use of props for therapeutic healing in Iyengar Yoga – by Marla Apt

In the practice of Iyengar yoga, the therapeutic and meditative benefits are derived through a progressive system involving the sequencing of the asanas (poses) and pranayama (yogic practice involving breath control), attention to the alignment and technique of the practices and the timing in the practices. In the example of the treatment of physical and psychological illness and disease, the therapeutic branch of Iyengar yoga often employs sophisticated props to help the student/patient along the path.

Viparita karani

About the yoga props

Yogis in India have utilized basic yoga props for centuries. B.K.S. Iyengar has furthered the usage of props to enhance the yoga practice through the development of many new props with specific uses, especially in the field of therapeutic yoga.
When B.K.S. Iyengar first started teaching yoga as a young man, he quickly realized that the vigorous practice that had been taught to him as a teenager was not appropriate for all of his students. Even though he had effectively healed himself from debilitating illness and disease (typhoid and tuberculosis), he had not been exposed to the therapeutic practice of yoga for students of varying ages and abilities. Having observed and experienced improvement in his own health and in the health of his students, Mr. Iyengar developed faith in the healing power of yoga. He started to adapt the poses to the ability of each of the students so that all could benefit from the therapeutic properties of each asana.

trikonasana with a blockIn his experiments with his own intensive practice, B.K.S. Iyengar began to use household and found objects to help him improve. He gradually refined and developed props specifically constructed for use in yoga. Today, many of Mr. Iyengar’s innovations with props are commonly seen in the yoga marketplace and their applications are widely used. Perhaps one of the most basic modifications in wide use today is the effective raising of the floor with a block for students, who due to stiffness cannot reach the floor in Trikonasana (Triangle pose).

Functions of Props

Props can serve many functions such as support, education, direction, intensification of an action, relaxation and stress reduction. Below we will elaborate a bit more on each.

Support

Props can serve several functions in a therapeutic context. In their supportive role props can support the entire body in an asana or support the various parts of the body that require rest.

Accessibility to all

Often the poses that are considered to be most beneficial for a particular condition may not be attainable to the patient due to physical restrictions or lack of strength. The props can render some of the most advanced poses accessible to beginning, injured or disabled practitioners.

Longer Timing

ustrasana_blanketsIn a therapeutic prescription the sequence of the poses, the manner in which the pose is executed (the form and alignment) and the amount of time each pose is held is as important as the poses prescribed. In their supportive capacity, props can enable the student to hold the pose for a much longer duration than when performed independently.

Overcome Fear

As a support, a prop can also help the patient overcome fear (of falling, losing balance, etc.). Fear can prove to be an impediment in the yoga practice. The protection response to fear can frequently cause one to hold the breath, to tighten the very muscles and organs that need to relax and extend, or to compensate with gross misalignments in the pose that can destabilize the pose and make one vulnerable to injury.

Pranayama

shavasanaPranayama can be quite effective in treating certain respiratory, nervous, blood pressure, cardiac and psychological disorders. Pranayama is classically practiced in an upright seated position, that when done properly, requires a great deal of strength, endurance and elasticity established from a foundation of asana practice. If the posture and technique of pranayama are not executed correctly, the practice can cause undue strain to the structural body as well as the nervous system and mind. In order to cultivate the body and the mind for pranayama, it can be practiced in a supine position in a supported version of Savasana (Corpse pose) rather than in a seated position. The brain and nerves relax while one is lying down. The prop support improves respiratory functioning and allows the organs involved in the respiratory process to broaden and take the shape required for stress-free pranayama practice.

Education

Props can help cultivate an understanding of the correct alignment in the pose so that the pose is done safely. Many structural and systemic problems are caused or exacerbated by an imbalance in the body forming habits that persist, if unchecked, when performing asanas. The prop can teach one to see and feel oneself from within. The introspection facilitated by the prop increases the meditative effects and mental benefits of yoga.

Direction

trapezius_ropesProps can also be used in a directive manner so as to highlight a specific aspect of the posture or breath. In this function, the prop calls attention to the area that needs to be addressed for the ailment and provides the student with a sense of direction. The prop directs the student to the particular action of a pose that is therapeutic.

Intensification of action

paryankasana_blockProps can be used to intensify the actions required in a therapeutic application of a pose. While the props can support and enable the student to hold the pose for a longer period of time, the pose can be made more intense or can take the student deeper into the position through the specific placement of the prop.

Relaxation and stress reduction

Props have proven to be invaluable in the treatment of immune disorders. For relaxation and stress reduction, B.K.S. Iyengar developed what is commonly referred to as a restorative practice, in which props support the student innovative ways so that the poses can be held for optimal amounts of time. Inversions are a critical tool to aid the immune system and props enable students to hold inversions for prolonged periods for maximal benefit.

ardha_halasana_benchLike the use of medical instruments, the use of props is an exacting science. The patient’s age, mobility, responsiveness to instruction and pain, psychological state and strength must all be taken into consideration and adapted to each individual. Before a pose can be modified with the use of a prop, its properties and qualities must be understood thoroughly. As with any healing modality, rigorous training is required. Yoga therapy not only relies on observation skills and correct application but also on practical and personal experience. B.K.S. Iyengar conducts daily medical classes at his Institute in Pune, India, where innovations in the treatment of diseases and ailments (ranging from Parkinson’s, cardiac, polio, scoliosis, spinal & disc injuries, depression, etc.) with the use of props are developed. Yoga Therapy can therefore not be seen as a separate career path from Yoga practitioner/teacher. Without practicing the art under the guidance of a senior practitioner, Yoga Therapy cannot be effective and can even be harmful.

Learn more about Marla Apt