Props can help you find more freedom and space as well as stability in your postures.There are great ways to use blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters and incorporate them in your practice. The more I incorporate tools in my classes, the more the students would be likely to continue using them. Let us start with your best friend.
To me, an ideal yoga mat should be light in weight, natural fabric, easy to clean, and non-slippery. You can find many type and different colors on amazon too and choose the one that suite you best. There is no need to spend a fortune on your mat, but if you are getting serious about it and want a good quality may with points of alignments to help you with your posture, check here. This is a helpful resource on yoga mats that a team at reviews.com recently put together. 16 mats were put under strenuous testing, and recommendations from few certified teachers found that this is exactly what is needed for our personal practice.
There are many ways to use straps for opening the body, the shoulders, the legs, and helps you hold poses with less effort. Straps are great for lengthening, stretching after a long day sitting and when you feel stiff. A great example to open up the shoulders is as follow: Stand up in Tadasana, (standing posture), hold on to the strap with both hands wider than the shoulders. Inhale take the strap over your head and bring it behind you as you exhale. Bring the strap back over head and repeat few times.
You can use the strap as a support for any pose variation. Let’s take an example for Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III pose). Stand in Tadasana, Hold the strap on each end behind you. Step one heel on the strap. As you inhale lift up through your sternum and engage your upper back and shoulders with straight arms. Lengthen the side of your body, as you lean your torso forward and lift your leg up to warrior 3.
Straps are useful to keep alignment while performing balancing postures. Whether you are trying downward dog, wheel, or crow pose, the benefit is the same. If the elbows tend to go out toward the side, loop the strap around your upper arms to keep the hands and arms in line with your shoulders. This will considerably re-enforce your arms strength and alignment.
Another pose Utthita hasta padangusthasana, (Extended hand to big toe) is challenging and tests your physical and mental sense of balance. This pose can be performed only when your mind is calm and when you do not try to achieve the shape. Use the strap and loop it around your foot, and keep the distance between the foot and the hand as close as you can. The strap encourages you to feel stable and in line.
Straps are fairly cheap and they come in various fabrics, they are durable the buckle material varies. I use the metal one as it holds the strap better when you loop it, it is stronger than the plastic ones, but it is often presented in white and get stained easily.
Use Blocks for proper alignment and for adjustment in your posture. They can be very useful in your practice. Blocks are essentials for beginner practitioners and for advanced yogis. They are often used when the flexibility is not quite there yet, as an example for Trikonasana (tringle pose) if you do not reach the floor with your hand.
Using a block for forward folds can be useful to find better alignment and flexibility. For example sit on the edge of the block, sit comfortably as you notice the pelvic floor moved slightly forward. Use your breath as a tool in your practice, bend forward and feel the muscles engaging in this posture.
Another helpful way to use a block is when you perform Eka pada rajakapotanasana, (pigeon pose) especially if the rotation in your hip or knee is not available. Place the edge of the block directly under your sit bone. Just like the forward fold, the block encourages a forward tilt of the pelvis and bring the body in proper alignment. It is best that you place your elbow to the ground so you do not feel too much pressure in your pelvis and if the opening in the hip is too intense. You can also use a blanket, or a bolster and place it under the sitting bone of that leg. Supporting your sitting bone will allow you to release the weight of your body and will increase your comfort in this posture. You will be able to breath more easily and deeply producing a calming effect on your nervous system.
A simple posture such as Baddha konasana, (easy sited posture), can be difficult for some with tight hips. You can support your knees with block on each side of each leg, so the weight of the legs doesn’t pull too hard on the inner thighs.
Using blocks can be very useful for arm balances. Astavakrasana, (the 8 angle pose), is great for the hips and for the core. If I do this posture on the mat, I can’t find enough hight because my core is not strong enough, and therefore the block helps lifting higher of the ground. I have more room and I can re-engage the core and get back into the posture that way.
There are many block in the market to choose from, if you are a frequent traveller like me, I suggest you to go for the foams blocks as they are light, cost is around 6 euros. A better quality block, would be to use as daily practice, bamboo block, but they are around 15 euros each. Then there are the cork blocks, more solid and grip everywhere, but they are around 25 euros each. Ideally buy 2 blocks, to perform balances postures and hold your body evenly on each side.
Place a blanket under you pelvic floor when you are performing seated postures, as example, Upavistha konasana, (the wide legged forward fold) will helps you to engage your lower bandha by lifting up the pelvic floor. This will strengthen your inner thighs and core. You can also bend your knees if your are very stiff or place a blanket under each knee if your lower back and hips are tight.
How to use a blanket for Sirsasana, (shoulder stand). Fold the blanket, Place it under the shoulders but not bellow the neck, place the head on the mat, and lift the legs for sirsasana. Using the blanket underneath this area protects your neck.
Use a blanket for chest opening. Blosters can be expensive, so for a more budget friendly option you can roll up a blanket tight and place it under the back, in line with the spine, and lower down. Place yours arms in a T shape in line with your shoulders and the palms of the hands facing upwards. Breathe and relax in this pose for as long as you like.
I would suggest you get the Manduka Blanket made of wool, for the warmth and comfort during your practice.
A bolster looks like a big cusson, it can have a rectangular or circular shape. It is used mostly during yin or restorative practice with the purpose of relaxing and help soften a posture and opens up the body.
A good use even at home is recommended for Savasana or Corpe pose. Savasana is the most important part of your practice, because this is when your body integrates all of the efforts you have made during the practice. Place a bolster under your knees and let the legs float freely. This will help to lengthen and create open space in your lower back and allows it to be connected to the ground.
A good way to use a bolster is to perform supported back bends. It is an immediate heart opener that allows the shoulders the chest, and the abdomen to open and relax, while the head the neck and the back are fully supported. This will also decompresses the spine.
Supported forward fold. Paschimottanasana. Forward folds are amazing the bring your awareness back into yourself, to center yourself and reconnect with your inner world. On the physical level is help lengthen and relaxes the muscles. It stretches the hamstrings, the lower back the spine, and reduces anxiety by calming the mind.
Sukasana or easy pose. A bolster is very useful here especially for those who can’t open the hips because of stiffness, and in this posture the knees won’t reach the floor. Sit on the bolster and notice the difference. Legs are open, hips are comfortable, lower back is supported and the knees are in contact with the ground. This is ideal posture for meditation practice and generally how one would sit for extended hours during yoga training or workshops. Yoginis used to sit leg crossed for long periods of time, and it can be very painful at times if your back is not strong and if your hips are not open. The bolster helps greatly.
Bolster can be costly so an alternative would be to opt for a nice blanket that you can fold tightly instead.
The newcomer in the yoga world is a narrow wide cylinder made of plastic, wood, or other materials. This tool is used to enhance flexibility, deepen stretches, and can be challenging for balancing postures. Follow a course where this prop is used for a safe and effective practice.
Use the wheel in Sukasana. (Easy seated pose). Place the wheel in between your legs, knees opened wide, and big toes touching. Place your hands on top of the wheel and roll it to extend the arms in front of you until your torso touches your thighs. You will feel a deeper stretch in your arms shoulders and back.
Supta sukasana, (reclined easy seated pose variation) is great for relaxing the shoulders with the assistance of the wheel supporting your chest. Tension is the back is relieved. Spine is lengthened. Rest the forehead on the mat. Relax and breathe.
Matsyasana or fish pose. Here the wheel helps with opening the heart, arching the back, and without straining on the neck or arms. Breathe and rest on the wheel comfortably.
Yoga Wheels are around 20 euros more or less, depending on the nature of the material used, simple or with graffiti. There are many poses you can perform with the use of the wheel and benefit from it.
These tools mentioned above are a support for you when you spend a lot of time by yourself and have no one around to help you with your Asana. They are very useful for beginners and I found to make great improvement using them.
So get ready and set yourself accordingly. Have fun and keep up with the practice! Namaste.