Vitruvian Man Uses Props

BY DEBBY SIEGEL, YoGoGirls Editor
PHOTOS by Michelle Thomas, YoGoGirls Photographer

If you’ve practiced yoga in any studio with the compulsory metal shelves in the corner filled with contraptions reminiscent of foamy toy blocks, pillows, blankets and 70s sailor belts, you have some mental message about these contraptions known as yoga props. Since beginning teacher training and now working with students, I’ve witnessed all manner of reactions to the suggestion of using blocks, straps, bolsters or other props in a yoga class. I’ve of course had my evolving opinion of these tools. I’d like to offer you some insight into their value. Primarily their ability to help you love your body.

We are snowflakes, right? Each of our bodies is unique in shape, dimensions, capabilities, and skeletal structures, among other things. I, for example, have an ape index of +2. An ape index is a measure of the ratio of an individual’s arm span relative to their height. A typical ratio is 1, as identified by the Roman writer, architect and engineer Vitruvius. Vitruvius noted that a “well-made man” has an arm span equal to his height, as illustrated in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing. My arms are actually 2 inches beyond. So for me, blocks are not generally as necessary for bringing the ground up in all poses. I do use them regularly in supported bridge and as a support for practicing press handstands, a pose that requires me to get my hips over my hands while folded forward with straight arms, however.

We all have bodies that benefit from the use of these tools designed to create balance in our varying proportions. Yet, some of us view props as beginner labels or crutches, like training wheels. I get it. No one wants to be still riding with training wheels when his/her friends are all taking off on their fixies. However, the Vitruvian man would have needed a block to his spine’s alignment advantage in Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana) or Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana). These poses for the Ape 1 are not aligning the spine as intended and can actually change his central nervous system’s response when he reaches his hand to the floor. (Yes, I made the Ape 1 a male! But to be fair, I’ve seen this misalignment in both men & women often.) You see, when your central nervous system gets the message to your brain that you are bending in a less than safe way, your body is sent the message to back off. So, for those of you who are reading this blog article and have said at any point in your life, “I am the least flexible person.” or “I can’t touch my toes.” You can change this in your body through the use of a yoga block bringing your body into a safe, aligned position. Your brain then gets the message that your spine is not in jeopardy, your body exists flight or fight mode and you are able to improve your body’s flexibility and strength safely in that moment.

And yoga props are not just manufactured tools. A chair or a wall can offer your body the support needed to correctly align your structure too. In airplane pose, supporting your lifted leg by pressing your lifted foot against a wall reminds you to engage your lifted leg as well as your core and back muscles. When you gift yourself with the use of props in yoga, you are saying to your body, I support you. I accept where you are and will help you because I want what’s best for you. I love you.
Back to these snowflaky bodies of ours. Sometimes when we attempt to master the pose in order to fit into the room of yogis or to express the highest version of the pose, our bodies actually cheat. For example, mine opens at my hip in standing splits, versus keeping the front of my pelvis parallel to the floor. A chair could help me. Supporting my lifted leg by hooking its front ankle over the top edge of a chair back would put my body in the correct position and I’d better learn the true mechanics of this pose that calms the brain, stimulates the liver and kidneys, stretches the hamstrings, calves, and thighs, strengthens the thighs, knees, and ankles, and also stretches the back of the leg, the front thigh and groin! Somebody get me a chair! By placing a block under my hands I can create a more harmonious, corrected version of this pose too. So, the chair at home, block in a class.

And there are some new props available in the 21st century. Yoga Paws PawPad works wonders as padding when you drop your knee to the floor in Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana) or under your knees in Camel (Ustrasana). PawPads can also be used to relieve strained wrists in Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Props are available to reduce the struggle or avoid pain in getting into a pose altogether. They leave room so you can better experience the pose’s original aims, not dwell on discomfort.

Even the deep relaxation postures, like Corpse Pose (Savasana), can feel so much sweeter when you have blankets supporting your head or knees and perhaps even one keeping you warm. Allowing props to do some of the work gives you space to relax more fully. I mean, why would we not opt for more Savasana?

While props may be training wheels in some respects, like a block or bolster wedged under our hip while learning Splits (Hanumanasana), they really ultimately encourage more versatility in your practice and send the message from your brain to your body that you love your body where it is and will guide it safely. From blocks, straps, and bolsters to blankets, chairs, and walls props afford more capability to all yogis, from beginners to more advanced. And if you’re interested in learning about their use first hand (and foot, hip, back, heart, etc.) join Rebekah Jarchow and myself November 5 for our Let’s Give Props to Props workshop at Metro Power Yoga. We have made it accessible for all, even in cost. It’s just $30 for the 2-hour workshop, or $20 each when you REGISTER with a friend. Or, for an application to attend on a Yoga Buzz scholarship for no cost, email debby@yogogirls.com.

So, in conclusion, this Vitruvian Man may be popular, but if he’s not PROPular, he’d be doing his body a disservice in some yoga poses. He too is invited to our workshop! He would love his body more after too. So will you.

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