A good yoga teacher will tell you: The only requirement of practice is the ability to breathe. Yoga props are a tool to make that possible.
The purpose of a yoga prop is to support and enrich your practice, full stop. This is true of seasoned yogis using belts to free-balance handstand as much as it is the brand new yogi who sits on a bolster to make Easy Pose (Sukhasana) comfortable for tender knees.
A misconception about using props is that they’re somehow a cop-out—that a “real yogi” doesn’t use props. Since they were first introduced by B.K.S. Iyengar who is, inarguably, a “real yogi” in the modern day practice, this just isn’t true. Young and old, seasoned or new, Yin or Ashtanga, props can further anyone’s practice. Read on to learn how the Four B’s—blocks, belts, bolsters and blankets—can be used to bring the best of you to your yoga practice.
Yoga blocks are made of Styrofoam, cork or wood and come in many different sizes. They’re generally used as an extension of your hands or feet to bring the floor a little closer.
Seated Straight-Legged Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) is a good time to grab a yoga block. While still sitting upright, nestle the block on your shins. Choose whichever block height allows you to gently rest your forehead without straining your spine or hamstrings. With the support of the block, feel how you can access Pranayama to naturally deepen the pose, without creating tension.
Easy Cross-Legged Twist (Pavritta Sukhasana) is another pose that benefits from a block. From a seated upright position, place the block in-line with the center of your low back, but just a bit away from the torso. Keep your supporting hand on the block for height as you use your other hand to leverage you deeper into the twist. With the support of the block, you create height that straightens your spine and opens your shoulders as you release a bit deeper into the pose with every exhale.
You can also double or triple-up props to get the most juice out of a pose. In Easy Pose with Forward Fold (Adho Mukha Sukhasana), use a blanket to allow yourself more hip height and a block to prevent tension as you release into the forward fold. Sit on the edge of a folded blanket so that your spine is relaxed and the crown of your head naturally extends towards the ceiling. The purpose of the blanket is to allow release in the hips, so if there’s still tension in the hips with a blanket, fold it as many times as you need until your hips loosen. As you fold forward, bring your forehead to a block to allow your shoulders to soften and keep strain and tension out of the pose.
Many a creative yogi has cobbled together a belt from whatever’s around the house including, but not limited to, bailing string, necktie or bathrobe belt. While these are thrifty options, a proper yoga belt is worth the investment. This multi-use yoga tool benefits from the strength of its buckle and its durability. Besides, they’re fairly inexpensive.
Yoga belts are used in poses such as One-Legged Supine Stretch (Supta Padangusthasana), where you may require more space than tight hamstrings allow for. From your back with one leg extended, loop the strap over the ball of the foot (note: not the arch) and walk your hands up the strap just until you start to feel resistance from the calf or hamstring. As you breathe into the pose, press the ball of the foot into the strap as you gently release the hamstrings to ensure dynamic action throughout the leg.
A yoga belt helps create space in shoulder opening poses, as well, for example, Cow-Faced Pose (Gomukhasana). For this pose, place the belt in the top hand and let it dangle down your back as an extension of your arm. Gently reach for the strap with the bottom hand. Creating space by using a belt allows your spine to remain free and open while getting a nice stretch through the chest and triceps.
Yoga bolsters are cylindrical, torso-sized firm pillows typically used in a restorative, relaxing practice. They’re also used in prenatal yoga to release a growing weight on the lower back.
For a supported backbend and chest opener like Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), place the base of the bolster near the base of your spine and lie on top of it, legs straight or crossed. Keep your chin tucked into your chest so that there’s no kinking in the neck. Relax your arms, palms up, on the ground. If you find the opening too intense, add a block or folded blanket under your skull.
Another relaxing use for bolsters is a gentle, supported version of Spinal Twist (Supta Parivartanasana). From a seated position with both legs tucked to one side, place the bolster near your hip. Facing the bolster with your hands on either side, rest your torso on the cushion. You can face the bolster or towards your knees if you have a sensitive neck, or away from the knees for a deeper twist.
Like blocks and bolsters, yoga blankets give you just enough extra height to keep your practice safe and comfortable. They can be rolled and folded to give you exactly the type of shape and height you need.
Blankets are often used in Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) to keep the neck safe. The purpose of the blanket in this pose is to allow the natural curve in the neck to remain aligned with the spine, rather than flattened into the mat or floor. This is especially recommended for those new to a yoga practice. To use a blanket in Shoulderstand, from a half-folded blanket fold once or twice more, making sure there are no wrinkles. Lay down on the blanket so that your shoulders—not your neck—are in line with the edge of the blanket. No part of the head or neck should be resting on the blanket.
If you’d like to incorporate a hamstring and spinal stretch from here, gently bring your legs behind your head into Plow Pose (Halasana). Make sure not to move your neck while breathing into the pose, as doing so will force flexion, which could damage the delicate ligaments in the vertebrae.
Whatever your need, there is a yoga prop out there to help you. Many famous yoga teachers get creative in their use of props and you can do the same. As long as it helps you get into your body and creates freedom in your breath, your yoga prop is doing its job. So get creative and put those props to work!