When I started yoga, I was in my early 30s and I loved Power yoga or any style that I felt would challenge me physically. I rarely used props and attempted to muscle through the flow until I injured myself and had to take a break.
This injury wasn’t mid-flight. It was not a theatrical moment where time stood still as I swan-dove out of a sexy arm-balance...it was on my mat. There was no noise, no turning of heads, no gasps. I was simply in a Seated Forward Fold.
Learning from My Injury
While powering through a sweat-dropping Vinyasa flow, I reached for my toes in Paschimottanasana. I was only a few inches away, so I pressed a little further, and with that reach came a pain that changed the trajectory of my yoga practice — and to some extent, my life.
I later learned that I had a hamstring strain. What was I gonna do now? For a few weeks, I continued my same routine, until one day I had no choice but to stop. Although I practiced the same poses I wasn’t doing yoga anymore. I was not listening to my body and was in total denial. There's nothing like an unexpected injury to slow you down when you think you're on a roll.
I stopped practicing yoga for a few weeks to allow my injury to heal. During my break I realized how much I missed my yoga practice. I had two choices: stop practicing altogether or practice in a different way. So I resumed my practice with a new perspective.
I put my bruised ego aside and started to incorporate props. I used blocks, straps, the wall, tennis balls, and blankets to make yoga more accessible to me during my recovery phase. Instead of focusing on the “glory poses” as I had in the past, I began to understand the importance of yoga for everyday living.
Using props is another way to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence. Props safely put you more deeply in the pose, so the shapes can resonate in your mind and in your body. Here are some of the props I still use in my practice now, and how you can use them to make yoga fit you better, instead of the other way around.
1. Use YOU to Modify
Set your ego aside and consider bending the knees in a Forward Fold and ease into straight legs when, or if, the body opens. Or keep the knees bent and enjoy the lengthening of the spine versus focusing on the hamstrings.
Consider stepping through versus jumping. Give your jumps a rest and take time to focus on alignment, core, and keeping the integrity of the shoulders.
And lastly, when you find it difficult to maintain the breath, take a Child's Pose or Easy Seated Pose when needed. No judgment, because no one knows you better than YOU!
Tightness in the back or hamstrings? No problem! When I pulled my hamstring I used a block or two to bring the floor closer to me in Forward Folds so I could focus on lengthening through the spine, and not just acquainting your fingers and feet.
I tell my students all the time there is no prize for touching the toes, so let go and enjoy being right where you are in the process.
Difficult to sit upright on the mat with your legs crossed? No problem. Try making the floor higher! Sit on the edge of a folded blanket or two.
Doing so will allow your pelvis to tilt forward and down, allowing space for your hips and knees to softly and comfortably open. Now you can focus on sitting up tall with more length in the spine and opening in the groin and hips, as well as the lower back.
4. A Chair
Not comfortable sitting on the floor, or do you need a bit more support than blankets? No problem.
Try poses that target the hips and hamstrings from your chair. Try sitting on the edge of your chair with your feet on the ground and cross your ankle over your thigh, hold onto the edge of the chair, and slowly lean forward hinging from the hips. This will encourage an opening in the hip.
You can also simply straighten one leg as the heel rests on the ground, hold onto the edge of the chair, and leading with the chest, slowly lean forward over the straight leg with a straight back to stretch your hamstring and lengthen the entire back.
Or you can loosen up tension in the mid-back with a gentle twist. Ground down through the feet, hold onto the edge of the chair, and gently twist the upper body towards the back of the chair.
Give yourself 3-5 slow breaths into any sticky spots. Then try the other side.
5. The Wall
Need a break from Down Dog, or maybe it's not accessible right now and you still want the benefits of an inversion? Try Down Dog against the wall.
Place your hands against the wall with the elbows bent and hands at shoulder level. Walk the feet back as you push yourself away from the wall while straightening the arms and hinging at the hips. With the arms and torso in line, the body forms an L shape providing a gentler way to experience the benefits of an inversion.
Benefits of inverting include: increased circulation, decreased back pain, and calmness in the mind and body.
My injury allowed me to rediscover the beauty of yoga. I fell in love with the accessibility of yoga and how it could be custom designed for my unique body. I didn’t have to make my body fit a pose. I could take the essence of what the pose teaches me physically and spiritually, and allow the aid of props to guide me into that experience.
Whether you're an advanced yogi or a beginner — props can be effective in dialing back or propelling your practice to new dimensions.