To Prop or Not to Prop?

By Joey Miles
Category: Practice

To prop or not to prop? That is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the body-mind to suffer

the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

or to take blocks and bolsters against a sea of troubles,

and by supporting end them.

I am sitting here on the floor of the living room and writing at the kitchen table. Our kitchen and living room are open plan: working, eating, playing – nearly everything is done here in the middle of our home. In the sacred areas above we sleep and dream; below is the yoga studio where we practice and teach.

Not long after moving in I sawed the legs off this table because we prefer sitting on the floor. The earth seems the most natural place to sit. Sometimes people visiting come in and there’s an awkward moment as they notice there are no chairs and they are not quite sure what to do. Paradoxically, downstairs there are a dozen folding chairs in the prop cupboard, along with sticky mats, bricks, blocks, belts, ropes, bandages and sandbags.

I have a confession. I don’t like props; I love them and they spark joy in me.

Simple Beginnings

When I began yoga in the late 1990s, it didn’t occur to me to find a class or buy a mat, I just laid out a towel and copied as best I could from a book. About a year later, then in class, I discovered sticky mats, which, back then, was really carpet underlay. Other props did not exist in my consciousness.

I grew up in a pretty normal English home; we had tables, chairs and a sofa, so aged eighteen, squatting at the Kathmandu bus stand by the fire and drinking chai, after only a short while it hurt my ankles and I sat on the floor. Quickly my bottom felt cold and that’s when it dawned on me why everyone around me was squatting: it keeps you warm. It was about then that I decided to acquire less furniture, to learn to squat and be able to sit comfortably on the ground; it just felt right and it still does.

It seems a curious paradox; open plan living with hardly any furniture and a prop cupboard to rival an Iyengar Institute!

Lazy Man’s Furniture or Learning Tool

Although I get a few students who take to Ashtanga yoga like a duck to water, most do not and many of those people find props make the practice more accessible. Yet props seem to be frowned upon even by beginners. When I say ‘sit on two blocks’, I can often sense the aversion. A look in the dictionary reveals why:

“Prop –  verb –  to support something physically, often by leaning against something else or by putting something under it.

I propped my bike (up) against the wall.

She was sitting at the desk with her chin propped on her hands.”

Although props can be used to support the body, this is not always their main function. A student can lean and collapse on a wall, but the same object can create awareness and alertness. A stone placed at the right spot near the source of a river can re-direct the current; this is exactly what a prop does when used skillfully in asana. It creates action and brings clarity to the directions of extension. It takes skill to use any tool well and props are no exception. They are not only used to make asana easier, yet this seems to be a common misperception.

In my practice, when I need to direct an alert current of awareness to the inner ankles, I can strap the ankles together, whilst sitting in a simple kneeling position. The sensation in the inner ankles is then felt and carried forward into upward dog, the action is retained and the outer ankles no longer collapse. So the prop helps to create an imprint. This may not seem important or even interesting to many people, but in my practice it has awakened an experiential understanding of kinetic chains. Kinetic chains are like dominoes or an electric circuit board in the body-mind. Remove one link in the chain and the light bulb won’t switch on; add the missing link and the circuit fires back to life.

Do Props Stop the Flow?

When I have genuinely been experiencing states of flow, I can capsize a canoe and keep flowing. I can finish my practice and put on my shoes, eat breakfast while answering students’ questions, pay the bills, pick up the kids from school and keep flowing. If I can’t stay in the rhythm of flow while moving to the wall or adding a brick, what hope do I have when I encounter a real life obstacle?

I just don’t buy that ‘props kill flow’ argument, but maybe some people have a more limited idea of what flow is?

“Flowing is the state of being fluid, of hanging loose and being flexible. The rhythm of flowing connects us to the flow of our individual energy, our base current…Michael Jordon playing basketball is the essence of flowing. His internal rhythm connects with the energies of the ball, his team, his opponents, and the court, until they merge into one organic entity and it becomes as natural for the ball to swoosh through the net as it is for the breath to flow in and out of our bodies.

When we’re in our flow, all we have to do is walk across the room to be mesmerizing. We feel confident in ourselves because we’re connected to the earth and in harmony with her rhythm, cycles and moods. In flowing, there are no separations or distinctions between things, there’s only continuous change. We tend to resist surrendering to this rhythm because we prefer life to be safe, even if it means being bored. Flowing is dangerous – who knows where it will take you or what you will find when you get there? That’s why I love it.”

Gabrielle Roth – Sweat your Prayers

The Down Side

I have at times developed dependency on props. There, I said it. I sound like a member of 12 Steps Props Anonymous: “My name is Joey, it’s been eight weeks since I’ve used a prop. I’m still clean and taking it one day at a time.”

Joking aside, I got stuck at Purna Matsyendrasana for well over a year. You’ve got to love the delicious irony within the Ashtanga method; you get through this gateway of ten arm balances in a row, (it’s possibly the hardest bit of sequencing I have ever tackled, I used to sweat so much I sometimes had the distinct sensation of being under water, because I would be upside down with the sweat pouring up my nose), and the other side of the arm balancing looks like calm water, a simple twist; but not for me, that’s where I got stuck. Again. So I rolled a small towel, supported my sitting bone and then I could bind, relax, breathe and, the all important bit, not topple over. There is subtle alignment and then there’s not falling on your face and I was going for the latter!

Years later, there I am in Mysore and Sharath sees me use the towel in this twist and he says:

“No props in Ashtanga yoga,” and for dramatic effect, he not only takes away my towel but throws it away! I got the message, no towel, no props… no cheating. That trip I learned to balance in the pose. And how did I balance? I just stopped trying. No miraculous opening, but eventually I just sat there. That mini breakthrough came when Sharath threw the prop away; he took away my option of playing it safe, and I swam.

Compare and Contrast

Sometimes I use props to play ‘compare and contrast’; it keeps me curious. Just this morning when I got to my nemesis Virabhadrasana 1 – the standing pose in the warrior sequence  – I did it once as ‘normal’, then, I used the ceiling ropes. And then I did it again. And in cycles like this: without props – with – without. That’s often how I use props in my practice these days. I try not to develop dependency, because when a prop brings ease and space, this can create a clinging to the pleasantness. The feelings of contraction can equally create aversion and it is our task in yoga to explore these polarities and to stop judging, by using labels like ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

I still regularly get lost in the form, the details and the illusion of ‘perfect alignment’ and this can become be a trap, so we need to let go and know when enough is enough.

Props Create Space

Another glaringly obvious place for using props is in modification for injury.

Patanjali’s famous list of obstacles reads:

“Disease, idleness, doubt, carelessness, sloth, lack of detachment, misapprehension, failure to attain a base state for concentration and instability: They are distractions for the mind.” (1:30)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali predate physical hatha yoga; the text is primarily about the meditation process, but a modern postural yoga teacher’s list of common injuries to accommodate in any given class might read:

“Sore backs, torn hamstrings, knackered knees, rotator cuff tears, crooked neck, heartbreak, agitation, depression, insomnia, Brexit and Trump – Contemporary reasons for despair”.

As a postural yoga teacher I feel a tremendous responsibility to look after my students. It is my strong belief that in order to do so, props must be part of our toolkit. Encouraging a student to sit on a brick creates space for an injured knee, asking a student to sit higher in a seated forward bend takes away compression in the lower back. The list goes on and on.

Tourist or Pilgrim?

Personally, one of my favorite reasons for using props is ‘staying’. Visiting a pose for five breaths could be compared to being a tourist on a weekend city break where you only see the gloss on the surface. But staying in a pose for twenty minutes is like living somewhere for years and years, you see the dark underbelly of the place, it is far more interesting and it’s nothing like Euro Disney.

Sleeping Like a Baby

When my kids were little I didn’t always get enough sleep. That’s when rope inversions and chair shoulderstand became an essential part of my practice.

Supported inversions took me inward, to reservoirs of peace and untapped resources of energy. Luckily, I had Alaric Newcombe to guide me, a Senior Iyengar teacher, based in London.

Once I was in Alaric’s class with my son Caleb when he was only two or three months old. Alaric recognised my tiredness, and whilst teaching the others, put me in chair halasana. Caleb had been asleep on bolsters and when he woke up, Alaric slid Caleb next to me and he suckled on my finger and we both went to sleep in the middle of the public class; I felt supported, seen and cared for.

That scenario just wouldn’t have happened in a counted primary series class, although, in fairness, I can imagine it playing out in a Mysore-style class, but it would require a teacher with an open-minded approach.

Staying Open

I am not saying that we should always use props; I try not to be too fixed on one way or the other.  As I looked around the Leeds Mysore group, where I was teaching this morning, most people were just getting on with their normal practice and not making many variations from the Ashtanga primary and intermediate series. Others were practicing restorative sequences and using more props for a wide spectrum of reasons. Ultimately, I believe props are an invaluable learning tool, not merely a way of ‘filling the gaps’ in practice but often a way of deepening our enquiry and a way of keeping the spark of curiosity bright.

So I believe props have their place; and it’s not always in the cupboard. All I ask is for you to keep an open mind.