yoga props

Yoga Props to Enlightenment: Practicing with Support

Yoga Prop Excitement

This past week brought all kinds of excitement in yoga prop land. I had conversations with some friends/students/practitioners about how useful the wall is in asana practice and other friends/students/practitioners have acquired new props or inquired about which ones to buy.

All these happenings have made me reflect on practicing yoga with support.

One of my favorite things about practicing in studios is that there are standardized props for everyone to use, and there are a lot of ways to use these items to make asana more interesting, accessible, challenging, comfortable, and fun.   

The History of Yoga Props

The use of yoga props was essentially invented by B.K.S. Iyengar, who passed away in 2014. As a sickly child, Iyengar became a student of one of the most prominent and influential yoga teachers in India at the time, Krishnamacharya, Iyengar’s brother-in-law.

Asked to perform advanced asanas his body wasn’t prepared for to demonstrate yoga to crowds of on-lookers, Iyengar hurt himself. Wanting to master the poses, he picked up bricks in the street and other props he found and figured out how to use them to guide his body more gradually into the shapes of the poses Krishnamacharya taught. Iyengar would grow up to teach yoga to thousands of people and greatly influence the way we practice asana and understand yoga in the west.  

Using Yoga Props

As you can see, yoga props started out as “household alternatives” in the first place! Using stuff you find around your home as yoga props are valuable aids in a practice.

For instance, if you have or can make wall space at home, it’s no different from wall space in a studio (obviously). Stacks of pillows, blankets, cushions, and hard back books all make fine support. However, there’s something more reliable about a bolster or a yoga block made for the purpose that helps your body trust what is underneath it.

Dog leashes or robe ties are useful for most of what we would use a yoga strap for, but yoga straps have buckles, and buckling the strap makes it a much more versatile and at times more supportive prop.

If you’re serious about continuing your yoga asana practice and you have the budget to purchase a few props, I don’t think it will be money wasted. You can even google how to use them for hours of fun and experimentation! And I’m here with my recommendations on which props to buy, if you want them. 

The Deeper Aspects of Practice with Support

To bring this idea of support to a deeper level of practice than asana, which is the third limb of yoga, let’s briefly talk about samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga. Samadhi is a deep state of absorption akin to enlightenment, and the Yoga Sutras tell us that samadhi is practiced first with support and finally, without support. The metaphor that makes the most sense to me is as follows:

A Whole Thing About Cows

When you think about a cow, there are three different things you might be thinking about. 

First, there’s the word “cow”, spelled c-o-w. The word itself is not the cow, nor does it have anything directly to do with a cow. If you didn’t speak English and you heard the word cow out of context, with no cows around and no one pointing at a picture or saying moo, you would have no idea what the word cow stood for. It’s a total abstraction. So there’s the word “cow.”  

Then, there’s the idea of cow. If there’s not a cow around but you know what the word “cow” means, you can picture a cow in your head. Or at least, you have a mental concept of the cow. You don’t have to be near a cow or even see a picture of a cow to think about a cow. So there’s the concept of cow.  

Finally, there’s the actual cow. If you’re looking at a cow, smelling a cow, hearing a cow, touching a cow, you’re having an experience of cow. The word or the idea don’t even matter at this point, because your experience is direct. You don’t need to know what it’s called, nor do you have to remember what it is. It’s right there in front of you, being a real live cow. So there’s the actual cow. 

Samadhi

Samadhi, a state of deep absorption, is attained through deep concentration and meditation. Samadhi with support is like concentrating and meditating on the word “cow”. You could repeat “cow” to yourself with every breath you take, and your mind might swirl with the sound of the word and the idea of “cow”.

You could do this masterfully and become completely absorbed in the swirling concept and sound of “cow” such that the feeling of time moving and sense of being separate from “cow” dissapears into the background and you are focused on this single point, on “cow”. This is samadhi with support. It’s a state of yoga – the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. There are no fluctuations, there is only one single focus: cow, with the support of the word and idea.   

The Ultimate Enlightenment

Then there’s samadhi without support. This, my friends, is so abstract and difficult to grasp because it’s experiential, beyond words and explanations, and I have not experienced it. But I can tell you what I’ve learned in the SutrasNirbija (without seed) samadhi is when the yogi blends completely with the object of meditation. There is no word “cow” or idea of cow there is only cow.

The yogi penetrates the constituent parts of cow (the gunas) and has complete knowledge of cow. With this experience comes the realization of purusa as pure consciousness separate from prakrti, nature (cow), and the yogi exists in their true nature: as purusa, as pure consciousness itself.

If you’ve been reading these newsletters, you’ve heard these ideas before. The first three sutras read (translated): Yoga begins now. Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Then the seer abides in their own true nature. Samadhi is that state, abiding in one’s own true nature. Nirbija samadhi is the highest and final expression of that state. 

And that’s totally enough for today!

Back to our much more comprehensible surface level of asana, the yoga of the body, we’re going to be practicing with props this week. And yes, household alternatives will work very well.  

Image of BKS Iyengar using a blanket and yoga blocks for a supported shoulder stand. Iyengar Yoga Institute Maida Vale archives.