Yoga Mats: Are They Really Necessary?

April 8, 2014    BY Colin Hall
Yoga Equipment

There is no more significant symbol for contemporary yoga practice than the yoga mat. It is more than a tool employed by the yogi. The yoga mat is a metaphor. It represents the space in which our minds might experience some relief from the stress-laden, chaotic, and unpredictable nature of daily life. 

A Brief History of the Yoga Mat 

Angela Farmer is one of the most well-known and respected yoga teachers on the planet. She has been teaching for over 40 years. When she was young, she had a surgery that resulted in her being incapable of sweating from her hands and feet. I’m not sure if you have ever practiced yoga on a hardwood floor in the winter when everything is super dry. It borders on yogic tragi-comedy as your hands and feet slip and slide all over the place. Downward dog and standing poses in particular are just so slippery.

The yoga mat is more than a tool employed by the yogi. It is a metaphor. The yoga mat represents the space in which our minds might experience some relief from the stress-laden, chaotic, and unpredictable nature of daily life.

Farmer’s medical condition did not discourage her from practicing with BKS Iyengar when he was teaching in London in the 1960s. He forbade her to use a foam mattress or splash water on her hands and feet for traction. While teaching in Munich in 1968, she came across a thin piece of underlay from a carpet factory. It was the perfect solution to her problem.

When she returned to London, her carpet-underlay yoga mat became very popular with her students. Eventually Angela’s father connected with the owner of the German carpet factory and became the first retailer of yoga mats, establishing the business out of his home in Vancouver Island.

The yoga mat, as developed by Angela Farmer, was a therapeutic intervention. The stickiness of the mat alleviated a medical condition. 

The Stretch-ification of Yoga

So what happens when a piece of yoga equipment designed by and for somebody with a medical issue becomes standard issue to yogis around the world? 

This sticky situation is not unlike the trend of motorized carts being used as an alternative to walking. There is no doubt that motorized carts are very helpful . . . if you have issues with mobility. But removed from their medical context, it is possible that they could emphasize and reinforce some of our worst traits. Have you seen the Pixar film Wall-E? It envisions a future of humanity where we no longer stand or walk, but are forever cruising about in our carts—complete with built-in televisions. 

If you have practiced yoga on the grass, in the sand, or even on a blanket, you know that standing postures require more strength than flexibility. The effort to prevent your hands and feet from sliding away from one another is an example of isometric contraction. 

Without some degree of instability in our practice surface, the tendency is to wedge oneself into postures. The result is “hanging out” in knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders. This “hanging out” in joints is the main culprit in a problem that William Broad recently misdiagnosed in a New York Times article suggesting that flexibility is a liability in yoga. Maybe it is not flexibility, but our mats, that are causing the wear and tear on hips and knees. The increasing stickiness of our mats is causing an imbalance in the strength and flexibility required in yoga practice. 

Yoga mats have stretch-ified yoga. Asanas that previously would have required more strength now require more flexibility.

The front leg in utthita trikonasana (triangle) is a great example. If your mat is sticky enough, your front foot will not budge. This enables you to “lean” more weight straight down into that front leg rather than pulling upward with muscles of the leg. Practice triangle with your front foot on a blanket and notice how different is your experience with the front leg. It must engage. It quivers from the effort required not to slip forward into an awkward and regrettable front split. 

Yoga mats have stretch-ified yoga. Asanas that previously would have required more strength now require more flexibility. 

Privatization of Yoga Space

Imagine yourself expanding outward into infinite space . . . and stay off my mat!

Imagine a scene with me: It’s a big class at a bustling yoga studio. As one class ends and blissed-out yogis spill from the doors, the next wave of eager students moves in with mats in hand. It’s a gold rush populated by spiritual prospectors looking to stake their claim in the Wild West of their favorite yoga studio. 

The yoga mat does more than just provide a sticky surface. The mat defines your space. We personalize our mats to more accurately reflect who we are as practitioners.

The yoga mat does more than just provide a sticky surface. The mat defines your space. We personalize our mats to more accurately reflect who we are as practitioners. It is not just about picking the right color. We need to decide if we are going with PVC or an “eco” mat. We also need to decide on size, thickness, portability, and designs on the mat. We might have the latest super-eco, mega-grip, John Friend Manduka mat, or a mysore rug, or a $10 PVC mat from Walmart with a picture of a lotus flower on it.

The yoga mat serves as a fence. It separates my space from yours. People cannot put their feet on my mat. They cannot stretch their limbs into “my” yoga space. Crowded yoga workshops and classes offer a hilarious glimpse into the world of private yoga space. Watch people tip-toeing through rows of mats, bobbing and weaving through bolsters and water bottles on their way to the washroom. It is absurd. 

The bare floor is public space. Everyone can walk wherever they like. The yoga mat is private space. It is a modern day version of the original tea party motto “Don’t tread on me.” 

The irony is striking, isn’t it? We are practicing loosening the boundaries of the self and learning to experience expansiveness rather than being caught up in a restrictive and skin-limited understanding of the self. And we are doing this from the confines of our personalized, brightly colored, private rectangular yoga spaces. 

Choices and Freedom 

If yoga is a technology of human freedom, it would be silly for me to end by saying yoga mats are bad and you should stop using them. That would not be in the service of freedom. Freedom means awareness of options and the power to make your own decisions. Sometimes we decide to defer to the authority of another—but that is a choice.  

Angela Farmer using that piece of carpet underlay did not impress BKS Iyengar, but she chose not to let Iyengar’s insistence on doing yoga only with the body interfere with the unfolding journey of her own yoga practice. (A funny note here—a couple of decades later, in 1989, Farmer saw Iyengar doing a demonstration using one of her yoga mats!) 

So this is not about using mats or not using mats. It’s about evaluating the decisions we are making, and sometimes that means looking for the assumptions we bring to the practice. Are we assuming that we need a mat to practice yoga? What are the benefits and drawbacks of that assumption? The more conscious we make our assumptions, the more our yoga practice can become a mindful practice of freedom.

Colin Hall
Lecturer in Religious Studies and Kinesiology at the University of Regina, Colin Hall has been teaching and studying yoga for over a decade. He is the co-director of Bodhi Tree Yoga, where he and his wife Sarah have been building a thriving yoga community in the small prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan. Colin started practicing yoga in the late 1990’s and continues to learn from his original teacher, David McAmmond. In addition to his regular classes at the Bodhi Tree, Colin gives workshops... Read more>>

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