(From Props for Yoga, Volume III)
This is how Guruji Iyengar explains why he introduced props into his practice and teaching:
I was preoccupied trying various ways to improve and perfect my own practice. I used to pick up stones and bricks lying on the roads and used them as ‘supports’ and ‘weight bearers’ to make progress in my mastery of āsana…
Props help to perform the āsana-s with ease… The student understands and learns āsana faster on props as the brain remains passive. Through passive brain one learns to be alert in body and mind. Props are guides to self-learning. They help accurately without mistakes.70 Glorious years of Yogācharya B.K.S. Iyengar, page 391
Christian Pisano adds to that:
Props thus allow us to unfold the space of an āsana and acquaint us with certain āsana that may otherwise be too difficult to practice. Props create an understanding of the correct gesture (mudra) and attitude (bhava) of āsana. Props let us stay longer in an āsana, thus permitting deeper penetration of unexplored bodily regions.The Hero’s Contemplation, C. Pisano, p. 109
While props are an important characteristic of Iyengar Yoga, they should not be confused with its essence. Props are a means for achieving an end – such as alignment, stability, precision, and prolonged stays in āsana.
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The usage of props covered here is intended to direct awareness to different aspects of the āsana and to different parts of the body, in order to deepen and enhance the understanding of the āsana. At the same time, practitioners should be careful not to develop a dependency on props; rather, props should be employed intelligently in pursuit of a mature and mindful practice of āsana.
Guruji Iyengar continues his description:
Now, talking of the pros and cons of using props, one of the criticisms leveled against props is that one becomes habituated and lacks the will to attempt doing independently. Is this the fault of props? Certainly not! Props are to feel the āsana. But I never say that they should be used on a permanent basis. Props give the sense of direction. When sense of direction sets in, I want my pupils to do the āsana independently sooner or later… The props are meant to give a sense of direction, alignment and understanding of the āsana.ibid
Ultimately the body and mind are also external props to help ‘the seer to dwell in his own true splendor’ (Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, I.3), or as Pisano expresses it:
… Props can be regarded as an outer weave that points to the very essence of the āsana, in a purely subjective way. There will therefore always be some swaying between using an external prop and using the body itself as a prop. Ultimately, the body-mind is itself only an external prop.ibid
- When used for support props allow us to stay longer in difficult āsana-s with stability (Sthirata) and spaciousness and quietness (Sukhata). For example, Viparīta Dandāsana is an advanced back bend; when we do it without support, most of us struggle, breathe heavily and get tired quickly. Doing the pose supported by a chair or a wooden arch, allows us to let go of the excessive effort and to experience inner space and quietness, or in Patañjali’s words, Sthira Sukham.
- But props can be used to make the pose more difficult. For example, in Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, when a helper pushes a block against our buttocks he or she actually makes the pose more difficult (see Variation 7 of this pose in Props for Yoga, Volume 1). But this push teaches our muscles to work in the right direction. The prop is used not for support but rather for activation. When later we do the pose without this resistance, we can still imagine it and activate the muscles in the same way.
- Props can also be used to decrease load from body parts that tend to be over loaded and make other parts heavier and more stable. This is when a prop is used to change the geometry of the pose. For example, in standing āsana-s the back leg should function like an anchor – it should be heavy and stable. But often, when entering the pose, weight shifts to the front leg and the back leg loses its stability. Lifting the front leg on a chair or block (see Variation 10 of Utthita Trikonāsana in Props for Yoga, Volume 1) changes the ‘normal’ geometry of the pose and thus allows us to feel how a well performed pose should be.
- Still other uses of props have only mental effects. For example, placing a belt under the outer foot of the back leg in Utthita Trikonāsana (as in Variation 3 of this pose in Props for Yoga, Volume 1does not support the pose and does not make it more difficult. Neither it changes the geometry of the pose – the whole purpose of this usage is to bring sensation and awareness to a body part.
To sum it up, props make it possible for every person to enhance his/her Sādhanā (study and discipline of yoga), regardless of physical limitations. By using props adequately one can:
- Perform āsana-s which are difficult to perform independently
- Achieve and maintain correct alignment during the practice
- Stay longer and relax in challenging āsana-s, thus attaining their full benefit
- Study and investigate āsana-s on a deeper level
- Enable people that suffer from chronic or temporary limitations to continue the practice and improve their condition.