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Excerpts from The New Yoga for Healthy Aging
At the age of eighty-seven, Iyengar joked that he invented props when he was a young man so that he could still practice yoga in his old age. I still recall the words of my first yoga teacher, nearing sixty, telling me that she started yoga because she was looking for ôexercise without exhaustion.ö When we are young, the physical energy of youth seems inexhaustible. Even if we wear ourselves out, we quickly bounce back. Around midlife, sometimes sooner, we become more aware of the depletion of our natural energy reserves. Our bodies begin to show signs of wear and tear.
While the natural aging process cannot be halted, yoga offers a way to slow it down, conserve health, and rebuild our precious energy reserves. Yoga is the art and science of spiritual, mental, and physical transformation. It is a classical Indian discipline that is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was when it was developed thousands of years ago. Yoga is a nonviolent way of life that encourages each individual to feel whole and to realize his or her inner potential.
The word yoga comes from a Sanskrit root that means yoke, join, unite, or make whole. This ancient discipline cultivates the union between individual and universal consciousness. The exact origins of yoga are uncertain, but its practices and principles predate written history. In the Indus Valley (now Pakistan), archaeologists have uncovered 5,000-year-old carvings of adepts in yoga positions. The science of yoga was originally passed down orally from teacher to student and was codified in written form about 2,000 years ago. The Yoga Sutras, by Patanjali, form the foundation upon which the structure of yoga has been built.
Yoga is not a religion, but its teachings have been influenced by various religions, traditions, and sacred scriptures. Ancient texts present holistic views that encompass the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. Over the ages, different forms of yoga have emerged to blend with particular philosophical and religious beliefs practiced by the people of those times and places. Today, millions of people worldwide practice many diversified yoga styles that stem from a common ancient source.
Yoga Asanas: Practical Tools for Life
A yoga pose is known by the Sanskrit term asana. The terms, pose, asana, and posture are used interchangeably in this book. Asana is the positioning of the body in various standing, lying down, upside-down, or seated postures. Asanas are one of yogaÆs most significant and practical tools for integrating all aspects of a human beingùbody, mind, and spirit.
The word healing comes from the root ôto make whole.ö Among the many health benefits that set yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise is the effect that yoga postures and breathing practices have on the vitality of our organs and glands. This book describes the effect that asanas have on all the systems of the body. YogaÆs inverted poses are particularly important in the later years as they have a powerful effect on the neuroendocrine system by allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to flow to the glands in the head and neck.
According to Iyengar, ôIn each asana, different organs are placed in different anatomical positions, and are squeezed and spread, dampened and dried, heated and cooled. The organs are supplied with fresh blood and are gently massaged, relaxed, and toned into a state of optimum health.ö
Iyengar Yoga and Yoga Props
B. K. S. Iyengar is widely credited with the development of practicing yoga with the help of props. Although the use of props was known earlier in crude form, Iyengar evolved both their use and the sequences of asanas commonly practiced today. He categorized groups of poses according to anatomical structure, physiological functioning and psychological effect. IyengarÆs early writings describe how he began experimenting with ordinary, everyday objects such as walls, chairs, stools, blocks, bolsters, blankets, and belts to help his students move deeper into postures. By providing more height, weight, and support, he discovered that props helped students of all ages and all levels understand and retain key movements and subtle adjustments of the body. These discoveries inspired him to experiment further and to create props adjusted to suit individual needs.
Today the therapeutic use of props for special populations is one of the most distinguishing features of Iyengar yoga and one that many other schools (styles) of yoga are integrating into their curriculum. IyengarÆs innovations in the understanding, practice, and teachings of yoga are described in great detail in his books and videos. Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health illustrates the use of sequences of poses supported with props to treat or prevent over eighty ailments. Iyengar demystified what had previously been a somewhat secret, exclusive, and inaccessible art. He made yoga immensely practical and accessible to ordinary men and women, including those who begin in the later years.
What Are Props and Why Do We Use Them?
In the world of yoga, a prop is any object that provides height, weight, or support and helps you stretch, strengthen, balance, relax, or improve your body alignment. Props are used both for therapeutic purposes, as previously mentioned, and to teach specific actions such as ôlifting the kneecaps,ö ôelongating the spine,ö ôopening the chest,ö and others, which you will hear repeated over and over again in yoga classes.
Props also help you stay in poses for a longer time and conserve your energy, allowing the nervous system to relax. They can be used to make postures more challenging; to safely stretch farther; to work in a deeper, stronger way; and to expand, open, and blossom in a pose. In yoga we are asking the body to ôwork against the grain.ö We are asking the body to let go of the death grip that habit and conditioning have on us. Props help us to accept this revolutionary (and evolutionary) process.
Props include sticky mats (also referred to as ôyoga matsö), blankets, belts, blocks, benches, wall ropes, sandbags, chairs, and other objects that help students experience the various yoga poses more profoundly. The ancient yogis used wood logs, stones, and ropes to help their practice. Many common features of our homes can also serve as props: floors, walls, corners, doors, doorways, hallways, stairs, ledges, windowsills, kitchen counters, even the kitchen sink!
Using yoga props makes postures safer and more accessible. Most older people are quite stiff by the time they start yoga, and props allow them to practice poses they would not ordinarily be able to do. Older students also frequently come to yoga with problems, ranging from back and neck pain to knee problems to old injuries. The more problems a student has, the more useful yoga props are.
Props allow you to hold poses longer, so you can experience their healing effects. By supporting the body in the yoga posture, muscles can lengthen in a passive, nonstrenuous way. By opening the body, the use of props also helps to improve blood circulation and breathing capacity.
For example, if you are unable to bend forward and bring your hands to the floor without straining, you can place your hands on a chair or wall. As the backs of your legs become more flexible, you will find that you can put your hands on a lower prop, such as a bench or a block. Props can still be used when the student wants to practice the pose in a more restorative way, even though he or she is capable of practicing the pose independently.
Supporting the body with props opens the door to restorative yoga, which not only allows you to exercise without exerting any effort but simultaneously relaxes and reenergizes you. This is critical during times when we find ourselves feeling too tired to exercise and then feeling even more tired because we are not exercising.
The creative use of props expands the help a teacher can give, especially when teaching a class with students of various levels of ability. For example, students who are not strong enough to practice inversions on their own can safely do so supported by ropes suspended from the wall or ceiling. In this way inversions can be performed without strain, and the student can receive the benefits of the pose.
Props are also used to teach students how a pose done correctly should feel. A rope hanging from a wall hook or doorknob and placed at the top of the legs in Downward-Facing Dog Pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana, allows the student to stretch the torso and arms as far forward as possible. Because the rope pulls the studentÆs weight back into the legs, it helps the student experience the elongation of the abdomen and the deep muscles of the torso in the pose. The head can rest on a bolster or pillow. In this way, a wonderful, passive stretch is experienced. The student gets a taste of what it feels like to let go in a pose, to relax, and enjoy it. The use of props facilitates imprinting of the correct action in the pose so that the student understands it when the prop has been removed.
By using props, students who need to conserve their energy can practice more strenuous poses without overexerting themselves. People with chronic illness can use props to practice without undue strain and fatigue. Props are adapted to each studentÆs body type and flexibility. They are especially helpful to anyone who may avoid certain poses because of fear, problems with balance due to loss of hearing and eyesight, pain, or other limitations. In therapeutic situations, props are invaluable. People who have scoliosis (curvature of the spine), rounded back, or other chronic postural problems can significantly improve their posture by stretching with the help of a prop.
Iyengar introduced props into the modern practice of yoga to allow all practitioners access to the benefits of the postures regardless of physical condition, age, or length of study. He also explored in depth how these modified poses could help people recover from illness or injury or psychological trauma. Iyengar and his teachers have worked with Western doctors with great success in the fields of heart and immune disease and spinal and orthopedic problems. Props help all practitionersùincluding both the most advanced students and those of advanced yearsùto receive the deep benefits of postures held for sustained periods of time.