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 frequently come to yoga with problems, ranging from back and neck pain to knee problems to old injuries. The more problems a student has, the more useful yoga props are.
Props allow you to hold poses longer, so you can experience their healing effects. By supporting the body in the yoga posture, muscles can lengthen in a passive, nonstrenuous way. By opening the body, the use of props also helps to improve blood circulation and breathing capacity.
One of the greatest benefits of yoga as we grow older is that it offers exercise without exhaustion. Yoga replenishes our precious energy reserves. Supporting the body with props opens the door to what is known as “Restorative Yoga”, which not only allows you to exercise without exerting any effort but simultaneously relaxes and reenergizes you. This is critical during times when we find ourselves feeling too tired to exercise and then feeling even more tired because we are not exercising.
By using props, students who need to conserve their energy can practice more strenuous poses without overexerting themselves. People with chronic illness can use props to practice without undue strain and fatigue.
Props are adapted to each student’s body type and flexibility. They are especially helpful to anyone who may avoid certain poses because of fear, problems with balance due to loss of hearing and eyesight, pain, or other limitations.
Props help all practitioners-including both the most advanced students and those of advanced years-to receive the deep benefits of postures held for sustained periods of time.
Eight Reasons Why Props Are Beneficial for Older Practitioners
Props help us conserve and replenish energy, which becomes increasingly important as we grow older and also during times of illness.
Props make difficult poses more accessible and safe. They allow even those who start late in life to hold poses for a long time, without strain.
Props help prevent injuries and help old injuries to heal.
People tend to stretch from their more flexible areas and rely on their better-developed muscles for strength. Props encourage weak parts to strengthen and stiff areas to stretch, thus balancing and realigning the whole body.
Props allow us to stay in poses long enough to release tension and experience deeper levels of relaxation.
Props help create space in the spine and the joints, ever more important as we grow older and cope with issues such as osteoporosis, arthritis and joint replacements.
Props allow older practitioners with balance problems to practice the weight-bearing standing poses, helping them to remain independent and out of wheelchairs.
Props allow us to practice inverted poses safely and to reverse the downward pull of gravity, slowing down the aging process.
SUZA FRANCINA, the former mayor of Ojai, California, is a writer, animal advocate and Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor. She has taught yoga since 1972 and is a pioneer in the field of teaching yoga to seniors. Her first book, Yoga for People Over 50, was published in 1977. She is author of The New Yoga for People Over 50 (Health Communications, Inc., 1997); Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause (HCI, 2003); and The New Yoga for Healthy Aging (HCI 2007). She is currently completing a spiritual memoir, Autobiography of a Yogini. Her writing has appeared in numerous other books, magazines and publications worldwide. Born in Holland in 1949, she emigrated with her family to Ojai, California at the age of seven and has made the Ojai Valley her home ever since.