but rather the asana or posture itself that requires an adjustment or the use of a different prop for support. By adapting the posture to the student’s body, as opposed to shaping the student’s body into the posture, we as teachers can provide an atmosphere of understanding and appreciation for all bodies within our classes. As a result, we can come to serve all of our students in an effort to improve and elevate a positive and healthy lifestyle, regardless of a student’s body size or ability.
We can apply this same understanding of all bodies as yoga bodies in our own personal practice as well. The words we use to talk to ourselves have power. We don’t need to believe that we must change ourselves to fit a pose or a class or a perception of a yoga lifestyle. Instead, we can adjust a pose or a class or a lifestyle to fit us right where we are. We can meet and celebrate our own unique bodies and experiences, and we can customize our yoga practice to benefit our unique bodies, minds, and spirits.
The most important step in appreciating our bodies is to meet ourselves where we are. Yoga teachers can create a truly inclusive yoga class by coming to understand and appreciate different body types and abilities and by learning how to adapt a pose and a practice to fit different kinds of bodies. Teachers can focus on encouraging students to come to the mat and accepting where they are in their own practice.
Many of these ideas also apply to our personal practice. We can work on identifying the stories we tell ourselves about our worth, power, or beauty—on and off the mat. We can begin to question the negative stories, and we can begin to celebrate where we are in our lives and in our practice, regardless of how it looks. We can look for teachers and media that highlight accessibility and acceptance. We can focus on coming to the mat for any amount of time, and we can know that we don’t need to change to find yoga’s benefits.
Adapted from Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life, reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications Inc. Copyright © 2020.