Use of props – useful? a tool for bettering the foundation of a pose? a way to avoid injury?

Posted on our facebook site by Danielle Anagnostaras on March 17, 2009 at 9:33pm

What are thoughts, theories and beliefs about straps, blocks, bolsters, blankets?

Posted on our facebook site by Simon Borg-Olivier March 18, 2009 at 9:34pm

Hi Danielle, Thank you for your question. It is a good one.

Props can be very useful tools indeed. However, I very rarely use any props in my classes. Props have to be used intelligently and specifically for each student. When I teach people on a one to one basis I am happy to suggest the use of a prop if it seems appropriate, but I give clear instructions on its specific use for that person in their situation. For example a block under the back in some sort of bridge position (setu bandhasana) can be of tremendous benefit if it is placed in exactly the correct position in the back, but to tell every person in a mixed class to place a block in the same part of their back would be a mistake because everyone has a different back and what feels good for one person may cause pain and/or injury in someone else’s back.

In addition some people may only be able to benefit from a block if specific instructions are given activate one group of muscles while other muscles are left completely relaxed. For example, someone who has a stiff middle back and a weak lower back can be given relief for their stiffness by placing a block under their middle back and letting their spine and trunk relax onto the block while they are in a bridge position (setu bandhasana – feet and shoulders of the floor and hips and spine off the floor). However, if they relax completely they often tend to collapse into their weaker more flexible lower back. To prevent this collapse one solution is to use the knee extensors (the muscles at the front of the thigh that straighten the knee) to lift the hips up without using hip or spinal muscles (which if used would also tense the back and prevent the release of the stiff part of the spine). Not only is this hard to instruct specifically for a group, but most people simply do not have this level of control. Hence, I find it best not to use blocks under the back in group situations.

In a class where dynamic meditation is of interest then I find that every time a prop is used it takes people out of their yoga state, and instead of a flowing meditative state there ends up being a series of yoga moments with lots of interruptions. For example, to have a belt to hold the feet in forward bends can be useful for stiff people but it takes quite a few moments to put use and this can take people out of a meditative state and tends to make some stiffer people feel quite inadequate. Also belt is best held against the heel of the foot, but often beginners place the belt against the ball of the foot and they pull the feet towards their trunk causing a potentially dangerous stretch of the sciatic nerve.

A belt is rarely necessary in seated forward bends. The needs of a forward bend will be satisfied for a stiff person if they simply start with the hands on the floor behind the body in order to have the spine slightly arched backwards and the legs straight before they bend forward, and then simply bend the knees in order to take the spine forward to bring the head closer towards the knee and the ribs away from the thigh if possible. Many people make the mistake of never bending the spine forward and only ever keeping the spine either straight or bent backwards. Many people place far too much emphasis on stretching the back of the legs. It is much more important to lengthen the spine than the back of the legs, but an important caution is that you must not stretch the spine in a forward bend if you are feeling a hamstring stretch or you can damage the spine or the nervous system. This type of forward bend actually prepares people for shoulder-stand and plough pose because it lengthens the spine whereas a forward bend a back will not do this unless you are overstretching hamstrings and spine which can cause physical damage if you remain too relaxed or physiological damage if you become too tense.

Many people use blankets under the neck for shoulderstand. This is fine if you wish to stay a long time in the pose and otherwise cant do a shoulderstand at all, but i have found that many people often put the blankets on the wrong part of their neck or use too many blankets or put their neck on the floor and their head on the blankets (should be the other way!). This type of incorrect blanket placement may cause tremendous damage to people’s neck, and if the class is large it is very hard to control. I prefer using ‘legs up the wall’ passive postures or the half shoulder-stand with no blankets for most groups. These are quick easy and safe. Often a person has to be lifted into a shoulderstand as they cannot do it by themselves. This will mean that there is no internal support for the pose. Lack of internal support is a major problem in most postures using props which often leads to instability and overstretching in postures.

In fact, if i am teaching a mixed group of non-regular people I will not even give shoulderstand at all because of the inherent dangers of incorrect practice. Even sticking the legs up the wall passively (which incidentally is the only propped pose I teach reasonably frequently – the wall being the prop) can be problematic if people put their hips to close to wall, which can make their knees want to bend to their chest and fall away from the wall which is not relaxing. Or, if they come too far away from the wall with their hips then the back of the knees can hyperextend and they can over-stretch the back of their knees. So, even the wall is a prop that requires special skills to instruct the use of to actually master the use of.
I have lots more to say on this but i have to go to bed to get up in few hours! Maybe more later if what i have explained is of interest to anyone!

Posted on our facebook site by Danielle Anagnostaras on March 18, 2009 at 10:13pm

Thank you! These are the thoughts I was so interested in hearing.

Posted on our facebook site by Mikela Gabrielides on March 19, 2009 at 5:28am

Hi Danielle & Simon 🙂

Someone once told me that use of a bolster under the knees in savasana at the end of class is good if your lower back is hurting…

However my thinking is that, in theory, the lower back should not be hurting at all after your practice if you have been moving into, during and out of the poses correctly?
What do you think Simon?

Do you think that if people are regularly instructed to use a bolster at the end they will never really acquire the knowledge to move safely for their own bodies during a practise? Instead of just using a bolster to relieve any strain at the end?

Posted on our facebook site by Genevieve Godwin on March 22, 2009 at 6:01am

“…to tell every person in a mixed class to place a block in the same part of their back would be a mistake because everyone has a different back and what feels good for one person may cause pain and/or injury in someone else’s back.”

I occurs to me that the same can be said for chairs in daily life!

Posted on our facebook site by Bianca Machliss on March 24, 2009 at 7:23am

Its an interesting question – I think if use of a bolster under the knees helps someone who is a beginner to relax in Savasana – then it is appropriate. However if it is being used to aleviate pain as a result of practice then this needs to be addressed in the actual practice. I personally had a lot of pain lying down on my back when i started yoga, just due to stiffness in the spine – no-one suggested using a bolster which would have been a good idea, as i hated the end of class cause it was so painful.

So like all props – used appropriately they are fantastic. The intention is never to use them forever, but as a tool when appropriate.

I do find many of my students find it helpful to use a belt for forward bends, and once i have shown them how to work with it, it is not too distracting for them and very helpful.

Posted on our facebook site by Mikela Gabrielides on March 25, 2009 at 4:16am

Thanks Bianca 🙂

I guess the reason for the use of the prop is the main thing – and having a good teacher to instruct its use!

I’ve seen some of your students use belts and it seems to work wonders for them – so there’s a perfect example.


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