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March 4, 2011

The Culture of the Mat. ~ Joanne O.S. Kelly

Mat Gone AWOL!

“Your mat is your sanctuary,” whispers the dulcet-toned yoga instructor. “This is your space, your island in the sea of reality, where you are always welcome, where the anxieties and stress of the day are let go at the shore, and there is nothing left but you—and your practice.”

A wonderful analogy, so comforting in its familiarity. We’ve all imagined a getaway spot, where we can leave our worries behind. And if the mat is our getaway, well that’s a heck of a lot cheaper than flying to Hawaii every weekend!

In the West, the mat is commonly seen as a space of peace, and for some yogis, takes on a sacred meaning. If your practice is an offering to the Divine, the mat is much more than an escape route; the mat becomes your altar, a holy platform for your gift to the Universe, Truth, Love, or whatever linguistic manifestation of that Thang you believe in.

So what happens when your mat, your sanctuary, or even your altar is taken away?

This was my first yogi challenge of 2011, when the infamous Air India lost my humble suitcase of chai masala, flowy new skirts, cleansing kriya tools, rare books, practice clothing, and a $70 eco-friendly Manduka mat I had just purchased last September. Ouch!

Finding Perspective

When in doubt, I always go back to the ‘yogis who lived in caves’ scenario—it helps me see the big picture and gives my modern spoiling a bit of a kick in the butt. Afterall, the yogis who lived in caves certainly didn’t (don’t!) have the luxury of an olive green gift from the traction gods! So, if they don’t need a mat, why should I?  I shall practice on my nasty hotel rug (I live in a hotel) with a simple bath towel beneath me. A true yogi can do yoga anywhere, under any circumstances!

If you haven’t already guessed, my glass is generally “half full.”

So off I went, on this mad towel-as-a-mat experiment, and to be fair, if the towel’s big enough, you’ll find very little difference in the seated and supine positions. Add a little extra padding under your knees, and you’re generally on safe ground, so to speak.

If you’re like most western practitioners, however, and you find much of your regular practice to be standing-centric, prepare for a bit of a challenge! Slipping and sliding in something as simple as Virabhadrasan II (Warrior II) makes for notably poor alignment, mental distraction, and an unsightly clenching of the toes. Position faux pas le grand!

Personal Space in America

Ah, America. Yee haw, open prairie, new world, get out and go get it yer damn self—America. Yes indeed, we are a big ‘ole country, built on wide open plains, fertile ground for the industrial ‘blossoming’ of American man’s best friend, the car. But not just any cars, we like the big boys—bring me a Cadillac, a GMC Jimmy, heck, while you’re at it, why not bring me a Hummer?  We’re all thinking Apocalypse 2012 anyways, right?

In all honesty, American large SUV purchasing trends are looking at least ‘less horrendous’ than in years past, and there’s a big push toward living greener, more sustainable lives. But I digress!

The point is, in general, Americans like to keep more open space between themselves and everyone around them. This little nugget of sociological truth is found in the building of homes, the buying of cars, and especially in conversation. In fact, Americans put 4 feet (1.2 m) or more between themselves and their chin-wag partners, compared to 2 to 3 feet (0.6–0.9 m) in Europe.

Though you’ll find no shortage of packed yoga classes in the States, sometimes with mats lined only inches apart, Yanks have found still another way to extend personal space: supersize the yoga mats!

We’ve gone from the typical 24×68 inch space, to a possible 36×84 luxury model. And while Americans may not be the only yogis with the XL mats, I have a feeling we might’ve come up with the idea in the first place!

As an asana practitioner, I’ll admit that the XL yoga mat makes for a luxurious asana experience. For one, you’re not distracted by avoiding your neighbor’s personal space. It’s a plush experience, even if the super size mat is completely superfluous in the search for spiritual progress. Then again, as a yogi and pseudo-philosopher, I can’t help but ask the question: Are all these bells and whistles necessary—could they actually be detrimental?

“Evolution” of the Mat

Mat size is just one category in a whole host of attributes to distract from the purity of asana practice. Take into consideration color, texture, smell, biodegradability, thickness, and even customizable graphics and suddenly we’re transported to the draining space of a McYoga-Mart. Aisles of mats in every possible permutation of look and feel stretch far into the horizon, creating more space between you and where you really want to be—in that space-less bliss zone, no mat required!

According to a yoga teacher and writer on the San Francisco Examiner, whose name I’ll refrain from mentioning, “there is one thing we can all agree on: the mat can make or break your yoga practice, so take the time to do your research and make the investment.”

Talk about pressure! Has the yoga mat really become all that important?  Really?

And what happens when you finally find your ideal mat?  You need the ideal bag to keep it in—what if your bag isn’t up to par?  And a cleanser—all natural, of course. Will the yoga gods frown upon me if I choose a cleanser that doesn’t suit their fancy?  Oh Lord, no more trips to McYoga-Mart, please!

Generally Accepted Rules of Mat Play

So the mat has come to be a sanctuary, an altar even, and on top of that, you could have paid $100 or more on your special slice of space, with all the accoutrement to go with it. Naturally, such a meaningful investment requires a solid set of rules, right?  Here’s a rough first go at current trends in Mat Rules at the Studio:

  1. Don’t tread on me! A mat may be covered in sweat and foot cheese by the end of practice—but it’s my nasty, and I’d like to keep it that way. So rule number one, without a doubt, is do not, under any circumstances, step on someone else’s mat. Teachers, this includes you!
  2. Roll with the crowd. Depending on the studio, there are sometimes expectations about how to place your mat. Some studios prefer a perfect grid-like alignment of the fronts of the mat, an extension perhaps, of the perfect alignment strived for in asanas. Other studios will request mats to be staggered, giving practitioners more breathing space in the flow of things. “Stand at the front of your mat” and no longer will you worry about bumping into your neighbor with your arms stretched wide. Some studios may ask for a circle or semi-circle. Whatever the trend, go with it.
  3. Place your mats with awareness. It’s bad enough you’re late for class—don’t disturb the entire room by flopping down your mat with a whoosh and a thud!
  4. When transitioning, twisting or extending, be mindful of your neighbor and try not to invade their space.
  5. Always put studio mats back where you found them, and if a towel and cleanser are provided, take a minute to wipe it down.

It’s All Relative

Western yoga studios (unless they’re Bikram) have some very similar rules across the board, so once you have ‘em down, you may think you’re safe, right? Well, guess again, because none of these rules apply outside Western studios. And they especially don’t apply in India!

Within minutes of laying down my mat carefully on the cold cement floor at my teacher’s tiny studio in the back alleys of Varanasi, he walked right across it, leaving a foot-shaped trail of dust, dirt, and a healthy dose of dried up cow poop. Here comes the ‘yogi in a cave’ voice—this time with a hint of desperation in her tone:

“Just let it go.”

“We’re all One anyway, right?”

“Now you’re closer to Mother Nature.”

None of these words of wisdom in the back of my head could stop me from sifting through my bag for the package of wet wipes I always keep on me in sanitation-challenged countries. “One” or not, do I really want poop on my face?

The absurdity of it all did make me smile.

Non-attachment: Get Some!

To consider asana practice something sacred, we open the door to a more fulfilling dimension of practice. It takes great awareness to recognize when we cross the line between Divine offering and idolization. The mat, the studio, incense, OM symbols, and even images of Gods are simple tools to be utilized in the process of personal growth. They help us to better tune the instruments of the body and mind to come into a harmonious existence.

In Chapter 5, Verse 11 of the Baghavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna,

The yogis, abandoning attachment, act with body, mind, and intelligence and even with the senses, only for the purpose of purification.

If we can keep our purpose in mind, whatever it might be, and let go of the material value of the tools that help us arrive there, we can maintain integrity and grace through every phase of practice, even the transitions. Whether it’s a tool for traction, a barrier against germs, your personal safe haven, or even an altar to the gods, don’t take your mat too seriously—it’s really just a mat!

Joanne O.S. Kelly is a Hawaiian yogini, writer and teacher, currently finding santosha on the shores of the Arabian Gulf.  Between Kindergarten classroom antics and busting out articles for The Weekly Jo, Yoga Lovin’, and Shades Magazine, Joanne offers yoga instruction to a group of international super-teachers.  This year’s themes: gratitude, intention, service and good old-fashioned svadhyaya.  Connect on Facebook!  Or email directly (yogalovin<at>gmail.com) about article ideas, yoga classes and musings on Bliss.

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