I am so grateful for the incredible overflow of dialogue that the recent podcast that I recorded with my friend Kathryn Bruni-Young has sparked in the last week.
*In case you missed it, take a listen here.
We talked about everything from body positivity and strength training to the power of language, embodied movement, being present, and so much more! What you heard was an uncut, unedited conversation that Kathryn and I had, face to face, around her kitchen table. It was unlike other speaking engagements or panels that I have been invited to. There was no pre-prepared speech edited to as close to perfection as I could muster, then read and re-read by my editor. I was really proud of this podcast because I think that it is an incredible summation of where I am at this moment in time in my life, my practice, and what I teach. That said, it is chockablock with seedlings of these big, complex ideas. For example, when Kathryn asked me what body positivity is, I gave a super simplified definition applicable to the work that she does and the work that others in her field (thus, likely, listening to the podcast) may resonate with. This is what prompted me to elaborate about what body positivity means to me in my very first blog post "Let's start at the very beginning ...".
Today's blog post was prompted from a great question that my friend and fellow yoga teacher Jane emailed me earlier this week about the podcast. Jane asked, "Hey Carly, I enjoyed listening to you chat with Kathryn on her podcast and have a question for clarification: I think I heard you say you are moving away from using props to adapt poses and towards building foundational strength. Are they mutually exclusive? I see these as different, sometimes intersecting, paths to goals of [strength, stability, and flexibility]".
To clarify, and what we didn't have time to flush out fully in the podcast, here is where I stand on props: I love them. I use them. I think they are incredibly valuable for everyone's practice. What I don't practice (or teach) is the use of props to get into a particular pose.
I don't think that propping to get into a pose is a harmful way of teaching and certainly consider it more accessible (thus, more valuable) than not offering props at all; however, I think that we can do even better if we are working towards transformation and not merely achievement of asana. Even that last sentence isn't a hard and fast rule though because we experience transformation in so many ways through asana practice - not only physically. Let me give you a great example: I used to teach my "Yoga for Bigger Bodied People" drop-in classes as a pre-registered 6-week series. As part of the last class, we used to do partner-supported handstands (see the photo of a badass babe, Meaghan, flipping for it)! Now, were their arms strong enough for this challenging asana? Are their shoulders mobile enough to bear weight in this range? What about their wrists? How accessible is a hip hinge for them? All of these component skills, and more, are necessary for the foundation of a functional handstand. That said, we didn't do this as part of a logical progression as these skills were built, but because I wanted to end this session and leave the participants with a major sense of accomplishment. Very few 20-, 30-, 40+-somethings hear "Today we're going to do handstands" and think "Noooooo problem". The inner dialogue is usually more like "Yea, right!", "I can watch YOU do handstand", and, sadly, "Great (eye roll) another place that my body gets in the way of what the world wants me to do". After trying this with a partner, I don't think that there was ever anyone who couldn't get up in some version of a handstand and it was incredibly empowering! Not only did they reframe what their bodies were capable of but, for most, questions started to come up about what other paradigms might be holding them back in their lives. Turns out, when people flip upside down, they really start to see the world a little different. Now, is this what I would teach today? Likely not. Do I regret it or think that I should be thrown in yoga teacher jail? No. It was really powerful and one of the most beautiful things I had the honour of witnessing.
Do you see how asana can be harmful, or maybe not even harmful, but just not helpful for people's bodies, but be pretty magical for their mind and spirit? In this example, the wall and the other person were used as props to get people into handstands when their bodies were lacking the strength, stability, or flexibility to get them there. This is where most people are with accessible yoga practices. Which, I think is 100% WAY better than offering handstand in class and having a room full of people standing around watching one or two kick up and, when luck and gravity were on their sides, happen to hold their feet over their bodies for a fraction of a second. Using props to get people into otherwise inaccessible asana is empowering. It is uplifting. It builds a sense of belonging within a community. But, does it help people to become more stable, more strong, and more flexible? I don't think so.
So, right now, I am working towards transformation in physical bodies: moving out of pain, getting stronger, becoming, physically, more capable by building the component pieces needed to progress, over time, to conquer a challenging skill like a handstand, but (more importantly, for me) also to live their lives - to play on the floor with their children, to walk in the winter without a fear of falling, to stabilize hyper flexibility, to grow older without losing mobility or bone density, and so on.
If you are using props to challenge mobility, or build strength, or roll out adhesions, I think this is all moving us towards ability from the inside out. If you're using them to help people who can't get into a pose, practice the pose, then - like I mentioned in the podcast - I think we're propping up a house that's built on a sinking foundation. Will the house be able to stay in the neighbourhood? Sure. But, are we ACTUALLY fixing the problem? Nope.
I like to focus on component skills like joint mobilization exercises, movements to strengthen deep muscles, full spinal articulation, etc. because this work both leaves no practitioner behind AND builds our skills from the inside out. I certainly use props, but I don't use them to get into an asana because I don't value asana. I value movement and EVERYBODY moves.
Not everybody handstands.