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The easiest way to begin or enhance yoga practice is also one of the simplest. In fact, the tools are most likely hiding in plain sight in your local yoga studio: props.
Yoga offers both physical and mental health benefits, and props can make them more accessible to practitioners across physical ability, age, and experience level. Olinka Foster, registered nurse and yoga teacher, describes what a regular practice can do: “Yoga can improve flexibility and get people moving and improve blood pressure”—positive results no matter who you are.
We will discuss a variety of yoga props—such as blocks, straps, bolsters and blankets—as well as their benefits to your practice and some moves to try with each one.
The Benefits of Yoga Props
Morgan Rodriguez, Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT 500) and teacher trainer, elaborates, “Yoga can help with long term flexibility, better bone density into senior years, improve blood circulation and organ health, support breath capacity, soothe chronic pain and inflammation, and promote very deep sleep. Yoga, combined with incremental bouts of meditation, can improve vagal tone (the body's ability to resource itself and diffuse stress quickly).”
Whether you are new to yoga or have been consistently practicing for years, using yoga props can encourage you to explore different sensations and depths of your postures.
Yoga teachers are breaking down students’ misconceptions about prop usage. Yoga practitioners may think using props is cheating or they may feel like using props means they cannot do the pose. Rodriguez explains, "I think there's a stigma that can exist around props for newer practitioners, when in reality, props can actually help deepen the physical and mental experience of yoga, aid in safe flexibility, longer holds of postures, and assist in a deeper fascial release.”
Nurse and yoga teacher Foster often shares her own need for props to alleviate any bias her students may have about grabbing aids as they enter her class. “I have short arms, so sometimes I need to bring the ground closer,” Foster says. She tells her students to“keep an open mind to using props. It’s not a crutch …. Regardless of what level you’re at, at the end of the day the practice is about you.”
Rodriguez encourages students to reach for the props before heading to their mats. “I like to teach about props in an intentional way and introduce them as tools to help deepen certain sensations or make postures feel more ‘possible’ for people who have challenges in their practice."
Some yoga poses that can benefit from using props are:
- Half-Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana)
- Bound Cow-Face (Gomukhasana)
- Dancer (Natarajasana)
- Reclined Twist
- Supported Fish (Matsyasana)
- Seated Figure Four
- Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
- Seated Forward Fold (Pashchimottanasana)
- Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Types of Yoga Props, Explained
Almost anything can be used as a prop in yoga: the wall, a chair, a hand towel, even your water bottle. Incorporating props into your yoga practice can feel intimidating at first, but familiarizing yourself with common props and finding ways to blend them into your yoga postures can deepen your practice, both physically and by enhancing your mind-body connection.
Most commonly made from foam or cork, yoga blocks are a staple in most yoga studios. Blocks can be incorporated into almost any yoga pose. For standing poses that require you to reach towards the ground, blocks can shorten the distance between your fingertips and the mat. You can find blocks at almost any store, but almost any household item can be used at home in place of a block, including water bottles and books.
By changing the relationship between the body and the ground, blocks provide a stable support for poses. Blocks create accessibility in yoga poses, assist with safe form and deepen postures. By bringing the ground closer to your hand you can move into poses without adding additional strain to your muscles or rounding the spine to reach the floor. Blocks can help add safety to balance postures when the floor is further away. Holding or squeezing blocks can also add a physical reminder so it’s easier to train the muscles to activate in different postures.
- Accessibility Placing a block between your thighs in different postures can help ensure the feet remain hip-distance for better body alignment. In Bridge Pose, for example, knees may be tempted to splay out or slope toward each other. By sticking a block between the thighs, the knees stay in line with the ankles.
- Strength Pressing into the block fires up your muscles, building strength. In extended Mountain Pose, squeezing the block between the hands engages the back muscles and adds intensity. In core poses, like Boat, holding a block—especially a heavier cork one—while outstretching the arms adds spice to the core.
- Advancement In seated stretches, blocks can be placed against the soles of the feet, allowing the yogi to stretch past their toes and grasp onto the block. Yogis can stand on the blocks in standing folds, reaching for the floor.
Poses to Try
Chaturanga Incorporating the blocks focuses your form and helps protect your shoulders from swooping and causing injury during this plank-like pose. Place two blocks at the highest height shoulder-distance apart at the top of the mat. From a Plank Pose, lower your body by bending the elbows into 90° angles. Your shoulders should tap the blocks before you press straight back up and straighten the elbows as you transition to Upward-Facing Dog.
Half-Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana) In Half-Splits, you are often cued to hinge at the hips while maintaining a flat spine: One leg is stretched out long in front of you, while the other leg is bent behind for support. Place blocks on either side of your straightened leg for your hands to rest on at any height; this can keep you from over-stretching your hamstring or losing your hip alignment.
Yoga straps can come in a variety of lengths, but are usually several feet long with a metal loop at one end. This allows you to hold the strap long or create different sized loops with the strap. You can even connect multiple straps together. Like blocks, many yoga studios provide straps for yoga practitioners. You can also purchase your own, or use a bathrobe tie, for your home practice.
Straps add space to your poses by lengthening your body—especially your arms’ reach. Yogis can use straps to keep safe form while holding postures, especially for practitioners with tight muscles or limited range of motion. Straps can be used long, looped or combined to create an even longer strap.
In some cases the strap can do the work, relieving other body parts. For instance, instead of using the strength of the biceps to hold tension on the strap in a reclined forward fold, loop the strap around the feet and low back (perhaps combining two or more straps), allowing that tension to guide the toes toward the face.
Accessibility Straps can add accessibility to nearly every yoga pose. In seated stretches, the strap can be placed around the feet, allowing the yogi to gently pull on the strap and get a deep stretch while maintaining spine alignment.
Strength Holding a strap with tension in poses can add intensity to your upper body muscles and can turn on the core as well. Grasping a strap with both hands during a standing sequence—especially one that involves tick-tocking the arms—will engage both the shoulders and the core. Using a strap can also help activate the muscles during many poses.
Advancement Straps can deepen postures by adding length to reaching arms. With many stretches that involve extending the arms behind the body to grab a foot, adding a strap can create an extension from the foot that is easier for the hands to grip. This keeps the spine long while also allowing the yogi more room to stretch the leg upward.
Poses to Try
Bound Cow-Face (Gomukhasana) For those with a tight upper body, the behind-the-back arm bind in Cow-Face Pose is challenging: Using a strap can help avoid injury. Place a strap in your right hand. Raise your right hand overhead with the strap dangling down your back. Bend your right elbow, keeping the tricep facing forward. Reach the left hand behind your back, palm facing away and gently hold onto the strap with your left hand. Pause and breathe, choosing to remain here or slowly walking your hands closer to one another on the strap. Don’t forget to repeat the move with the other side.
Dancer (Natarajasana) In this upright, balancing pose, keep one foot flat on the floor. Lift the other leg, bending at the knee with the toes up into the sky. The toes of the lifted leg are traditionally gripped by the hand of the same side, but a strap can assist in reaching the foot. Starting on the right side, loop the strap and place it securely around your right foot. Hold the end of the strap in your right hand. Reach your left hand up toward the sky and lift your right heel toward your glute. Keeping both hips square towards the mat, begin to press your right foot into the strap.
Yoga bolsters come in different shapes, sizes and levels of firmness. Each style serves the same purpose, but practitioners may find they prefer specific shapes or sizes. Oftentimes, yoga studios that offer restorative yoga classes will have a stash in their studios. You can purchase bolsters online for your at-home practice, or can use pillows you already have around the house.
Although bolsters are often utilized in restorative yoga and yin yoga, they can add comfort to poses in any yoga style without diminishing the effectiveness of the posture. In many cases, bolsters can be used in place of blocks for a softer, potentially more stable-feeling prop.
- Accessibility Using a bolster can help you relax the muscles that are not the focus of the posture. For instance, in a Seated Wide-Legged Forward Fold, holding the upper body can become taxing or uncomfortable. Hugging a bolster can keep the torso relaxed while still stretching the legs.
Poses to Try
Reclined Twist Lay down on your back with knees bent, and place a bolster between the knees. Slowly drop your knees to one side and hold. (Repeat on the other side.) Positioning the bolster between your knees can help alleviate the tension in your hips and low back. You can also place the bolster to one side of the body and twist your knee toward it, draping the knee or the leg over the bolster: This may allow you to twist but can take the strain out of your hips.
Supported Fish (Matsyasana) Fish Pose provides many options for using props. Without props, the position is done by stretching out both legs, placing the elbows and forearms alongside the body to gently press the heart upwards. The neck lengthens and the head tilts backward until the back of the crown touches the mat. Bolsters add more cushion and a wider base than blocks. While seated, place the short end of the bolster at the base of the sacrum and gently recline back. You can position yourself so your head is off the bolster to elevate the heart, or you can use the strength of your arms to help support your heart toward the ceiling. Another option is to place the bolster parallel to the short edge of your mat and recline back positioning the bolster below the shoulder blades.
A hollow circle, the yoga wheel is becoming a newer trend in yoga classes. Not all studios may have yoga wheels in stock, but they are readily available online. Although yoga wheels can look intimidating, you can add them to your stretches and deepen your chest opener poses more than with a block.
Although they can look intimidating, yoga wheels aren’t exclusively used for advanced poses. (When using a yoga wheel, make sure the wheel is not at risk of slipping out from underneath the body. Go slow and steady and ease into postures.)
- Accessibility Yoga wheels can assist in the beginning stages of backbend poses by encouraging a long, rounded spine. Simply sitting with the wheel at your low back and slowly laying back against it can stretch the back muscles and open the chest.
- Advancement Typically, yoga wheels are taller than yoga blocks. Using a wheel in place of a block can deepen the posture. For instance, using a wheel in Fish Pose will elevate the chest much higher than a block or bolster will.
Poses to Try
Supported Fish (Matsyasana) As with the bosters, above, you can use a yoga wheel to assit your Fish Pose.
These fuzzy green balls are an easy tool to add to a yoga practice (you may not find them at your local studio but they are easy to use at home). Tennis balls can be placed under various parts of the body during active stretches or more restorative postures, providing a gentle or intense massage. Play around with size and firmness by subbing golf balls or softballs, too. (Added bonus: They’re inexpensive and widely available for purchase.)
- Accessibility Beginning a yoga practice with tennis balls can help loosen the muscles allowing a deeper stretch. Tennis balls can be placed underneath the shoulders, back or glutes during reclined postures. Experiment with keeping a tennis ball in one spot for several breath cycles and actively rolling the muscle around on the tennis ball the next few breaths.
Poses to Try
Seated Figure Four This modified version of a classic Figure Four has the yogi sitting upright in a chair with one foot on the ground. Place the foot or ankle of the other foot on the knee of the planted leg, creating a “4” shape with the limbs. To use a prop, place a tennis ball underneath the glute of the crossed leg. You can use the strength of your arms to control the pressure of the glute on the tennis ball. Move the ball to different areas of the glute and outer hip pausing at each spot. Then, windshield-wiper the legs, allowing the muscles to roll back and forth across the ball.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) In a standing position with your arms relaxed at your sides and palms facing outward, shift your weight onto your left foot. Gently place your right foot onto the tennis ball. Begin by mashing the tennis ball, pressing weight into the foot. Move from the ball of the foot to the arch. Then, glide your foot back and forth and side to side over the tennis ball. Repeat on the left foot.
Yoga practitioners often encourage the use of blankets underneath the knees to provide extra cushion when in kneeling postures, but blankets can be folded or rolled in different ways to enhance positions or to bring comfort in restorative poses.
- Accessibility If blocks are providing too much aid, blankets are a great alternative that can be shaped to give the yogi the right amount of height for their pose.
- Strength Utilize blankets in core exercises. Placing the feet on a blanket in Plank Pose can add mobility to the posture. If the blanket is on the floor, the feet can slide in toward the body.
Poses to Try
Seated Forward Fold (Pashchimottanasana) If you have tight hips, sitting on a blanket can alleviate pain in the hip flexors and provide better range of motion when stretching in a Seated Forward Fold. The blanket can be folded to a thickness that feels good for your hips or it can even be rolled under the tailbone.
Child’s Pose (Balasana) In Child’s Pose, you are cued to sit in a kneeling position with your knees splayed out to the edges of your mat. Sink your hips toward your heels as you reach forward toward the top of the mat. If the body is too tight or you have ankle pain, folding or rolling a blanket and placing it on top of the calves can take strain out of the posture. Adjust the thickness of the blanket to your needs.
Yoga for Everyone – How to Get Started
Article by Whitney Sandoval. Whitney Sandoval is a writer, yoga instructor, educator and certified orientation and mobility specialist who lives in the Midwest with her husband and three children. She was thrilled when her town finally got an REI. When she is not writing at her favorite coffee shops, she is running, trying to remember to stretch and longing for mountain adventures. Her work has appeared in What to Expect, Healthline and Insider.