No Blocks, No Bolsters, No Problem


Props, props, and more props! That is how I both teach yoga and practice yoga. But I’m fairly certain the Indus-Sarasvati yogis in northern India didn’t reach for two blocks and a bolster during asana practice thousands of years ago as they ground down through their feet and extended their arms toward the sky.

In all fairness, my body is not like those of the original yogis. (They probably didn’t spend as much time as I do sitting in chairs, typing on laptops, or looking down at a smart phone.) So while I acknowledge that all you need for yoga practice is a two-by six-foot space on the ground, I also admit that I lean toward using block and bolsters to help me through my practice. That said, if traditional yoga props are not within reach, there are some great yoga hacks that can help you breathe through an easeful asana practice when you’re at home, traveling, on a yoga retreat, or anywhere else in the world besides a fully stocked yoga studio.

While I acknowledge that all you need for yoga practice is a two-by-six-foot space on the ground, I also admit that I lean toward using blocks and bolsters to help me through my practice.

I’ll list some specific uses below, but here are a few props-in-disguise you may have lying around the house:

• Small trash can

• Stack of books or magazines

• Rolled-up yoga mat

• Towels

• Blankets

• Pillows, throw pillows, and couch cushions

• A chair

• A wall

• Sturdy, metal water bottle

“Oops, I Forgot My Mat”

When you find yourself without a mat, this is an easy problem to solve. Practice on the ground! You may find that gripping your fingers and toes straight into the ground instead of into a cushioned mat introduces a new sense of grounding and balance. This may be particularly true for standing balancing poses such as vrksasana (tree pose). It could also provide a turning point for your adho mukha vrksasana (handstand), since there’s now one less layer of squish between your body and the earth. While it may seem logical to lay a towel onto the floor in the shape of a mat, that really isn’t optimal—inevitably, the towel bunches up (worse yet, the slip-and-slide factor could be dangerous). Instead of laying the towel on the floor, keep it folded and within reach to add extra padding under your knees during lunges or under your head during headstands.

“But the Ground Is So Far Away Without Blocks”

If you’re like me, you love the lift that a yoga block can provide in poses like ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) or uttanasana (intense forward fold). If you don’t have a block, look around and get creative. A small, empty trash can that’s turned upside down is a great block hack. So is a stack of books or magazines, or even a balled-up blanket or towel. A chair placed in front of your mat could serve your purpose, too. But my personal favorite is a sturdy, metal water bottle. Speaking of that metal water bottle, if you turn it on its side, it becomes a travel-sized alternative to a foam roller!

“I Crave Restorative Yoga, But I Don’t Have Props”

Let’s stop thinking of props as yoga blocks and perfectly folded blankets—and instead, let’s play a game of “I Spy.” See that wall over there? A simple viparita karani (legs up the wall) might be a restorative pose with your name all over it. If you’re cozy there but want to embellish the pose, add baddha konasana (bound angle pose) by letting your knees spread wide as the soles of your feet come together. If supported fish pose is on your wish list, find the metal water bottle you used earlier as a block, and place it horizontally under your thoracic spine—lying over it for a gentle backbend. If you don’t have a water bottle nearby but do have a mat, roll up that mat and use it the same way as the bottle for your fish pose. Looking for a slightly different chest opener? Keep your mat rolled up, but turn it vertically and center it along your spine as you’re lying down. This is a great setup for pranayama practice, too! You may choose to keep the mat under your spine or shoulder blades as you bring your feet together and your knees wide, coming into supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose). If you feel you could use a little support in the groins, place a pillow or couch cushion under each thigh. Then, roll your way off the rolled up mat, and use it in other ways. Your rolled-up mat, or folded blanket or towel, can also be a great prop to sit on if you need a lift during seated forward folds such as paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) or upavistha konasana (wide angle seated forward bend). And one last trick: As you prepare for savasana, place the rolled-up mat, blanket, or towel under the back of your knees to fill the negative space there as you lower down for savasana.

While these are all great hacks for your asana, remember that yoga doesn’t stop with your physical practice. When you find yourself without props, you can turn your attention to meditation or pranayama—for which you need no props. You don’t need a special meditation cushion or pranayama bolster. You don’t need a fancy yoga mat or a decorated altar. To practice yoga, all you really need is a space. By filling your space with yourself, your breath, and a few everyday items, you’ll have all the tools you need to take your practice out of the studio.

About the Teacher

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Karen Shelley
Karen Shelley is a Brooklyn-based yoga instructor who leads group classes throughout New York City and... Read more