Yoga therapy toys
By Kelly A. Hurley
A therapeutic yoga practice really only requires the intention to show up. No fancy equipment or special yoga clothing required! That said, your yoga therapist might show up with a few surprises from their yoga therapy toy box…
As an integrative healthcare modality, yoga therapy helps people to access their own inner well-being, regardless of underlying health condition. And working toward connecting to the whole-body system is often a key first step. Clients in my practice refer to me as the Prop Queen because I love to use unconventional tools to facilitate the spark that can lead to this important connection. Here are a few of my favorite toys.
I love clients’ reactions when I pull out my Slinky! I use this toy to illustrate all of the possible movements of the spine. Clients who process information differently tend to be able to imitate the movement of the “Slinky spine” more easily than if they were trying to match my movements. When I stretch the Slinky out vertically, I can even use it to show where our discs are in relation to the bony portions of our spines. It’s a fun tool to use to educate visually what the spine can do—as well as what we don’t want it doing when we practice.
The visually appealing Hoberman sphere grabs the attention of every client! Because it can be dynamically manipulated, similar to the Slinky, I am able to actively demonstrate how breath moves in the body: The expansion and contraction of the sphere mirrors an inhale and exhale in an easy-to-follow way. This colorful 3-D tool is a game changer for clients who prefer to learn visually.
Bubbles are probably one of my favorite yoga therapy tools. First and foremost, they almost always evoke joy. Blowing bubbles with clients in long-term care or rehabilitation communities accomplishes two important tasks: (1) building breath awareness, and (2) calming the nervous system. When someone tells me, “I CAN’T do yoga!” I ask, “Can you try and blow bubbles?” The answer is always yes, and I respond, “Then you can do yoga.”
Soft spiky light-up balls
These may look off-putting, but they are actually cushy and comfortable to the touch. Clients who live with sensory hyposensitivity (decreased sensation) love these balls for the tactile and visual input they provide. I also use them to work on proprioception (the sense of where the body is in space): Clients can hold the ball in one hand and gently tap it on the other to activate the lights, or they might simply balance the ball in an open palm while moving their arm toward and away from the center of the body.
Sensory stress balls
Similar to the spiky light-up balls, I mainly use these as a sensory-processing tool; in yoga therapy, this work is all about helping clients to know themselves—their whole systems—better. The weight and texture of these stress balls provide a tactile experience that appeals to a wide spectrum of people. Extremely cushy, with a soft clear exterior, the filling of colorful rubber “gumballs” can be manipulated easily to increase or decrease tactile sensation. Clients who live with ADHD love this “fidget outlet,” which helps them focus both on and off the mat. Those with fibromyalgia, who may recoil at just the thought of being touched, find greater comfort in using these balls over the spiky version. Finally, this can even be a fun tool to use with stroke survivors and clients challenged with neurological conditions.
I repeat this mantra so often that I suspect clients hear my voice during their personal home practices: “Space equals accessibility.” And can you use a prop to “fill the space” to help you more safely access the pose or connect to the sensation that may arise in holding it?
The majority of people in my yoga therapy practice live with a physical disability, mental health condition, or both. Props help them to connect to their subtle body in a way yoga excels at. The foam wedge allows for creativity while providing me the opportunity to better meet clients where they are.
A client example: I don’t have a single wedge in my toolbox in its original form—I’ve sawed them all up to create shorter wedges. For one person, whose ankles are fused as a result of having lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was 2, connecting the soles of her feet (in a pose like baddha konasana, or cobbler) is physically impossible. But taping two small wedges together and aiming the tip of the triangle toward her heels created a way for her to access the sensation of the soles of her feet touching. By allowing that natural space between her feet to exist but filling it with the modified wedge, we found the opportunity for an uninterrupted flow of energy within her body. The first time we used the wedge in this way, she cried because it was the first time in 58 years she had experienced such an energetic shift. She found the experience wonderfully overwhelming, and that tool remains in my toolbox as well as hers.
The swim noodles I use as yoga props meet the same fate as my foam wedges—they get cut up to create shorter swim noodles. One noodle easily transforms into three or four smaller noodles, making their size and weight more versatile. Soft but firm, a small swim noodle can support the spine for yoga therapy done in a wheelchair or chair. Noodles are also ideal for supporting knees in poses done on the back. Additionally, their light weight makes them easy for almost anyone to hold, and they can be used as an extension of a limb (as with the client mentioned above).
These soft little cushions are a lovely addition to savasana, or corpse pose (the final rest at the end of a practice), but I also use them to draw a client’s attention to a specific part of their body. This gently signals an opportunity for exploration of softening or shifting an area. Eye pillows are also just heavy enough to be a useful grounding tool for clients who have sensory hypersensitivity (increased sensation), enabling them to turn inward toward greater introspection.
If your yoga therapist enlists what at first appears to be just a toy, remember that a little creativity can go a long way in enhancing your connection to your whole mind-body-spirit system!
Kelly A. Hurley, E-RYT 200, is an experienced yoga teacher who is hearing impaired and specializes in adaptive and accessible yoga. She revels in the wonder of being an imperfect human, loves being a doggie and plant mama, and considers herself a thriver living with chronic pain and fibromyalgia.