The first time I encountered dowels in the practice of yoga was on a very small scale—short dowels placed vertically inside an upside-down chair to help stabilize the base of the neck and inner shoulders in headstand in a class with my Iyengar teacher Kevin Gardiner many decades ago. I was instantly interested in the possibilities and began to explore with dowels of different kinds. Some were wider in diameter and much longer, others were slender metal dowels covered in a pleasant padded material, making for heavy but comfortable tools of practice that could also be used as weights; others were as short as those slender and short first dowels I had used but put to different purpose, for example, as spacers for the knees when working toward Lotus Pose.
As I began to work with dowels more regularly, I found that they could be used as “hard” belts, long blocks, seatless chairs, and more. In other words, all props share some similarities, but are also separated by significant and useful differences. And even within one kind of prop, there are variations of size and weight that can be exploited to good end.
Each kind of dowel has a character of its own. One of the things I love about a long six-foot dowel is its simple physical presence. Hold that dowel upright in front of you between the feet and you will perhaps experience a suggestion of lift, a sense of energy, almost as though it were an externalized mudra. Pull down on the dowel at chest height and it will cause your whole body to lighten and lift and become a tool for both spinal traction and joyful ease.
The dowel can be used to challenge range of motion or strength, or on the contrary facilitate a movement by offering a long lever arm or quieting support. If you place a long dowel behind the back and hold it in place with the arms, it will help reveal your true range of motion in a twist such as Wide Legged Pose or Prasarita Padottanasana. This aspect of the dowel as an instrument of proprioception is invaluable—knowing where you are in space and how your body is moving.
This tool of proprioception is fundamental for the therapeutic spinal work I do. The dowel is a powerful instrument in helping students sense their body in space and find a balanced posture and clarity in the work to bring relief, healing, and newfound strength and ease in both the practice and life. Indeed our entire yoga practice should radiate out into our daily life as a seamless continuum. Speaking of which, there are even dowels in daily life—canes, walking sticks, hiking poles, and so on. Try a Triangle Pose when out hiking, using one of your poles as a lateral support and enjoy the relief from movement in the sagittal plane for a few breaths to each side!
One aspect of the dowel that I delighted in discovering was how it could be used as a tool for massage either on its own or in conjunction with another prop such as a chair. When one is seated on a yoga chair for example, the chair can be a point of leverage for one end of the dowel, the other end rolling over the trapezius with more or less pressure. Place the dowel on the floor and the feet can be deliciously rolled over it.
In short, the dowel brings lightness and spinal traction, proprioception, muscle release through stretch and massage, range of motion, directionality, and challenge. As it supports it can move, or follow one’s movement, one end fixed, the other traveling with you as you enter and exit a pose such as Triangle Pose. Using a long dowel is ideal for this, with the dowel standing just beyond the toes of the externally rotated foot and the same-side hand placed high on the dowel or at shoulder height depending on range of motion in the hips and legs. It’s then possible to move into Triangle Pose with support and encouragement to avoid laterally flexing the spine as one lengthens into the pose. Support is offered throughout, allowing for an elegant exit from the pose. Other movement traditions use dowels or sticks, sometimes called mobility sticks. Some are flexible and allow for different kinds of work. As always, where there is flexibility, there will be less stability. So each kind has its virtues. All are valuable and fun.
©Alison West, 3.13.2022. This article may not be reproduced without the author’s permission.
Alison West, Ph.D, E-RYT, YACEP, C-IAYT is the founder of Yoga Union and the Yoga Union Backcare & Scoliosis Center, now online. Her on-demand course, Yoga for Back Health for Yoga Journal, is available for download. She is currently writing her first Yoga book, Yoga for Backcare, which will be followed by Yoga for Scoliosis.