TO PROP OR NOT TO PROP


Written by Regan Tataryn

As a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor I understand the benefits of using props in my yoga practice and when teaching yoga classes. If you have not taken an Iyengar yoga class before, we use props including foam and wood blocks, straps, chairs, the wall (including the rope wall), bolsters and blankets to name a few in order to help our students learn the basic poses in yoga.

BKS Iyengar, who is the founder of this method is an innovative living yoga guru who is 95 years old and still practices all classes of poses for several hours a day including headstand and shoulderstand. BKS Iyengar studied under T. Krishnamacharya when he was very young back in the 1930’s. He came to study yoga due to ill health. Back then Iyengar did not receive specific instructions on how to learn yoga or perform the poses correctly, he was simply told to go and practice and then teach to find out on his own. It was through this self-discovery and the observation that some of his students could not take the classical shape of the pose without some support that BKS Iyengar developed the multitude of props that many styles of yoga now know and use widely today.
photos courtesy of Yoga North
In the Iyengar method, props have an important role. In the beginning when students are first learning the poses, props such as wooden blocks are placed underneath the hands in standing poses to help the student obtain the most accurate or correct shape. This helps the students optimize the building up of strength, mobility and stability in the muscles and joints. We also teach students how to do a supported version of shoulder stand, using a stack of 4-5 blankets or a large foam platform and a couple of blankets to support the shoulders so that the weight of the pose ends up on the shoulders and upper arms and NOT on the neck. With this support in shoulderstand the student will be able to build enough strength to lift the legs and become vertical in this pose. We may also use blankets to sit on in seated poses which is especially useful for someone with tight hamstrings or a tight back. The blankets can provide some lift for the student to obtain a better forward extension or twist. These examples are some of the ways in which we use props in the Iyengar method.

One of the more recent classes I taught that was very interesting and a lot of fun was an entire class using the chair as the main prop. What is interesting about using the chair is that it gives the student what they need no matter the starting point. It gives more stability to stiff people and restricts the flexible person so that both can work deeper in the pose.

photo courtesy of Yoga North
When using props in yoga they provide the student the opportunity to learn something in the pose in a different way. Props can add stability and allow you to build more strength into your yoga practice, but they can also take away some mobility from the pose. It is important to know why you are using a prop in the pose, what does it give the pose and what does it take away? At the same time it is also important to practice without props to see where you have improved in your poses and where you can add or remove a different prop to enhance your pose.

Aside from helping beginners build more strength, stability and flexibility as well as affording higher level students the opportunity to deepen key aspects of more advanced poses, the props are a boon to people with more limited mobility in their joints. Seniors, people with cancer or recovering from cancer and students with other limitations benefit tremendously from the support of props.

In addition to offering several classes a week for students of all ages and abilities Yoga North offers three types of specialized classes where props are used more extensively. We offer a Mens, Seniors, Cancer (register through CCMB) and Restorative classes. In the Mens class flexibility tends to be more of a challenge therefore the poses that are taught are modified with that in mind. I have more recently had the opportunity to teach the Seniors and the Cancer classes. In the Seniors classes we often have students with joint replacements and/or people with tighter hips, shoulders, knee and balance challenges. In the Seniors classes we focus on strengthening and opening up the hips, knees, shoulders and improve balance by modifying the poses so that they can still benefit physically and mentally.

The Cancer class is a deeply restorative class as students are either currently undergoing treatment or are just recovering from treatment. The goal in the cancer class is to provide a lot of support in many reclined poses and some inverted poses to restore the nervous system and allow the body and the mind to let go. Here we use a lot of bolsters, blankets, chairs and straps so that the body can completely let go. One of our recent students described the poses as “having given them a big hug.” When the body learns to let go, then the mind will follow. There is also a published study through CancerCare Manitoba on the benefits of this class which has been led by our senior teacher Val Paape for many years. Overall all students in the study experienced less pain and side effects from treatment, less anxiety and better overall quality of life. Finally, the Restorative class provides an opportunity for any student whether seeking physical or mental/emotional support to take a yoga class that is less physically vigorous and still get the mind/body benefits of yoga.

In essence the props provide students an opportunity for their own self-discovery. BKS Iyengar regards the body as the ultimate prop in yoga. One of his quotes from his many books states this clearly: “Yoga is not by the body for the body, but by the body for the mind, for the intelligence.” Although most people come to yoga for the physical benefits, many will also experience a noticeable beneficial effect on the mind as well.


Regan Tataryn is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor Introductory II, and Partner at Yoga North in Winnipeg. Visit Regan and the team at Yoga North in their new location at 894  Westminster Ave: they would love to show you how props can enhance your yoga practice and how you can use props in a variety of ways to deepen, strengthen and improve your poses or settle the nervous system. 


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