Last week I shared information about setting up a home practice space. This week we'll take a look at the most common props used when practicing yoga.
At its most basic, yoga asana can be practiced pretty much anywhere. There's little equipment required and you decide how long you'll practice - 5 minutes, 15 minutes, one hour - the choice is yours. That said, there are a few props that can be helpful to your practice. Here’s a summary.
You've probably seen that yoga is practiced on a mat. And it would be great if there were a one-size fits all mat. Alas, shopping for a mat can be a challenge. Can a mat costing $100 or more be that much better than one costing only $20? As with most purchases, it depends on how you plan to use it. If you're just starting out, an inexpensive mat will probably do the trick. You can always upgrade when the time comes. Here are a few considerations:
Thickness: A thicker mat provides extra cushion when a pose requires that you have one or both knees on the ground. So, if your knees are sensitive or if you practice in a space with a hard floor (e.g., concrete), a thicker mat can make all the difference. (See Knee Pads below)
Density: This is different than thickness. A mat may be thick but squishy (I.e., not very dense). Another mat may be thinner but with greater density, which may be preferable to thickness.
Grip: If your hands and feet sweat while you practice, you’ll want a mat with some extra grip. I practice on a Manduka Pro that has a nice grip (although in a hot class I still slip a bit). Jade mats are also very grippy, as are Liforme mats (one of the more expensive mats).
Length: Most of us can get by with a standard length mat, which is just under six-feet long. There are also mats that are extra-long for yogis who are tall.
Price: You may be surprised to find that mats range anywhere from $15-150 or more. When I first started practicing, I was sure that an inexpensive mat would be fine. I went through 4-5 of them before landing on my current mat, which I’ve owned and practiced on since 2006. Yes, it cost about $80 but I spent that much (or more) on my first 4-5 mats.
Environmental Impact: There are eco-friendly mats that are designed to biodegrade (eventually; not while you’re using them :-). The company Jade [www.jadeyoga.com] plants a tree for each mat sold.
Yoga Mat Bag
A yoga mat bag is a nice option for storing your mat and other essentials (hand towel, eye pillow, knee pads, as well as car keys, cell phone, and wallet) so you don’t have to bring a purse with you.
Be sure to select a bag that is made for the size and weight of your mat. A lightweight bag may tear under the strain of a heavy mat. Bags also come in sizes to accommodate thicker/heavier mats. Pockets that zip or snap shut are a nice feature to look for.
I use a backpack yoga bag. It fits my mat, has several pockets for storage and I can wear it like a backpack if I want to hike out to remote location for my practice. Also nice if you walk or ride your bike to your local yoga studio.
Blocks / Bricks
Known by both names, blocks (or bricks) are handy to have. Most studios have an ample supply so you don’t need to take your own, unless you want to. Blocks are most often used to make your arms longer. For example, you’re folding forward (as in trying to touch your toes) and you can only reach about ⅔ of the way. Slide a block under each hand and, voila, the floor comes to you! Other uses include sitting, standing, or lying on them. My suggestion is to wait to buy your blocks until you’ve had a chance to test drive them at a studio or buy the least expensive ones ($7-10 each) to start.
Blocks come in a variety of materials.
Foam: Least expensive, most common. I prefer the 4” width but they’re also available in 3”. “Super” or “Jumbo” blocks are extra long and wide and work well for taller yogis.
Cork: More expensive and heavier. Cork blocks are more stable under your hands and to stand on than foam blocks. They are less comfortable to sit or lie on and are considerably heavier than foam.
Wood: Available in pine, balsa, bamboo (and maybe other varieties). Like cork, these blocks are more expensive and heavier.
Many students sit on one (or more) blankets at the beginning of class. Raising the hips away from the floor can make sitting cross-legged more comfortable for the knees, hips and back. Blankets are also used to support the head and neck during reclined postures, to cushion the knees during kneeling postures, and to cover the body during savasana. Add an eye pillow and we may never get you off the floor.
Straps / Belts
Straps come in lengths from 6-12 feet long and have a buckle or D-rings (shown) on one end. D-rings are more durable and easier to use. Plastic buckles are less expensive.
Straps are most often used, like blocks, to make your arms longer. Picture sitting with your legs stretched out in front of you and trying to grab your feet. Can’t reach? Place a strap around your feet and now you’ve created a connection. There are many other uses for straps that you’ll discover when you start taking classes.
Most studios have a supply of straps for students to use. You can also use a small hand towel if a strap is not available.
For years yogis have either suffered with sore knees on the floor or put a blanket or towel under for a little cushion. This option works well but, not surprisingly, the yoga supply companies took notice and have come out with several knee pad options. Here are a few:
Yoga Jellies: The Cadillac of knee pads, a set of two will cost around $60. Worth it? I have many students who use these flexible gel-like disks under their knees and/or hands. They’re only 5.5” in diameter and grip the mat so you don’t have to keep taking them on and off like you do with a blanket. Less expensive “knock off” pads are also available.
Yoga Stick-E Knee and Wrist Saver: Less expensive than Yoga Jellies, these pads attach around your knee or wrist with a Velcro strap. I do not have any experience with this product.
Kneelers: Available through yoga supply stores and at gardening centers, these foam kneelers are roughly 18-22” wide to fit both knees at the same time. Bulkier than other options but they get the job done.
Home-made Knee Pads: Before the commercially available varieties, one of my students used some dense foam (like from a Memory Foam pillow or mattress) to make her own knee pads. She added a pretty cover (removable for washing) and was all set. Nice option if you’re crafty!
Eye pillows are small pillows filled with rice, lentils, or flax seeds that are draped over closed eyes during savasana(final rest at the end of a yoga class). Covering your eyes darkens the room which helps signal the body to relax. The slight weight of the bag is grounding and they are often lightly scented with lavender, which is relaxing. Not essential, eye pillows are a nice treat to yourself at the end of a class.
A bolster is a large firm pillow. They come in a variety of sizes and are used to sit on, to lie across and to support the knees when lying on your back. Bolsters are heavy and costly. Studios that use bolsters have them on hand and do not expect students to bring their own.
In short, a mat is essential for your practice. Blocks, straps and a blanket are also helpful. Other props mentioned are nice to have but are not essential, especially when you're just getting started.
Next time: What's That You Say? A beginner's guide to common words and phrases often used in yoga classes.