As you read, please bear in mind that I exist here merely as a conduit of information. My yoga study is based in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras and the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar; what follows is an extrapolation of their teachings into my personal practice — with the aim of both clarifying for myself, and helping others.
Last month, I wrote about the annamaya, or bodily kosa/sheath, and how I am actively working, practicing, and studying to move beyond it. (Will I in this lifetime? Remains to be seen...) I recommend you read part one of the series before diving into this post, and you can do so by clicking here. In that post, I discussed stepping away from my attachment to music and heated practice and letting the breath and body work together in greater harmony. Today, I'm writing about embracing the use of props in asana.
I used to be a prop hater. Correction: I used to be the prop hater. My asana practice was once so driven by haughty ego that I prided myself on the fact that my natural flexibility made props "irrelevant" to me. I equated my hypermobility with command of the practice, and it is with some shame I admit now that, at times, I even thought it made me a "better" yogi than others.
I can distinctly remember a class I took at a heated studio in Brooklyn, years ago. My teacher wanted us to practice trikonasana (triangle) pose with a block, but I was vehemently sure that I didn't need one. I had never used a block in that posture. I had never had a problem getting my hand to the floor in that posture. She asked us to grab the block before we began practice, an instruction I had disregarded. Midway through the class, as we moved into trikonasana, she instructed us to place the block on the inside of our front foot on its highest level, and I ignored her again. I placed the palm of my hand flat on the wood floor. She quietly placed a block next to me. I clenched my jaw and ignored her once more. She said nothing in the moment or after the class — how can we teach those who are not willing to listen? But years later, I consider that moment integral to my evolution as a student.
What arrogance I had! I write this, in 2018, as a prop-loving yogini. And in fact, one of my favorite places to use a block is in that very posture, trikonasana. Here is why: I see now that when I insisted on jamming my hand to the floor, I sacrificed length in my side body. My body did not accurately represent the ideal shape of the pose, because I was scrunching up the space between my torso and my thigh. Now, when I practice trikonasana, I feel a firm connection with the block (as firm a connection as I ever did to the floor!), but I also lengthen and expand through my entire upper and side body. I am not only grounded, but light and lifted as well. When done well, with integrity, all asanas allow for a duality of motion. (Up and out, and down and in; expansion in all directions). So often blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters, and chairs help us achieve that.
Here is the thing: Yoga asana is not mastered when we are able to contort our bodies into the deepest or most dramatic iteration of the posture. In fact, what looks the most extreme (or Instagram-worthy) is inaccurate at best and unsafe at worst. Yoga asana is mastered when we perform the postures with singular focus, and achieve graceful perfection in the posture. If using blankets and the aid of a chair in sarvangasana (shoulderstand) allows us to attain a safer height with our legs and hips, a straighter back, and a more supported neck, we would be wise to accept their help.
The turning point for me was admitting that although I didn't "need" props, their presence lent integrity to my practice. And so we find a duality here, as well: Not only do blocks and straps help me perfect a posture, it was through their use that I quieted the ego one degree further.
Next I'll be discussing the annamaya kosa and how it relates to the following topics:
3. Structuring my life to better accommodate practice (including my relationship to alcohol, sleep, and self-care)
4. Investing in my studies (financially and otherwise)