June 18, 2015

What your Mat would Want you to Know.

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Being thrifty (or cheap, as it’s sometimes understood by recipients of my gifts), for years I resisted buying a top-end branded yoga mat.

Yoga developed for millennia without brands!” I preached, snapping shut my purse and flicking pieces of disintegrating mat off my knees.

But then on my last birthday, I was tested in my loyalty to no-frills yoga and inflicted by the gift of a mat so swanky that it cost 42% of my monthly rent.

(Admittedly this is the rent on my apartment in super-affordable Kathmandu, but don’t let that get in the way of a good comparison.)

The mat was immense, heavy and had an obnoxiously prominent logo. Mustering up gratitude, I morosely unfurled it, entered its atmosphere of rubbery fumes, dropped to a down dog—and fell irrevocably in love.

I was a new woman. Asanas I had written off as unnecessarily complex and dubiously showy suddenly came within reach. “It isn’t that you’re unable to do them,” my new mat cooed to me, “it’s that you’ve been the victim of an inadequate surface, one which slipped and squished and gathered up. Your tools were to blame all along! These asanas aren’t complex and showy—they are yours!

So fearful have I become of ever being parted from it that I have now bought the super-skinny travel version, one which inexplicably holds everything in place like fly paper for yogis. I no longer even call them mats, I call them by their brand names. I have become That Person I formerly couldn’t relate to.

Is this to say you should rush out for a high-roller mat? Actually, I have a different suggestion in mind. If you have an expensive mat, I’d like to suggest you get off it once in a while. Go retro, grab yourself one of the public mats at the local studio and see where your practice really is.

To what extent do our mats covertly prop up our practice? Make it a little snazzier, make us a little—dare I say—lazier? To what extent is it like a form of training wheels, helping us to keep form without having to develop the integral balance, discipline and alignment that are ingredients of the practice? If you’re used to a supermodel mat, then returning to a mediocre one will quickly show you.

Moreover to what extent does it change your relationship with the poses? If we see yoga as dissolution of the ego, then my scruffy old mat had enabled a wonderful process of acceptance that certain postures might never be for me. I had to examine why I thought they mattered, challenge those aspects of myself and let go—which in turn taught me valuable lessons for living off the mat.

Perhaps one day the postures would come—but in that era of my tatty mat, my competitive grasping had been replaced with a softness, a contentment in where I was now, and made me a better teacher by encouraging me to really examine each pose and share challenges with my students. It was humbling and it was healthy. But then came The Mat.

It didn’t just clean up my asana a bit—it turbo charged it. No one should ever aspire to a turbo-charged yoga practice. But then it happens—and oh! It’s just so hard not to love! After years of squirming through my arms for jump-backs and jump-throughs, my mat magically enabled promotional video-quality vinyasas that I couldn’t wait to whip out in group practice. Goodbye, pratyahara.

And goodbye aparigraha.

During our recent yoga teacher training at a Buddhist monastery I saw grubby footprints criss-crossing my mat where the students had cheerfully used it as a thoroughfare, and this was the one moment—in a month of intense but utterly delightful and peaceful living together—that I found myself infuriated.

This is my sanctuary! This is my safe place! This is not just a bit of floor! This is like a piece of me: trample on my mat, and you trample on my soul!

No more footprints appeared, but I did notice how much of a clean-up was needed on my soul.

Where had this attachment come from? Yes, it’s good to observe considerate mat etiquette, but for me to actually get angry about it? And in a monastery no less! Under the detached, compassionate gaze of the Buddha?

Yes, it is harder to practice asana on a mat that has no grip. But for those of us with personal work to do, it is also harder to focus on the wider aspects of yoga when your asanas transform overnight.

My beloved old mat with its Annie-shaped dents and missing chunks serves a far more important role than an emergency back-up—getting on it helps me to check back in from time to time. Sure, my fancy mat helped me to nail my Scorpion—but far more importantly it has shone a light on where I really need to work.

And that is why, for me, this isn’t just an expensive mat: it is a yoga mat.


Author: Annie Seymour

Editor: Alli Sarazen

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

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