My aunt has a lot of cats. In order to keep peace between the cats, she has squares of carpets that help establish each one’s “territory”. Basically, cats have an instinct to hide in boxes to stay hidden from danger or potential prey. This instinct is so strong that (read more about why cats do this here). When I saw this method, I couldn’t help but think of walking into a yoga studio and seeing the “territories” of the yogis marked by their mats. You know the scene: you come in late to a yoga class, and desperately look for a space while other students have staked out their territory, marked by a rectangular, rubber yoga mat. You shuffle in and subsequently shuffle the yoga territories and add your own. Yoga mats are ubiquitous to the point that you think yoga can’t happen without one. But are they necessary accessory for yoga practice?
A Brief History of the Yoga Mat
Love your mat? Thank Angela Farmer, and English Iyengar Yoga teacher who, while teaching in Germany in 1967, was fed up with slipping around on the floor and purchased and repurposed carpet interlay. And thus, the modern, sticky yoga mat was born. Not long after, this idea was brought to the masses and picked up by yoga mat company Hugger Mugger. The popularity of the mats solidified their legacy in the yoga world, becoming a permanent feature in yoga classes.
Yoga Mats: The Good
When people first start their yoga journey, they usually buy a mat- sometimes before their first practice. And while yoga mats do help you literally “get a grip” in particular poses, they also represent the yogi using them. What did you do to pick your first mat? Did you customize it in any way? Or, are you loyal to a particular yoga brand? The concept of the yoga mat is simple, but the there are a variety of styles, brands, colors, prints and even shapes to chose from. The individualization and customization of yoga mats represent more than just the practice- they represent the practitioner as well. Yoga mats also represent a special space to get your flow on. But is this always a good thing?
Yoga Mats: The Bad
Your asana haven may also be a festering rectangle of bacteria. Yoga mats, if not cleaned often or properly harbor plenty of germs that, over time, could cause an infection (DIY mat cleanser can be found here). And while yoga mats do provide a comfort zone of sorts, they also inherently can limit you to this zone. Consider this- what if you showed up to a yoga class without your beloved mat? Would this make you feel incomplete or weird? That is an example of the mat’s limiting properties. Yoga mats may also be challenging to travel with Practicing without a mat can help you adjust, adapt and grow.
Yoga Practice off the Mat
Have you practiced yoga without a mat? If you haven’t give it a try. If you have, what did you notice?
When I first did this, I found it really frustrating. My feet slide more, even on sturdy flat surfaces. I had to watch where I was placing my hand, especially outside (must avoid ants). But all of these frustrations were packed with a serious silver lining: not relying on a yoga mat allows you to adapt to your environment instead of you creating it. Now, I practice wherever I want with or without a mat. This is especially handy when you are traveling because yoga mats take up significant suitcase space!
Unlike cats, we are not born with an instinct to huddle into a 4-cornered box- we learn this behavior and can change the habit. And don’t get me wrong- yoga mats have plenty of great benefits and can enhance a yoga practice. It is the mat’s seemingly unquestionable permanence in the practice, in some ways like a gateway to yoga asana itself, and that should be challenged.
So is a yoga mat for you? If it enhances, keep it. If it limits, ditch it. If you’re unsure, start exploring and adapting!