Learning New Actions in Poses: How Props Can Advance Your Yoga Practice

Leeann Carey has more than 25 years of experience teaching yoga, both nationally and internationally. She is the founder of and creator of Yapana Master Yoga Intensive, a 300-hour yoga therapy and continuing yoga education program, which focuses on educating yoga students and yoga instructors on how to apply yoga therapy principles to prevent and heal injuries.

Also check out Leeann’s course on Yoga U Online – Teaching Yoga to Beginners: Using Yoga Props to Deepen Your Practice.

YogaUOnline: You have been teaching yoga for more than two decades. What inspired you to create the Yāpana approach to yoga therapy and continuing education for yoga teachers?

Leeann Carey: The idea behind Yāpana is to be able to address individual needs, but to not necessarily do only one style of yoga. We include a focus on a Vinyasa flow practice, but also incorporate long holding of yoga poses, as well as softer, more relaxing and restorative work.

It gives you a larger tool box to work with, and depending on the yoga population you’re working with, you can design a practice that best fits their needs.  If they have a strong Vinyasa practice, we would start with that, or if they need less movements, they’d just have simple warm ups.  Then we usually move on to long holdings of the poses.

Long holdings, to me, is where lot of the real yoga education and magic comes from. The work is in actually staying in the poses, because the holding affects our minds so much. Our limitations, our shadows, start to reveal themselves when we practice holding yoga poses for a long time, as opposed to just moving through them quickly.

Both long holding and moving through poses are good. But I found a lot more gems in holding the poses, specifically with support. So, one part of this practice is to hold dynamic yoga poses but with support.

YogaUOnline: Interesting. Could you give us an example of how you use props to support students in long holds?

 Leeann Carey: Let’s look at Warrior Two Pose. The architecture of the pose is that the back leg is straight, the legs are both externally rotated, and the front leg is at a ninety degree angle.  

But if you don’t have your weight distributed well, because your hip flexors are tight or you have a strong interior tilted pelvis— whatever the reasons—it’s hard for you to keep the weight into the back leg, which is the anchoring leg, the smart leg for all standing poses. Most people, when they start to get tired, begin to fall on the front hip.  And that’s an issue.

So, what we do is to bring the student to the wall and place a block against the wall. Then we take that front bent knee and place it up against the block, which puts their weight in the back leg. That allows them to be on the anchor leg so that all the weight does not sink down into the crease of the front hip.

When that’s done, the student can stay in the yoga poses much longer. A typical beginner student couldn’t hold it for much longer than five quick breaths with good alignment. The prop allows them to stay in the pose longer than usual, which allows us to build strength and stability faster and more safely.

It also allows the student to work on the relaxation part in the mind, while in a pose building strength. And that is what we’re hoping for in our practice when we’re in the strong poses, rather than just brute force. It’s not about checking the pose off your list. It’s about being with what’s happening now while you’re in the pose, receiving support, getting good alignment, building stability, and allowing yourself to have a relationship with what you’re doing through your breath and through a calm and steady mind.

YogaUOnline: Good. Now, you said you use props in different ways for different people—even when it’s the same pose? Could you talk a bit about that?

Leeann Carey: Sure. Perhaps you’re in a Urdhva Dhanurasana, Wheel Pose, and the action you are trying to teach students is how to move your upper arms further up into your shoulder joints to create a steady, stable shoulder alignment in the pose.  

We would instruct the students to use a prop that allows them to move into that stabilization, which lets them to stay longer in the pose. A well-seasoned practitioner can hold it probably for a good 30 seconds, maybe even a little bit more. But a new person really can’t and is still learning the skills needed.

So we’d use different types of props for those two students. For more seasoned practitioners, we would perhaps place a block between the person’s hands and tell her to squeeze that and let the arms move deeper into shoulder sockets. For the new person, we would put a belt around the arms and tell him either to pull in or pull out, depending on who that person is in the elbows and in the shoulders.

The idea is to meet someone where he or she is, and then using the prop in a pose that the person probably wouldn’t be able to hold on his or her own without that support.

The prop is giving the person some new feedback:—“Oh, that’s what I have to do to stabilize my shoulder.” The only way to get that understanding is to receive feedback from the prop.

YogaUOnline: Sounds like people will make progress much faster if they’re instructed correctly in the use of the props.

Leeann Carey: Correct. Faster, but even more importantly, safely.  Because if they learn stabilization in that back bend, the skill will carry on to other areas—in handstands and shoulder stands or other poses that require shoulder stabilization. Now they are not ‘just’ doing yoga postures, they walk away with a skill.

Donna Farhi, who is a great yoga instructor, told me once in a training: “What do you want your students to learn? Do you want them to learn how to just have a really great yoga time on the mat? Or do you also want them to walk away with the skills that they can take somewhere else?”

When I put this concept into play in terms of teaching students using props, and teaching other teachers how to use props as  a teaching tool, it made a huge impact in students’ progression and their ability to stay safe. The students could see how poses have common relationships with other poses. Even though they’re totally different yoga poses, the poses now have something in common.

YogaUOnline: Yes, that’s great. Now, if not everyone uses the prop the same way within the same pose, how do you assess what is needed?

Leeann Carey: Yes, that’s a great question. You can’t give options to people unless you can see what options are needed. In our training program we call this “discovering the teacher’s eye.” . It is about being able to see your students where they are at, rather than forcing or pushing them in a direction where they are not ready to go.

I teach some easy assessment tools to use and even a beginner yoga teacher can use them, get good results from using them, and be able to help students help see what’s necessary for them. 

This is one of the things that I will talk about in the online course on Yoga U, seeing students where they are, but also seeing them with a curious eye as opposed to a fixing eye.

This is a different way of looking at your students. Where does my curiosity go? Based on where my curiosity is, what kind of assessment will I follow with? This is a little different than saying, “I’m going to use this,” and then always doing it that way, because everyday we come to the mat with a different body, a different mind, and a different set of emotions. It’s very good to have these tools in our bag, but it’s just as important to be open and receptive to what is currently present, and not get stuck in how we have always taught this pose and always used the block. 

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