I'm often asked how I come up with creative ways to use yoga props. Well, for one thing, I’ve been fortunate to teach at places that encourage the use of props and that invest in props because they see their value in supporting students.
I've also been lucky in drawing immense inspiration from brilliant teachers who use props in ingenious ways—teachers such as Carrie Owerko, Jenni Rawlings, Alison West, and Jivana Heyman. But some of my favorite propped variations have arisen from experimenting in my own practice and working one-on-one with students. They are the results of trying to find ways to help myself and others to feel physically, mentally, and energetically connected to our yoga practice and to get closer to the intended physical target.
The bulk of my creative process is informed by the struggles I’ve experienced in my practice as well as by my students’ struggles in their practice.
Sometimes words are not enough, and creative prop use speaks the language of the body more fully.
At times, it’s pure relentlessness in my quest to see in what other ways props can serve my students. As I have thought about where my creativity comes from, I keep going back to my mother.
When I was growing up, she was always searching for alternatives, variations, and ultimately solutions to problems. If my brother brought home a kitten, my mom managed to find food for the extra mouth. If I wasn’t invited to a sleepover, it didn't matter—my mom would sweep away my tears, take me to Blockbuster to rent movies, and fill the car with cotton candy. She diffused the charge of the situation not by dwelling on the problem but by acknowledging the situation, and then quickly assessing what resources were available to create an alternative (and oftentimes better) solution.
I look at yoga the same way. The Gheranda Samhita (a classic hatha yoga text) states that “There are as many asanas as there are living beings in the universe.” Which I interpret to mean that the ways asanas can be performed are as unique and individual as the student practicing them. And, to extrapolate from this verse, there are just as many ways to prop as there are living beings. I don't focus on why someone’s body makes the pose inaccessible or shrug off a pose as being difficult just because that’s the way it is. Rather, I focus on what the student and I can do in the moment and over time to facilitate an experience of the pose.
It might be placing a chair under their hand in ardha chandrasana (half moon pose), or a rolled-up washcloth under their heel in warrior I, or supporting them with three bolsters, two blocks, and a strap in janu sirsasana (head to knee pose). Creative problem-solving provides the ultimate shift from the impossible to the possible—and grows my repertoire of prop usage.
Curiosity fuels my desire to experiment: What would happen if I put this block there? How would adding a sandbag or a theraband affect the student’s experience?
Thinking outside the box with propping demands keen observation. What do you see and what does it invite you to try?
If kneeling on the floor is difficult but being in a tabletop-like shape is important, would standing with hands on a chair or low table work? What about lying supine in tabletop with the palms and shins facing the ceiling?
What’s challenging or frightening in a specific pose? How can you support the challenge or ease the fear? Would that change the way students approach the pose?
Of course, one experiment inevitably leads to another. A propped variation doesn’t always work out the first time, or it may need more tweaking for some students and less for others. Ultimately, when I see that look in a student’s face that shows they have turned a corner in a pose or have finally found a way to support themselves that doesn’t cause them to grimace from excessive effort or pain, it encourages me to explore even more options with all kinds of props.
I've found that props give new life to yoga classes. They allow everyone at least a glimpse of a pose, creating a sense of inclusivity. Students pay more attention to what they are doing because of the external feedback that is invaluable. If students are asked to hug their legs together in plank, they may assume that they are already doing so—just because their legs are close together. Placing a block between their thighs enlivens the cue and deepens the embodiment for the student.
Although they’re not yet as prevalent in yoga classes as are other props, I’ve found that using resistance bands in yoga practice allows me to better understand how my whole body is interconnected. For example, when I place a resistance band around my upper arms and press out against it in tabletop or plank, I can feel how this action informs my shoulder girdle and reinforces the need to press down through my index fingers and thumbs.
Props that may not be traditionally classified as “props” (that is, anything other than blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, and perhaps a few other additions depending on style or background) can actually teach us how to better embody cues. In addition to resistance bands, this can mean incorporating weights, towels, walls, Pilates rings, and so forth. Just because an item isn't labeled as a traditional “yoga prop” doesn't make it any less useful to our practice. In fact, these less traditional props can help us to dive deeper into our practice and open up more avenues for exploratory movement and support, which are key to our practice’s longevity. For me, looking at new objects and how they can play a role in my yoga practice inspires my creativity.
Creative prop usage also comes in handy at times when changes are occurring. As I grow older, I've become more attuned to the necessity of support. We need community in order to thrive. We all need help, and having support can be very therapeutic. It can be challenging too.
Even as someone who identifies as independent, I’d be a liar to say that everything (or anything) that I’ve accomplished in my life was done solely on my own. With each accomplishment, somewhere along the way someone taught me or provided a space in which I could flourish. Someone instilled perseverance in me and sometimes helped open doors that I never knew existed (or thought were permanently closed). We can be fiercely independent and still benefit from support. Once that support is accepted, it changes how you practice. It brings the element of fun and joy back into your practice.
Props, like friends, are part of your community of support. Some will be best friends you can always call on, always want by your side. Some may be more like acquaintances. Some you may have a falling out with. And you may not even know that others exist until you’re desperate—or until Amazon or a pop-up ad in your Instagram feed tells you they do.
But sharing great experiences with friends invariably puts down the grooves of awesome memories. And those could just last a lifetime.
Photography: Andrea Killam