If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have spent some time in a traditional village anywhere in Asia, you’ll have marveled at the natural flexibility and coordination of the villagers. They sit in the half-lotus or lotus position as naturally as we Westerners sit in a chair and squat flat-footed and chat together for hours without the slightest discomfort. Indian yogis begin their practice of hatha yoga with this kind of natural flexibility, but we need to train ourselves. The best of the gurus who brought hatha yoga to the West understood this and helped their students develop blocks and other props to assist them in their practice.
Yoga blocks and yoga straps are the two most common and useful yoga props. There are many others. Some, like the yoga ball, have their roots in Western fitness regimes, but have proven themselves to be valuable aids in the practice of yoga. Like the guru who was perceptive enough to notice a non-traditional need in his students and ingenious enough to find a solution in a simple brick, Western yogis have found new yoga props that enhance the practice of yoga while depriving it of nothing.
The Yoga Block
The yoga block is perhaps the most versatile yoga prop. Usually made of stiff foam or cork, the yoga block resembles a brick. Rumor has it that this is because when a hatha yoga guru saw his students struggling with an asana, he scanned the immediate area and found some cast off bricks. These common bricks became the first yoga props in the West.
With three surfaces of different heights to work with, the yoga block is versatile as well as useful. The Half Moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana) is a standing pose that requires you to extend one leg parallel to the floor while balancing on the opposite arm. Executed properly, your entire body will be parallel with the floor while your supporting leg will stand straight and perpendicular. The Half Moon pose can be difficult or impossible without the aid of a yoga block, but with a block, it becomes “doable.”
The Hero Pose (Virasana) comes naturally to indigenous peoples everywhere, but is deceptively difficult for Westerners and can cause injury if it’s not eased into gradually. Virasana is a seated pose. Ideally, your buttocks will rest flat on the floor while you sit in a kneeling position with a straight back. Using a block for your buttocks not only makes it possible to sit comfortably with a straight back in the Hero Pose, it protects your knees from potential damage.
The Yoga Strap
Another extremely useful yoga prop is the simple yoga strap. There are many varieties available, but they all serve the same purpose. Basically, yoga straps (sometimes also called yoga belts) bridge the gap between your hands and your feet and allow you to do yoga asanas that might otherwise be difficult or impossible.
Both the Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) and the Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) require grasping the toes while keeping the legs straight. The benefits of gently stretching the spine and the leg muscles in this way are so great that the inability to reach that far without the risk of injury should never be an obstacle to doing these yoga postures regularly. With the aid of a yoga strap, anyone can do them and benefit from them.
If you feel held back in your practice because you can’t do yoga like the masters overnight, don’t worry, nobody can! Go online and learn about yoga props, find the ones that you need and keep practicing. Even if you never master the one finger hand stand (don’t panic – there’s no such thing!), if you do yoga regularly, it will do you a world of good.