November 2015 Newsletter
The use of props in a yoga class is the source of some controversy. Opponents firmly believe that props–for example, chairs, straps, blocks and blankets–breed dependance, and once we’re dependant on a prop our “progress” in the propped pose is blocked.
Proponents naturally have a radically different view. Props, they say, far from being an obstacle, are in fact our best friend, there when we need them in a pose to assist us, providing comfort and stability, the two criteria for asana success spelled out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra (see 2.46). They help us do the pose in a way that approaches its fullest unpropped expression, so that we can experience all or mostly all its benefits. At the same time, because props generally prevent us from unconsciously or overly aggressively pushing beyond our capacity, they keep us relatively safe from injury.
Props, by the way, are nothing new, the old yogis used an assortment of props in their practice. There was, for example, the yoga “girdle,” a large cloth band which the yogi, seated in some cross-legged position, wrapped around his waist and outside thighs to help support his spine. They also used a small crutch, about 18 inches high, that the yogi squeezed under one armpit to change his nasal dominance (a subject for another time), or positioned under his chin to support his head during marathon meditation/pranayama sessions.
I’m writing about this because at my new-old yoga home, You and the Mat (formerly the Piedmont Yoga Studio), I’m seeing dozens of new students coming in from other styles of practice who have no idea how to use props. This isn’t, I want to emphasize, a criticism of propless yoga schools, they’re entitled to have their own position on props. But there are two situations where I strongly feel that props, specifically blankets, are an absolute necessity.
One is sitting on the floor, which most beginning students aren’t accustomed to doing. Because of the tightness in their hips, which we can attribute in large part to constant chair sitting, when these students sit on the floor their pelvis sinks backward. This already puts a strain on the lower back, but then add to this a forward bend (especially if the student hunches forward, imaging such to be a forward bend) or twist, and we have a potential for lower back disaster on our hands. Most beginners and a good number of intermediates should sit on at least one thickly folded blanket, or as many blankets as it takes to bring the pelvis to neutral, that is, the tail bone and pubis equally distant from the floor.
The second situation is even more troublesome, to see how many students, beginning and intermediate, have never used blankets to support their shoulders in shoulder stand, how many have for all their yoga careers done this pose with their shoulders flat on the floor. The next time you have a copy of Light on Yoga in hand, have a look at Mr Iyengar’s pose (plate #234 in my edition). He’s doing the pose on the floor, the result of countless hours of practice over (at the time the photos were taken) more than 30 years. Notice that his head and torso make right angle. Then go stand sideways to a mirror, lower your chin to your sternum and take a peek at yourself. It’s most likely the former won’t come anywhere close to the latter, and your head will be at about a 45 degree angle to your torso. If you mimic Mr Iyengar with your shoulders on the floor in this pose, that extra 45 degrees is created by standing the weight of the body on the neck and forcing the chin toward the chest. This will surely flatten the cervical curve and put undue pressure on the delicate vertebrae of the neck.
What to do? Always use a stack of AT LEAST three blankets under your shoulders. Open the blankets to a measure of about 2 feet by 3 feet, and align the long folded edges one atop the other. Then position the shoulders on the folded edges with the head on the floor. Many students will need more than three blankets, four, even five isn’t unheard of. Once again, you may hear objections from the propless side, saying the blankets “unground” the pose. You certainly should make up your own mind about this one way or the other, but I urge you to at least give the blankets a try and see for yourself how they might help improve the pose and keep the neck safe.
After a month or so of “hard travelin,’” well, maybe not so hard but a lot of it all the same, first London (where I’m now part of the Tri-Yoga teaching faculty), Ojai (where I taught for the wonderful Yoga Crib, and where I stayed in the room above the one in which Jiddu Krishnamurti did his writing), and Knoxville (where I was treated to a football game at the sixth largest stadium in the country, seating over 102,000 crazed fans), now happily I’ll be around for the next few months.
Don’t forget that this Saturday, November 14, from 2:00 to 4:00 pm, I’ll be leading a benefit class for the Veterans Yoga Project, an organization that serves “war wounded” veterans. The Project has more than 300 schools around the US participating in this benefit, and I trust the YATM community will turn out and give them their full support.
Some big changes in my schedule are in the works. I’ll be moving my Saturday morning intermediate class from Namaste Berkeley back to its original home at You and the Mat. It’ll be starting though at 8:30 am instead of 9:00 am, and ending at 10:15 am. I’ll also be moving my Saturday beginning class at YATM up from 11:30 am to 11:00 am, and finishing at 12:30 pm. All this begins in January 2016.