To prop or not to prop
-that is the question
Ashtanga Vinyasa practice and Iyengar Yoga practice can seem very different. I have practiced both styles. Iyengar championed the use of props. He famously said that the use of props is so natural to yoga that in fact Lord Vishnu, in the Narasimha Avatar, is depicted sitting with a strap around his legs because he could not fold his legs into Padmasana, owing to the Lord being a half-lion and half-man in that Avatar. Lord Vishnu is called Yoga Narasimha in that pose (below) and hence the reason for B.K.S. Iyengar's famous declaration.
Lord Narasimha seated in padmasana with the help of a strap to support his legs
In Ashtanga Vinyasa, the aspect of flow is emphasized (Ref: "Don't lose the thread" in Asana Practice). Since the entire practice revolves around the use of bandhas (locks for energy), and the body's Agni (fire) to do poses, momentary distractions will result in loss of these aspects which require a lot of effort to regain during practice. Therefore the use of props is discouraged during practice, in favor of maintaining flow.
There is also an almost puritanical notion amongst some die-hard Ashtanga Vinyasa teachers that one needs to be able to do poses purely by one's own effort with the engagement of the bandhas, for, the bandhas, it is considered, along with the Ujjayi breath, are the components, which result in the physical and mental benefits of the practice. Though there is some merit to this notion, one has to remember that the entire Ashtanga Vinyasa system was developed by Shri T. Krishnamacharya in the 1930's to teach the wiry teenage students at the Mysore palace (picture below). The same techniques do not hold good for older people and people with injuries, which invariably happens to most of us at one point or another.
T. Krishnamacharya teaching students at the Mysore palace; He is seen standing on the chest of a student in Kapotasana, a very difficult pose
The use of props reduces the huff and puff of achieving yoga poses to one of "Prayatna and Shaitilya"- effort folllowed by relaxation, as Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras- and therefore has numerous benefits from a therapeutic perspective. The over-dependence of props, however, defeats the purpose of the practice because, without effort there can be no relaxation.
There is one pose, however, where even the die-hard Ashtanga Vinyasa teachers relax their stringent requirements. This pose is Supta Vajrasana (shown below). In a studio, a teacher or a fellow student will place their legs on the student's thigh to enable the student to move the head up from the ground (picture to the left below). There are not too many people who can do this without assistance simply due to the laws of physics overwhelmingly stacked against such a maneuver, unassisted. Another way to do this, when there is no one to assist, is to tuck the thighs under a couch and use this as support to raise the head up from the ground (as seen in this video).
Pattabhi Jois assisting a student in Supta Vajrasana
Keeping the thighs under a couch is one way to come up from the ground when there is no one to provide assistance
However, when one is practicing outside, then one has to become a little more creative in figuring out a prop to provide assistance (as seen in the first picture above). So after all these, which do you prefer - to prop or not to prop ?