I think my eyes must have bulged out like a cartoon character’s as I watched that yogini arrange her mat and attempt a flow practice on a Nassau beach. While she might still have felt the squishy loveliness of nature’s best exfoliant between her toes, she was using a mat to practice yoga on a beach! Adding to my puzzlement, she had her yoga-style music playing over the roar of the waves and the call of the seagulls. She had created her own little yoga studio and was going to find her bliss in spite of all this nature stuff.
Okay, maybe I’m not too sexy to use a mat. But there are times when letting a rectangular piece of rubber or plastic frame the way I move is, frankly, a ball and chain. While I see the need for mats in a studio setting, in my own sadhana (personal practice), anything goes. Walls, pipes, beds, banisters, stairs, chairs, bathtubs, sidewalks, and wide open spaces are all sites for asana practice—and being sexy has little to do with it. Rather than carrying a mat around, it’s just practical for me to be playful, especially when traveling, and to make use of whatever I can find. In my work as a teacher and therapist, it can also be hard for me to keep students restricted to the playpen of the sticky mat. As a result, I sometimes see incredulous eye popping from folks in my classes: “You want me to get off my mat? Um...okay.”
Personal space. The comfort zone of the sticky mat deserves consideration in the yoga classroom. Asana that can leave one feeling vulnerable calls for extra attentiveness to matters of personal space—particularly when considering the trauma sensitive model. Just asking students to leave their safe mat and go to a wall for a shoulder stretch or an arm balance can result in their visible discomfort as they drag all of their props dutifully to the wall. As a teacher, I try not to force people, especially newcomers, to do things they’re uncomfortable with—and sometimes that means not asking them to leave their mats.
Safety. When there is a sticky mat under your feet, you have fewer worries about slipping in a triangle pose or not having the necessary cushioning for your sensitive knees. Of course, the germ/fungus factor can be a concern in a shared classroom, but we may also feel a need for a mat during our own home practice. Why? My guesses are habit and marketing.
Mat habit. My young friend on the beach probably hadn’t considered the possible delights or benefits of digging into the sand with her hands and feet to support her dogs and warriors. I pondered whether she might have had some aversion to the feel of the sand, but later saw her building a castle—so I concluded she used a mat because it was just “what you did” in hatha yoga practice, and the idea of practicing without it was like playing tennis without a racket!
Marketing. The modern custom of having specialized equipment for every activity is what keeps sporting goods stores and yoga gear corporations in business. Stories like that of Grandma Gatewood, who hiked the Appalachian trail three times solo after the age of 65, in a pair of Keds with a pup tent—or those of the many sojourners and sadhakas of India who travel through the Himalayas barefoot, practicing their asana on any piece of earth that their toes land upon—are evidence of how little we truly “need.” They’re reminders of how many of our purchases are based simply in desire and the fear of not being able to succeed without them.
I can remember yoga before mats, and I can attest to the fact that they are not necessary by any measure. Specialized yoga mats became widely available only in the 1970s, although in 1967 Angela Farmer first employed a piece of carpet pad to keep her hands from slipping. We all had green ones when they appeared, and suddenly all yoga practice had to be built into a rectangular shape. Since then, the made-to-purpose yoga mat has caught on to the tune of 1,059.46 million USD in sales in 2015, with yoga mat purchases expected to grow steadily over the next few years.
Organic form. I enjoy using the lines of the mat to help students see how their feet are aligned, and I do often instruct them to step to the front of their mats. But I also love a free-flowing mandala where we move in all directions, or rocking around in circles in dhanurasana (bow pose), or “rock and rolls” (similar to “rolling like a ball” in Pilates and old-school yoga practices), where the body may or may not be on the mat—because the stickiness may impede the movement. Had I remained forever confined to my rectangular mat, my freedom of movement may well have been severely hampered. I particularly remember a delightful practice that went from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) to vasisthasana (side plank) to purvottanasana (reverse plank), then back over to downward dog again. I could roll over endlessly, leaving my mat far behind.
Had I remained forever confined to my rectangular mat, my freedom of movement may well have been severely hampered.
Muscles work harder. If you have practiced for awhile and are ready for a new challenge, try doing your standing poses on a hard floor or rug (mat-free), and feel the isometric work it takes to support these asanas. Or try transitioning between adho mukha svanasana and urdhva mukha svanasana a few times, and notice how the core works much harder when you are not on a mat.
The luscious slide. I do my morning practice on a 10x12 wool rug, and I relish being able to gently glide my foot from the front to the back as I move into a lunge or standing pose and to then reverse the movement as I return to a forward bend or mountain pose, rather than picking up and firmly planting my foot in a lunge or a step-through. My toes enjoy the tactile swoosh, just as they savor the path through the sand on the beach. The easy slide of a thigh as I clock a leg from baddha konasana (bound angle) to eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon) makes me feel like a graceful sea creature. Sometimes sticky just isn’t as fun.
So, I will resist becoming the weirdo teacher who doesn’t use mats in her class. I will keep my mats. But I would also heartily recommend going matless now and again. It can definitely spice up a ho-hum sadhana.