Ashtanga 101: The Prop TalkNov 01, 2019
Traditionally in Ashtanga, many teachers will teach with absolutely no props. I think there’s some benefit to that but, personally, I like using props when I teach (and in my own practice). I think they foster independence and can be extremely helpful learning tools. Props can create space when we don’t have it naturally, and they can help us to repattern, and I would say that these are the two main times when we want to use props.
So, what does that mean? When I say creating space (or taking space away, maybe). It could mean helping you catch a bind, it could mean helping you shift forward to catch a bind, it could mean helping you make more space for your shoulders, or something along those lines. What it comes down to is this: if you cannot do the posture without the prop, use the prop – especially if you’re practicing at home and don’t have someone to help you!
The other time to use props is when you’re working on repatterning, and an example of this would be squeezing a block between your legs when you’re trying to keep your feet parallel in backbends. These are things you’d be more likely to do in intensive practice, and less in everyday practice – this might mean that you use props when you’re on an intensive study for a week, but then you can try not to use them when you’re back. Once you’ve repatterned, you have a sense of what it should feel like and can try to create that sensation without the prop. Props can also be useful if you want to take a day of your practice to break things down. People often might use a prop for the last posture of their practice, which can be a good way to take care of yourself and your practice as you wind down for the morning.
There are a number of benefits to implementing props into your practice, and they’re fantastic for practicing with injuries and other modifications. They can also be great for making more space to practice while pregnant.
Warning! I have seen many students go overboard with using props. Props can really take you out of the vinyasa. And the vinyasa is extremely valuable for building heat and maintaining focus. If you want to use props, get all the ones you need before you start your practice and set them up at the back of your mat. It's important to minimize the time you spend setting up props and do your best to stick to the flow of the vinyasa. Getting and setting up props should not be an excuse to avoid doing the asana.
Mexican Blankets* are a great prop to fold over and sit on for creating more space in forward folds and finding binds in postures like Marichyasana. Sitting on a blanket can help you tilt forward more easily, so the rest of your body – your arms, for instance – can be used for actually doing the pose, rather being used as a kickstand for it. If a blanket is helping you tilt forward, rather than needing your other arm for it, you can actually get into the bind and start working on it. As you gradually work your way off the blanket, you’ll find that you’ve already been building your skills in the posture with the time you’d have otherwise just spent trying to find your way into it.
I like cork blocks* for situations where the blocks need to stay put and bear weight, but for repatterning I prefer foam blocks*. This would be any situation where you’re squeezing and lifting the block. Using foam blocks for squeezing and lifting can be incredibly beneficial in keeping you conscious of exactly what, where, and how you’re trying to stabilize.
When it comes to catching a bind, I always like straps that are already in loops. Longer straps can be helpful for repatterning - like if you wanted to strap the legs in in a laghuvajrasana, but I don’t use them too often because I think that the strap would do too much of the work in this case. I really think that binds are the most helpful use for straps day-to-day, and I think long straps can be just too long for that. That’s why I love straps that are already in loops. I think these straps are great for when you just cannot catch a bind without them, because binds are essential in Ashtanga.
In the Ashtanga practice, the binds create the mudras, which are the energized seals of the practice, and the benefit of catching your binds to connect to this energy really cannot be undervalued. If you start with a strap, you can work your way closer and closer until you catch the bind – just like you open yourself up when you catch the bind with your hands, you can open yourself up on your way there.
As a teacher, foam pads are one of my absolute favorite props. They create independence and enable students to do work on their own that they might not be able to do otherwise – thus freeing up both the student and the teacher. Foam pads are fantastic for things like drop-backs and tick-tocks. Stacking these pads as high as necessary (and gradually using fewer and fewer as the practice progresses) gives the students the security of knowing they won’t go crashing down. It’s a great way for students to learn to move their bodies without you, the teacher, needing to do that work for them. Foam pads can also be fantastic as shoulder pads, and can create a nice long line for shoulder stand, which can lead to better alignment and easier breathing. (A folded blanket can also make a great shoulder pad!)
When Should I Use Props?
As a general rule, I would say to use a prop on a daily basis if you cannot do the posture without the prop. But, BE REAL about this. People can get way too dependent on props that they don’t need, but if a prop helps you get the pose I’d still say to go for it – especially for things like binds. In terms of repatterning, I’d say to use props more sparingly – maybe keep them limited to intensive situations, rather than bringing those props into your practice.
If you do use props be sure to check in regularly to make sure you still need the prop. Things change faster than we think.
Use them until you don’t need them anymore. And then you can let them go.
* Denotes affiliate link. I will never recommend something that hasn't been loved by not only myself but also my students.
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