by Melanie Wolters
Many yoga students are hesitant to use blocks and modify poses. In the western mind we see using a prop as a sign of weakness. Using props and modifying poses, however, are important keys to building a sustainable yoga practice that you will enjoy for years to come.
In the beginning, when you are just starting your yoga practice, it is important to modify poses so that you do not push yourself to the point of injury. One of the guiding principles of yoga is ahimsa, which means non-harming, extends to being kind to yourself as well as others. Modifying a pose does not make you weak or hold you back from improving in your practice. Just the opposite is true. When you modify a pose in a way that suits you, you are building the strength and flexibility needed to go on to the next version of the pose.
BKS Iyengar, often referred to the “Father of Yoga” and one of the foremost teachers in the world, was the first yogi to introduce props to the practice of yoga. Iyengar was sick when he was young and became physically weak due to his sickness. He used yoga to gain strength and vitality. He had to modify poses and use props in order to be able to do yoga at all. If you look at the poses Iyengar did later in his practice you would be very impressed. It is hard to imagine he was ever weak. Here is a youtube video you can check out to see Iyengar doing poses - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pIgs03TYo4
When we start a yoga practice, most of us start out weak in the body. Or, we are at least weak in the muscle groups that are needed to do a lot of the poses. It is okay to admit having a body that needs a little help and support. A good yoga teacher will guide you in what props to use and how to use them so that you can develop the muscles you need to grow in your practice.
Yoga is a journey. And this journey can be exhilarating. Sometimes it is more adventurous to start from a beginner’s place and to experience the growth, your growth, that occurs in your practice.
Modified poses have benefits that some may not realize. The other day I did a tree pose with my heel on my ankle with my knee out to the side. This beginner’s variation seems easy at first but as I held the pose, I felt my leg muscles working and exerting some effort to hold my balance. I realized then that if I held this pose for a length of time, I would develop some very key muscles to be able to do a fuller expression of tree pose very soon.
Cobra pose is also sometimes seen as an easier version of the pose upward facing dog. Once again, if you hold cobra (or baby cobra) for a few breaths or longer your rhomboids develop and you will become even stronger and more capable of doing king cobra or upward facing dog.
One of my teachers once said, “Nothing gets wasted in yoga.” It is true. Each pose builds on the next and has value. “Simpler poses” or modified versions of poses benefit the beginner and someone that is a little further in their practice.
Props are a blessing for your yoga practice. Because I have shorter arms than some other yogis (once you get started you are a yogi!), in some poses I need blocks or straps to be able to do the pose. For example, in low lunge, if I don’t use blocks my shoulders are rounded. I use blocks under my hands so I can lift my chest and have a long line on the back body from my heel to the tip of my head and it feels great.
I have been practicing yoga for over 10 years and I still use blocks. This doesn’t mean that I am any less of a yoga practitioner than anyone else. Quite the contrary, I think what makes someone an “experienced” or “advanced” yogi is their ability to take care of themselves in their practice - and that means using blocks or other props when necessary. It also means you don’t necessarily need to be able to do crow pose or a headstand to be an “advanced” yogi. You just need to know your practice and how to use props.
I attend a class called Advanced Lab and there are students in there that have physical limitations. They cannot do the traditional full version of certain poses. But, they can get into their fullest expression of poses safely and reap the intended benefit of the poses by using props.
So, the next time you practice yoga, consider using props. Just try them out, feel the benefits. You’ll be glad you did.
I hope to meet many of you in classes at Blue Horizons Wellness so I can show you the beauty of a yoga practice using props. I hope to be able to help each of you experience this practice in your own way and with your own beautiful body.