I often begin my classes with postural awareness and seated meditation. I ask my students to sit on folded blankets or a block. In explaining the benefits of elevating their seats, I might try a variety of inducements: potential ease in the hips, length in the spine, space for the breath, even alignment of the chakras. Still, more often than not, a good portion of the class uses the props half-heartedly, or not at all.
Whether you are teaching meditation, restorative yoga, or an active asana style, it can be helpful to utilize props as a way to deepen and/or make more accessible the experience of a pose. There is much to say on this topic, but let’s start by acknowledging that when our students are not responding, or “getting” what we hope to teach, we may need to turn our attention to ourselves.
How can we better understand a student’s choice not to use props when offered? Is it in fact a choice, or is the student disengaged or confused? What can we do to better communicate our intentions?
Here are five suggestions for teachers that may help.
1. Be playful. Sometimes you simply have to catch a student’s attention. If your instruction is outside the realm of what they normally consider important ("It is just the start of class, we haven’t gotten to the real poses yet”), it can help to get creative.
Recently, somewhat exasperated at the general ignoring of my prop suggestions at the beginning of class, I asked my students to create yoga thrones for themselves—and then to notice that when they ascended their thrones, their spines more naturally took on a regal length. I suggested that as an added benefit they might feel a new poise in the balancing of their skulls that would most certainly prevent their jeweled yoga crowns from sliding off the tops of their heads. (And yes, I teach adults!) I got a few laughs and some new interest in sitting “up” rather than just “down.”
2. Be understanding. Students are often tired. Acknowledge that it can be a drag to retrieve a prop or to figure out how to make a loop in a belt or wind it around the body just right. In most cases I steer away from complex prop setups and try to get everything organized at the beginning of class to minimize “fuss” later on.
Be prepared to help your students more than usual—whether by delivering a forgotten prop, or by helping with individual setups. Remember that props need to be carefully calibrated according to body type, physical facility, and proportions. If you present a setup as one-size-fits-all, students are less likely to have a satisfying experience that will make them curious enough to use props in the future.
For example, in supta baddha konasana, when students place blocks on the medium height behind their ribs and heads, the results will vary depending on the natural curves in their thoracic and cervical spines, as well as their tolerance for spinal extension. For some, the medium-height block setup might feel great, but for others it could make the backbend too intense.
3. Be clear. How exactly do you use the props? Sometimes students feel overwhelmed or unsure of exactly what to do; it may seem preferable to skip the prop rather than to use it wrong. So be methodical: one step at a time. Demonstrate anything unfamiliar. Or better yet, pick a student for whom the arrangement may be particularly challenging and ask them to be your model. Set them up carefully. It can be more fun for students to observe the setup on “one of their own,” and the model herself might be pleasantly surprised at the depth of experience that a well organized prop setup can yield.
4. Be direct. Rather than offering props as an option, try teaching a pose that specifically uses props to teach a certain action or an otherwise inaccessible variation. For example, in uttanasana (standing forward bend), if appropriate to the people in the room I sometimes teach hands on blocks with legs straight and engaged. If students are just a little too tight to touch the ground with straight legs, this gives them an opportunity to work the pose without releasing the distal end of the hamstring (and putting all the tension at the medial attachments). For some students, working this way seems to improve chronic pain around the sitting bones. It also may be more effective in increasing the flexibility of their hamstrings than uttanasana with soft knees.
Props can give us more choices in how we engage with even the most familiar pose. Using a prop may not make the pose more or less advanced. The experience may simply be different and create an opportunity to release ourselves from habits (like always bending the knees in uttanasana!).
5. Let go. If I can’t let go of a particular instruction and I keep trying to hammer it home no matter what is going on in the classroom, then I have lost the quality of mindfulness in my teaching. Occasionally I identify with an instruction to the point that I even feel personally offended when it is not followed! Has this ever happened to you?
If you have introduced use of a prop with sensitivity to both your intention and your students’ experience and still have not seen the result that you are looking for, let it go. In our teaching practice we cannot be reminded too often that, as thoughtful and heartfelt as our teaching may be, we are not in control of the outcome of our students’ practice.
As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
You have a right to your actions,
But never to your actions’ fruits.
—Bhagavad Gita, translation by Stephen Mitchell