CategoryYogi’s Guide

What are yoga Props, and how to improvise them for home practice

What are yoga Props, and how to improvise them for home practice

Props are really, really great. They are SO useful to keep you safe in class and help you to move deeper into a pose than you could without them. They open up a world of possibilities for making poses more accessible AND more challenging. But let’s start from the beginning…

 

What ARE Props?

Props come in in a range shapes and sizes.

Blocks tend to be flatter with one long edge, one medium edge and a short edge – imagine a big book shape. Bricks tend to be smaller blocks with one long side and 2 pretty much equal length sides – yup, a bit like a brick… Blocks and bricks can be made of dense foam, wood or cork.

Yoga belts are usually woven cotton or webbing and can be a single length with a buckle at one end or can be sewn into a loop or figure of eight.

Meditation cushions, or zafus, come in a variety of shapes and sizes with all sorts of fillings from spelt to foam. Bolsters are similar but tend to be long, round and sausage-like.

Then there are yoga wheels, head up stools, eye masks, weights, blankets… All sorts of things that yogis use in their practice. I guess the modern yoga mat is a prop too, really.

Why use them?

Props can be used to improve alignment in a pose when a yogi has yet to develop sufficient range of movement to achieve the full expression of that pose.

An example would be using a brick under the hand in trikonāsana (triangle) when a student can’t reach the floor without folding the trunk forwards. Placing a brick under the hand at a height where the trunk remains rotated upwards gives great alignment for that student and teaches a good movement pattern that can be maintained as the pose deepens with practice. Using a block like this usually makes the pose safer for the yogi, too, as it prevents over stretch and uncontrolled movement.

Props can also be used to teach specific muscle activation in a pose. Think about placing a block between the knees in setu bandhasāna (bridge). By squeezing the block as you lift the pelvis, the inner thigh muscles activate to prevent the knees rolling outwards. Learning to activate these muscles with the block is the first step to being able to activate them in the pose automatically in future.

Another really useful prop is the belt. This is saviour in paścimottānāsana when your feet seem to be just too far away. Here, the belt is basically an arm extension – loop it round the feet and pull to fold. Another way to use a belt is to encourage one element of a pose that is often hard to achieve. Think about prasaritta padotanāsana (wide legged forward fold with hands on hips), with the belt looped round the elbows. This encourages the elbows to stay drawn together to open the chest. Delicious!

Sitting is another time where many yogis gain SO much from using a block or cushion under the seat. This lifts the hips above the knees and allows the pelvis to roll into anterior tilt. Without this movement of the pelvis the spine is often unable to lengthen and opening the hips and chest are a real struggle. Sukāsana (easy pose) is anything BUT easy for most of us without that prop!

Purpose-made Props

Many yoga classes have props available for you to use as you want or need to, while some yoga teachers insist you bring your own. Purpose-made yoga props are available in stores and online, ranging in price from a few pounds to positively eye-watering amounts. It is well worth shopping around to find something to suit your budget if you are going to buy your own.

Having your own props is great if you have enough spare cash and the space to store them. But not everyone is in that position. Or maybe you are practising away from home – hotels and hostels are not noted for their plentiful supply of yoga props, I have found… But that does not mean props are not available to you. No matter where you are, there are things you can use as props: you can improvise, adapt and overcome! Here’s how.

Improvised Props for every occasion

With just a little imagination, most of the common props you find in a yoga studio can be very effectively improvised from normal household items.

1. MEDITATION CUSHIONS

So many options for this one… Try a normal sofa cushion. Or maybe 2 piled up. Or fold a pillow and place the folded end under the buttocks with the free ends supporting the thighs. Folded blankets or towels piled up can work well too. Or I have been known to sit on the edge of our garden decking with my lower legs rested on the grass in sukāsana – this is SO lovely for an impromptu early morning breath session or meditation in the open air.

2. BLOCKS AND BRICKS

If going under buttocks, then folded towels and blankets work well as a block. If needed for under hands to support weight, then positioning yourself near a step or low stool might work. In the trikonāsana example above, placing your hand on your own lower leg gives a point of fixation but it does make balancing more of a challenge, so it doesn’t suit everyone.

3. BELT

The easiest way to improvise a yoga belt is with the one out of your trousers! As long as it is not stretchy, any normal belt will do. Alternatively roll up a towel to tea towel length-ways and use that for looping round feet on paścimottānāsana.

4. HEAD REST IN BALĀSANA

If you usually need to rest your head on a block in balāsana (child pose) then try making fists and place one on top of the other with the thumb side uppermost. Resting the forehead on this platform can be just as good as a purpose made block and SO much easier to move out of the way as you transition into the next pose of a flow sequence. Result!

5. PARTNER BALANCES

Practising alone when the online teacher says ‘reach for a partner to balance’? Never fear – go to the nearest windowsill or kitchen units. These make perfect stable partners for any home practice. I love to use a windowsill to support my hands in a modified virabhadrāsana 3 (warrior) as it lets me REALLY focus on activating my legs in the balance.

6. BOLSTERS

See meditation cushions above and think BIGGER… Try 3 or 4 towels or blankets rolled up into a sausage to make a bolster. If you have a foam roller to hand, you could try that – though I do recommend wrapping it in some padding or putting a pillow over it if you are going to spend any amount of time resting on it. They can be SO hard and uncomfortable.

And finally

Purpose-made props are a relatively recent addition to the yoga world. Generations of yogi’s practised prop-free for centuries.

Did you know that the first yoga mats were born when someone tried pieces of carpet underlay to stop their hands slipping in down dog? Improvisation at its best! And I suspect that the first blocks used were just that – blocks of wood.

I love the idea of connecting to our yoga roots and practising more simply using what is to hand. It opens up the possibility of yoga any place, any time, anywhere. It brings freedom and simplicity for me. I hope it does for you too.

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Schofield

Yogi’s Guide: Flexibility and What Limits it

Yogi's Guide: Flexibility and What Limits it

We are not all bendy. Even if you are born bendy, that flexibility tends to reduce with age – unless you do something about it. Every yogi knows that yoga is a GREAT way to maintain flexibility as you grow older. And even if you have the flexibility of an ironing board, yoga will help to regain mobility that you have lost over the years. But why do some joints open up more easily than others? And how do you know when to keep working on opening, or when to accept the range of movement that you have? It’s easy when you know how – let me explain.

It’s About How You Are Built

No two people are built the same. Yes, we tend to have the same number of bones in roughly the same places but nature makes us all subtly different. Many people have the same length legs but if you look at the lengths of their femurs (thigh bones) and tibias (shin bones) some will have long femurs and short tibias and others will have short thighs and long shins. Similarly, some folks will have long bodies and short legs but be the same height as people with long legs and short bodies.

If we look more closely at individual joints there are also differences in how they are built that influence their range of movement. The hip is a

hip joint opening yoga flexibility
Image Credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

great example of this. Our hip is a ball and socket joint. If one person’s hip socket (acetabulum) points a bit more sideways they will find it SO much easier to take a wide-legged stance in prasaritta padotanāsana (wide-legged forward fold) than someone who has downward facing hip sockets. Both down and sideways facing hip sockets are perfectly normal and natural, but the one you have will be part of what determines how wide your legs can go. And no matter how hard we try we cannot change how we are built.

Super Important Soft Tissues

Bones are not the only thing that limits the range of movement in a joint. Every joint has soft tissues holding it together – capsules and ligaments go from bone to bone like guy ropes. They are designed to prevent too much movement in a joint. A healthy joint that has no injuries or disease will have a certain range of movement before the ligaments go tight and stop further movement. This prevents the joint from damage and is a good thing. You would not want to stretch these tissues so much that they no longer protect the joint from damage.

However, ligaments or capsules that have been damaged and shortened can limit the range of movement. For example, the shoulder can get very stiff and painful if the capsule becomes inflamed and tight after an injury. In this instance, as a physiotherapist, I would teach someone to stretch those structures back to regain the range of movement and reduce the pain.

Marvellous Muscles and Fabulous Fascia

muscles facia body yoga
Image Credit: Jasper Graetsch via Unsplash.

The human body is SO much more than bones and joints. Arguably the most important structure in the body is now thought to be the myofascial system. Traditionally we have thought about muscle tightness being the major factor that limits the range of movements. How often do we hear the hamstrings (back of thigh muscles) being blamed for someone not being able to touch their toes? But this is all rather unfair because the muscles are only part of the story.

Muscles are made up of muscle fibres. These fibres are held together in bundles by thin sheets of connective tissue called fascia – imagine cling film and you are pretty close to what fascia looks like. These sheets of fascia all link up to each other to wrap around the whole muscle AND they join up with other soft tissues above and below. For example the fascia in the hamstring muscles links with soft tissues in the buttocks and behind the knee into the calf.

If we look even wider, the fascia links a whole series of soft tissue structures through the body from fingertip to fingertip across the chest; from head to foot; and spiralling round the body. These are called myofascial planes or anatomy trains and a search on YouTube brings up some lovely, gruesome videos of anatomical dissections of them if you are interested.

Motion is Lotion

So, myofascial planes are made up of muscles and fascia, cover large areas of the body and sort of hold us all together. So far, so good. But how do they affect movement?

Myofascial tissues love movement. If you don’t move your myofascial system regularly it loses its ability to move. If myofascia stops moving, the joints also stop moving as much. And this is how we lose flexibility as we age – the old saying of ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’ is SO true.

The good news is that myofascial mobility is REALLY easy to get back. All you need to do is move. And keep moving. Fascia will gain length and regain its ability to move pretty quickly. That is how we become more flexible in the short space of a yoga class. And, we all know that if you practice every day for a few days your flexibility will improve day on day. But, if you then skip a few days the next time you get on the mat you will have stiffened up again. That is the because not moving means the myofascia loses the ability to slide and glide – it actually dries out and the layers stick together until movement ‘oils’ the system again and it gets moving again.

But What Is Stopping ME Moving?

Each of the structures we have talked about has a distinctive feeling when they limit movement. By listening to the body and responding to what you feel you can work out what is stopping you. By practicing mindfully we can work with the body to open joints in directions that are safe and beneficial. And, more importantly, we will know when to stop pushing into a direction that is never going to change.

All you need to do is ask yourself three simple questions as you practice. And have the humility to take the right action …

1. WHAT AM I FEELING?

childs pose muscle yoga
Image Credit: Form via Unsplash.

Most people will describe either a stretching feeling or a squashing feeling. Stretches tend to be on the side of the body that is lengthening, for example, the back of the legs in uttanāsana (forward fold). Squashing feelings tend to be on the opposite side to stretches – think front of hips in uttanāsana. Squashing feelings are caused by something pressing on something else. It may be your belly on your thighs in uttanāsana or thighs on calves in balāsana (child pose). Though this squashing of soft tissues can be uncomfortable it will not usually cause damage to the tissues that are compressed. You may still want to modify the pose to ease the discomfort though.

BUT, if the squashing feeling is a pinching sensation and over a joint then it is likely that the joint has gone as far as it will ever go. You are pressing bone against bone. This will not damage your joint if you do it occasionally but it could do if you keep on doing it again and again and again over weeks, months and years.  So what should you do? Ease off, come away from that extreme range of motion until the pinching goes away. And, more importantly, accept that your joint will never go further than that.

2. WHERE AM I FEELING IT?

Generally feelings in tissues that are lengthening are good and have the potential to increase range of movement. Feelings in tissues being squashed are at best uncomfortable; at worst damaging and in all cases not going to result in increased range of movement so are best avoided.

3. WHAT HAPPENS AS I HOLD THE POSE?

You have decided this is a good sensation so it is most probably a stretch feeling. That stretch feeling may stay the same (good); decrease (really good) or increase (bad). So what does that mean? And what should a good yogi do?

  • Stretch stays the same – this is not a damaging stretch and will increase length in the tissue. Hold the stretch as long as it is comfortable.
  • Stretch gets less – this is great and means that the myofascial tissues are starting to lengthen in response to the stretch. Go with it – feel free to ease into the range of movement until the stretch feeling comes back.
  • Stretch is painful and/or increases – this is bad. It is your body telling you to ease off. Basically you have triggered the damage sensors in the tissues. They have raised the alarm and muscles are starting to contract to protect the body. This will never result in lengthened tissues. It actually gives short, tight tissues and reduces flexibility. You need to ease away from the extreme pose until the stretch is mild and comfortable. Then hold it there.

The Last Word

So, joints limited by bony architecture will not move further and pushing them risks damage. Accept it and move on!

Joints limited by soft tissues have a HUGE potential to move further but be kind to them. Ease into greater ranges of movement slowly, keep the stretch sensations comfortable. Enjoy the feeling of release and the openness that greater flexibility brings. It may take months or years to achieve your full potential in terms of range of movement – so enjoy the journey!

Sally Schofield

The Cheeky Yogi’s Epic fail at New Year’s resolutions.

The Cheeky Yogi's Epic fail at New Year’s resolutions.

I whole heartedly succumbed to the holiday season frenzy. Every temptation was welcome as though they were necessary for survival. Logic and reason vanished as deep-filled mince pies were washed down with oodles of red wine, after a hedonistic night in the company of Nicole Kidman and the delicious Alexander Skarsgard. I ‘caught up’ on almost every HBO TV series ever made and on the 27th December I began a new journey delving into the vast offerings of Netflix. Somewhere in my ‘festive’ head, it made sense to shun sleep and daylight and nest on a leather reclining sofa, relying on the sporadic visits from the cat to show the passage of time.

(more…)

Yogi’s Guide: Yoga for Painful Knees

Yogi's Guide: Yoga for Painful Knees

I love knees – they are simple, honest joints that work hard for us and tell us when they are not happy. Very few people get through life without ever having sore knees and many unfortunate folks suffer painful knees on a daily basis.

And knee pain is horrible. It is often enough for people to stop doing things that they love – running, hill walking, dancing, even yoga – but this does not have to be the case. Most sore knees will feel better if they are used and kept strong and mobile. In fact, as a physiotherapist, I regularly see patients that can get back to being pain-free after a period of rehabilitation based on stretching and strengthening. The secret is that knees love to be used and love to be worked – rest and avoiding things SO is not the answer. And the really good news? Yoga IS the answer. (more…)

Sally Schofield
Yoga makes the heart sing

Yogi’s Guide: The Ankle

Yogi's Guide: The Ankle

Ankles are amazing things – they (literally) hold us up and propel us around. They absorb HUGE amounts of impact when we run and jump. And yet we rarely pay them any attention. Unless they are a problem, of course, then they can cause pain and suffering. Let me introduce you to the incredible world of ankles and how to get the most from them on your yoga mat. (more…)

Sally Schofield