By Suza Francina
When I began teaching yoga in the early 1970’s, the term, “yoga props,” was practically unheard of. When we sat on the floor to practice seated forward bends, people who could not touch their toes simply held onto their lower legs. Then someone had the bright idea to wrap a sock, towel, belt or an old neck tie around the foot to hang onto while stretching forward. While not as versatile as the modern prop known as a yoga strap, these early around-the-house props actually worked quite well!
At the time that I began teaching yoga, I was also working as a home health-care provider. I befriended and cared for many people up until the last years of their life. My main job was assisting people who were unable to take care of themselves independently with their daily activities. Many of these people had arthritis and other common health conditions that restrict movement. Back then, people with joint pain, swelling, heart disease, shortness of breath, etc., were generally advised not to move. So they became increasingly weaker, stiffer and incapacitated.
My background in home-health care showed me how important exercise is for all ages, but especially the older population. When an older beginner comes to my yoga class with pain and stiffness in their body, one of the first things I generally teach them is how to practice yoga’s challenging weight-bearing standing poses safely with the support of props such as a wall and chair.
What is a yoga prop?
In the world of yoga, a prop is any object helps you stretch, strengthen, balance, relax, or improve your body alignment. Props include yoga mats, which are sticky, nonskid mats essential for providing stability and preventing your hands and feet from slipping, blankets that provide padding and support, long yoga straps and belts that are used in dozens of innovative ways to help you stretch further and prevent muscle and joint strain, bolsters, blocks, chairs and benches that support the body in various ways, wall ropes, sandbags, back benders, and many other objects designed to help students experience the various yoga poses more profoundly and safely.
Many common features of our homes or work place can also serve as props: floors, walls, doors, doorways, stairs, ledges, tables, desks, chairs, windowsills and kitchen counters. When I teach people at home, I show them how to use these common household objects to improve their posture, maintain balance and stretch, strengthen and relax.
By providing support, props help you to extend beyond habitual limitations and teach you that your body is capable of doing much more than you think it can.
Props are used to teach specific actions such as lengthening the spine and opening the chest. For example, the student in the photo at right, a beginner in his mid-seventies, is practicing the Triangle Pose with the back of his body against a wall and his lower hand on a chair, rather than straining to reach the floor. This helps assure that his body is in good alignment which is especially important to prevent injury if we have joint problems (or hip or knee joint replacements) or weak bones that are susceptible to fractures. People who have scoliosis (curvature of the spine, rounded back, or other chronic postural problems can significantly improve their posture by stretching with the help of a wall and chair.
Props can be used to make postures more challenging; to safely stretch farther; to work in a deeper, stronger way; and to expand, open, and blossom in a pose. In yoga we are asking the body to “work against the grain.” We are asking the body to let go of the death grip that habit and conditioning have on us. Props help us to accept this revolutionary (and evolutionary) process.
Using yoga props makes postures safer and more accessible. Most older people are quite stiff by the time they start yoga, and props allow them to practice poses they would not ordinarily be able to do. Older students also frequent