Do we need commercial props to practice yoga?
As a restorative yoga teacher I have collected many props, but when I was just starting out I didn’t have any—many of my most profound experiences happened on a carefully rolled duvet tied tightly with two upcycled neckties.
I began my practice as a teenager in the ’90s. Despite the fact that yoga mats had been invented in 1982, neither they nor any other branded prop had yet migrated to my tiny town. It's amazing at this point to think that for millenia yogis didn’t use yoga mats! Yoga was still far from mainstream and the concept of accessories available for sale was nonexistent.
We practiced on a carpet or blankets. I paid a teen rate for class which my babysitting income easily covered. And my teacher loaned me yoga books to read. Her generosity, and the affordability of her classes, affirmed that yoga is not about materialism; each person can begin where they are, with what they have. Outside of class, I read The Sivananda Companion to Yoga and I would try poses on my bedroom floor.
At an age when I was being prepared for a career, and fashion and makeup marketing targeted my every insecurity, this simple and accessible relationship to yoga was freeing and empowering. I didn’t need to be anyone different to just begin. I didn’t need anything except myself. I was completely worthy just as I was.
My first experiences contrast greatly to the first experiences of many yoga students today, teens especially. Over the past two decades I’ve noticed that most yoga students feel that they need to buy props in order to practice. Yoga teaches us that we do not need more, including more material possessions. And while commercial props are convenient, attractive, and helpful, they are not necessary. In our consumer-driven society, it’s not surprising that yoga has shifted in the same direction. But this thought gets in the way of our yoga.
Non-Possessiveness in Practice
Aparigraha—one of the yamas laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra—is often translated as non-hoarding, non-possessiveness, non-grasping. The fundamental idea is that we can become trapped by over-identification with things (materially, psychologically, and spiritually), which take our time and energy to buy and maintain, as Nicolai Bachman points out in his book, The Path of the Yoga Sutras. Whether you can afford a yoga mat or not, it may be worth spending some time immersing yourself in a world where accumulating yet one more item is simply not required or necessary.
When Yoga Props Become a Barrier
A few years ago, I reached out to New Leaf, a wonderful organization that provides yoga to underserved youth. I wanted to offer free yoga classes from my studio. My sense of contrast was affirmed when Laura, the founder, explained that they hadn’t had much success in sending teens to studios in the past. Most of them felt uncomfortable in these spaces, intimidated by the impossibly expensive items (high-end mats, blankets, and blocks), as well as by the overall environment.
In our efforts to make yoga more and more accessible we may have lost something along the way. If a new student’s first thought is, “I want to begin a yoga practice, what do I need to buy?” I feel that yoga’s healing power, which can remind us of our true (inner and inherent) worth, is being diminished. I love that my first experience of yoga felt like an invitation to dive right in. I want that for others as well.
Thankfully, props are easy to improvise. And as a teacher, I’ve found that the best way to get my students to use props is to teach them how to assemble their own so that, if they cannot afford or do not have the ability to access ready-made props, they can produce comparable options in a few minutes.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at a few DIY prop options, then take a moment to explore a classic supported savasana (corpse pose) using everyday household items—and remember that regardless of what age you are or how new or advanced your practice is, you already have enough!
Prop substitutions to get you started:
Blocks: Medium and small pots. Alternatively, you could also use big books, cans, a spare block of wood or log, and so on!
Strap: A couple of old neckties, bathrobe ties, a pet leash, or belts.
Yoga blankets: Regular blankets, towels of all sizes, sleeping bags, tablecloths, spare curtains, and the like!
Bolster: This is the most challenging one. You will need a large enough duvet that, when folded in half, it is roughly the same length as the distance between your tailbone and the crown of your head. If you don’t have this, blankets this size could work too. (Some teachers recommend a pile of blankets folded instead of something that is rolled, but for me the roll is most comfortable.) Once you have the right length, you can hold your “bolster’s” shape with twine or duct tape.
Eye cushion: Anything to accomplish a sense of darkness! A much-loved but now single sock perhaps, a facecloth?
Once you have assembled your supplies, let's explore setting up the pose.
You will need:
• Bolster (see above for instructions).
• Blankets (see above for options).
• Smaller blanket or hand towel.
• Eye cover.
Basic Setup and Instruction
1. Find a comfortable space to practice and fold one or two blankets lengthwise, laying them out on the floor for a soft and padded support. A carpet or any other naturally soothing surface would also work.
2. Take a smaller blanket or hand towel and fold it into a triangle shape—something I affectionately nickname “the pizza wedge” for my students.
This will go under your main blanket (the one described below in point #3) to support your head and help to lower your chin, relaxing your neck and jaw and helping to stimulate your relaxation response.
3. Fold a blanket in such a way that one side is a little bit longer than the other. Make sure that the shorter side of the blanket is the one that goes on top, from the top of your head to the base of your skull. The longer, lower blanket goes just a touch underneath your shoulders. (See this blanket depicted in the full set up below.)
4. Lie back on your blankets and place your “bolster” (described above in point #4 under “prop substitutions”) under your knees and a rolled-up blanket (see point #3 for prop substitutions) under your heels. (The positioning of your ankles is important because it can help release muscle strain around your hips and deep abdominals—ideally you’d want your Achilles tendon positioned halfway between your knee and the ground.) Push the roll slightly down so that it doesn't push much on your upper thighs. Make sure that your ankles rest at about half the height of your knees to the ground. Add additional heel support as needed for optimal comfort. If you run out of blankets or towels, you can also place a book or anything that’s flat under the towels or blankets you’re using to get the right height.
5. Cover your eyes with something if you like—maybe your single sock or a scarf—and cover your body with a blanket if needed. Make sure that you are warm enough.
6. Relax deeply into savasana knowing that you already have all that you need to begin this beautiful journey and rest.
• If you tend to get cold or need more cushioning for comfort, a little extra padding may be the thing; you can always add more blankets beneath you.
• If you have a longer neck or broader shoulders, you may need to add extra head support to be comfortable. In this case, place an additional blanket on the ground where your head will rest, and then place your head support on top of that.
Just begin to practice yoga. Know that you are complete already and lacking nothing. There’s nothing in the way, nothing more you need to buy. You could sit down right now on the ground and begin to breathe, grab a few blankets, and begin. You are ready right here, right now.
Author's note: I have studied with Judith Hanson Lasater for many years and have also benefited from her books. I originally learned many of these adaptations from her. For masterful, detailed pose setup descriptions, see also Restore and Rebalance by Judith Hanson Lasater. The prop substitutions listed in this article will work well for all of the excellent poses in her books.
Photography: Andrea Killam