Tools for Self-Learning – Two Books Offer Guide to Iyengar Yoga’s Innovative Use of Props

“Yoga props imprint the actions of a posture on the body. Props are not just for beginners, or the injured. They also help those with experience work more deeply,: writes writer and yoga teacher Daniel Simpson in this review of two important books charting the innovative use of props in Iyengar Yoga: A Chair for Yoga and Props for Yoga. 

If you practice postural yoga, you almost certainly use props. You might not have thought of your mat in those terms, but it offers support and stops you sliding on the floor. Other bits of equipment are more versatile.  

The Iyengar approach to yoga uses lots of them. So integral are props to its method that the Oxford dictionary defines Iyengar as: “focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids to achieving the correct postures.” If this sounds like remedial yoga, think again.

“Props are guides to self-learning,” said B.K.S. Iyengar, who invented many of them, during almost 80 years of teaching (he died last year). Like a hands-on adjustment, they imprint the actions of a posture on the body. Props are not just for beginners, or the injured. They also help those with experience work more deeply. One just has to know how to use them in a way that suits one’s level. 

Until recently, this knowledge was confined to Iyengar workshops. Eyal Shifroni has performed a great service by making it accessible. His first two books, A Chair for Yoga and Props for Yoga, are the start of a series that aims to address most groups of postures. Whichever form of yoga you practice, they’re insightful. If you teach, they’re encyclopedias of ideas, and fun to play with.

As a fellow teacher comments on the back of Props for Yoga, Shifroni’s work is like having “all my notes” from years of study distilled with photographs. Although Shifroni says his books are “intended primarily for teachers and experienced practitioners of the Iyengar method,” they deserve to be as widely read as Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar’s classic posture manual.

Of Shifroni’s texts, A Chair for Yoga is at once more extensive and more limited. By promoting a single prop – the metal chair – its appeal to non-Iyengarites is diminished, although its scope is broad, from demanding backbends such as kapotasana to a “gentle practice sequence” for the elderly.

“If you are a beginner and flexibility challenges you,” Shifroni writes, “this guide will show you how to do the poses you find difficult, and relax in them.” Intermediate practitioners learn “how to extend the range and duration of the poses,” to experience fuller benefits, while the advanced are provided guidance on “challenging poses” that are less often taught in Iyengar classes.

A wide array of postures is covered, including standing, sitting, twisting and inversions. There are hundreds of photos, which are essential if you’ve never used a chair except to sit on. While the pictures are helpful, they look a bit grainy and the book is less polished than Props for Yoga. This is endearing, recalling the early inky days of Yoga Journal, before presentation conquered substance.

That said, Props for Yoga looks great and gets into more detail. The whole book is devoted to standing poses, suggesting another half dozen are in the works (Shifroni says he’s planning a book for each group of asanas). If you’ve got bored of Downward Dog or Trikonasana, try one of the 22 variations of either he explains. Each tackles different aspects of the pose, using a wall or a block or a belt to direct attention, or changing alignment to experience actions more intensively. As Iyengar described his own method, “every pore of the skin has to become an eye.”

Shifroni offers detailed tips on how to work on this, listing similar postures that use the same actions. As he notes, props not only “maintain correct alignment,” they assist with “asanas which are difficult to perform independently,” enabling practitioners to “stay longer,” and to “study and investigate” internally. “With props,” Shifroni says, “every person can find access to deeper aspects of yoga and new insight that would otherwise be inaccessible due to his or her physical limitations.”

As well as instructions, there are also some guidelines on practice with props. “Do the pose several times,” Shifroni advises, ideally remaining for more than five breaths. “Observe your sensations when doing the pose with the prop and then try to recreate those sensations without the prop. Do not use the props habitually, but rather use them for learning in a creative and innovative way.”

Props for Yoga makes use of equipment that’s commonly found in modern studios, such as blankets, belts and blocks, plus a few Iyengar-specific creations, from wall-ropes and chairs to “slanting planks” (strips of lumber with a tapered edge that raise heels or toes, or wrists or fingers in a handstand). Like most of Iyengar’s inventions, they were based on whatever he found nearby, from rocks to furniture.

The earliest prop was a pole, which he placed between an old man’s feet to spread his legs. Belts were inspired by the straps Iyengar saw on suitcases in Europe: “If the bags are tied so firmly,” he thought, “I can use it for my legs,” so “I got belts with those buckles manufactured” back in India. Local carpenters knocked up endless innovations: benches, boxes, wedges, stools and “stumps”: wooden pillars with knobbly attachments to lift the sacrum in a backbend.

“When one thinks he has attained ‘perfection’ in an asana,” Iyengar urged, “he should use the prop to attain sense of direction and a higher level of sensitivity.” 

Nonetheless, Shifroni cautions: “practitioners should be careful not to develop dependency on props.” Instead, one should “employ them mindfully,” to “remain fresh and alert.” With practice, “the possibilities are virtually endless”; like Iyengar, you can “use your imagination and creativity to find new ways of using props.”

Although Shifroni says a teacher is vital, since “no guide can observe you and correct the mistakes you may perform,” his books help people practice by themselves, a truly yogic contribution. After all, the goal is focusing inside, refining awareness “from the skin to the self,” as Iyengar put it. “Body is my first prop,” he explained. “The body is a prop to the soul.”

Daniel Simpson teaches yoga and tells stories. He studies yoga at SOAS (University of London), exploring connections between modern practice and social justice. He used to be a reporter for the New York Times, until its war propaganda put him off. He once published a book about why he quit to run a music festival: A Rough Guide to the Dark Side. Find out more at danielsimpson.info.

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