“Yoga is about getting on the yoga mat and uncovering who you are.” Unknown
It’s true – the himalayan yogis did not use a Gaiam or Jade yoga mat. But tradition suggests that ancient yogis did use some sort of ‘mat’ woven from grass or animal skin (tiger, deer or sheep); essentially for cushioning on hard ground and a clean surface for asana practice. Today, I want to share with you that a yoga mat is much more than that.
Have you bought a yoga mat recently? Finding the best yoga mat can become as serious as an athlete trying to buy the right pair of shoes or a tennis racket. Flexible sole or a bigger grip, lightweight or heavy, wide toed or wide head; many individual needs. Buying a yoga mat is no different. Some things to look for – thickness and cushioning, stickiness and texture, type of material used, eco-friendliness, lightweight or heavy, size and style and the price.
But before you go shopping consider this. Have you practiced yoga-asana on grass, in the sand, or even on a blanket? If you have, you would know for instance, that standing postures require more strength than flexibility. Your effort to engage the right muscles is needed to prevent your hands and feet from sliding. Without this awareness you may be causing an imbalance in the strength and flexibility required for asana practice. Let’s compare asana practice on a sticky mat versus on these other surfaces.
For example, the front and the back leg in Trikonasana, Triangle pose on a sticky mat may stay steady even if you, the practitioner did not put in much effort. Hence, it is possible that the muscles that are needed to anchor and steady are not completely activated. On the other hand, try doing the same pose on a blanket or in the sand. Notice if your legs shake as you try not to slip. This means your muscles may be weak, but they are attempting to work as you are trying to stabilize your pose. Check yourself from your feet and work your way up. For starters, you may need to spread your toes and push down with your heel to anchor. Then, let the calf muscles engage to lift the ankle. Next, activate the hamstrings and thighs to lengthen and steady the legs (see the above link for detailed instructions). Essentially, as long as you are consciously aware of the muscles and how they work in standing poses, you are fine to use any mat. Then you won’t be compromising your strength in your yoga-asana practice. Another concern could be painful knees in Ushtrasana, Camel pose. Here, a thicker mat can help or place a blanket under the knees for added cushion comfort. Just a couple of things to keep in mind when you shop for a yoga mat.
All of us begin with the idea that a yoga mat is place to perform asana. It becomes especially important when practicing at a studio or with a group of people. It creates a partition between our spaces. No matter how crowded the yoga classes or workshops, we still have our own private yoga space. The yoga mat defines our space, a place to pause, to notice our breath. At that instant, we can decide what we are going to do and treasure every moment of our practice. Slowly, we may realize that our mat can be much more than just a sticky surface to do asana.
I admit to having a couple of yoga mats; received them as birthday gifts. One, permanently, takes up a corner in the trunk of the car. There are a couple of strays that have ended up in the classroom basket as well. But my daily practice is on this beautiful blue mat that I bought for $30 at YogaLife Institute 15 years ago. Initially, it was just a space that I used, to learn the “how-to” of yoga-asana. However, as I spent time on it, it began to feel more like a compassionate friend than just a yoga mat. It has provided me a safe place for solace and respite. Slowly, it has become a revered space for reflection and surrender.
As my practice deepened I realized that a yoga mat can also serve the purpose of transforming any space into a “sacred” one. When traveling, having a yoga mat is clearly a saving grace. In a hotel room or at a home of a friend or a relative, I quickly clear the surrounding clutter and spread the mat creating an instant sacred space so I don’t have to miss my practice.
I am filled with gratitude each time I step on the mat. Because of how the practice on this space has transformed me, I have developed a sense of reverence toward my yoga mat. Hence, it is important for me to store it properly, keep it clean (yes – in the washing machine and hang dry on sunny days), prevent others from eating or stepping on it, especially with footwear in order to maintain its sacredness.
The yoga mat is my sacred space. It is a place I consider pure, holy and safe. I trust that within the sacred space my practice is protected. This space allows me to enter a quiet inner-world where transformation and healing occurs. Within the sacred space my burdens have become lighter for having been touched by the hand of the Spirit.
Now that you’ve bought your yoga mat with an intention to practice, let’s figure out how the practice can begin. Each time we practice on the yoga mat – you, in your sacred space and I in mine;
- Let’s make it a place to discover the intelligence of our physical body, and understand how to heal and honor it.
- Let’s make it a place to understand our emotional body; i.e., our habitual patterns of behavior (why do we do the same thing repeatedly even if it doesn’t work in our daily life) and to practice letting go of negative ideas, perceptions, opinions, prejudices, resentment, judgment, greed, jealousy, etc., which do not feed the health of our body, mind and Spirit.
- Let’s make it a place to discern our mental body – to create pure intentions, clarify our motives, resolve to be disciplined, and to practice forgiveness and compassion.
- Let’s make it a place to connect with our spiritual body by making gratitude our fervent prayer, to ask for courage to introspect, to practice silence often in order to notice the presence of the Spirit.
And remember, when you and I gather in a class to perform our yoga practices, we are connecting with others of impeccable intent in their sacred spaces. Here, in partnership with the Spirit, we discover our true selves, a sense of freedom; what Eknath Easwaran refers to as original goodness. Here, many yogis declare, we prepare to meet the Divine.
Amidst the joy of practice and knowing that practicing yoga-asana on the mat is a way to prepare for the union, yoga, it would be absurd for me to judge the various yoga mats/spaces as being good or bad. Whether you buy a thicker mat or spread a blanket to cushion your knees, practice in the sand or on grass; just make it your sacred space. But don’t waste your time denouncing one and commending the other. What works for you may not work for another. Practicing with conflict creates more discord, and that is not the purpose of mat practice. Here, freedom means awareness to the options you have for your practice, and having the power to make the right choices to create your own sacred space. Only then, you will be able to surrender and enjoy the time you spend on your mat.
Now, having created your very own sacred space, may you have the best yoga practice each time you step on the mat. This is only the beginning. And whatever you discover or transform in your sacred space, may you remember to take it off the yoga mat and into your daily life. Then, watch closely, because the best is yet to come.
Bennet, Sage.2007. Wisdom Walk : Nine Practices for Creating Peace and Balance from World’s Spiritual Traditions. New World Library, CA