When I walk into the yoga studio where I practice, I always stop at the side table and touch the new mats for sale.
They are different textures and thicknesses; some foamy and plump, others rubbery and thin. They are often bright colors—royal blues, deep purples, sea greens.
Some days I consider buying one, but never do, always releasing the corner of the mat I touch as I walk to the front desk to sign in. I have a history with my mat. It’s something of a relic, dusted with the dirt of the past that I take with me and use as nourishment.
Coming into standing poses, we often hear the expression “root to rise.” Of course the saying makes sense; nature and man-made structures alike teach us that a sturdy foundation is key for upward expansion. However, if we think of rising as the ultimate goal, the destination, rooting seems to take on a secondary role.
Like airport security, rooting can become an obligatory procedure that we know is important, though we are anxious to get through it. The same can be true of rooting outside of our physical practice. We can become so concerned and invested in growing and evolving that we forget the ground from where changes spring.
In yoga classes, we are often asked to feel the support of our mats or feel ourselves sinking into them, imagining all the stress and worry in our lives falling away from us and into a few millimeters of padded material. So I imagine mats as great sponges, nearly unlimited in their capacity to absorb the thoughts, emotions, and histories we bring to our practices.
That is what we root down into when we rise, what our mats have absorbed: worry, stress, doubt, pain, hurt. I send a taproot down into growing up as a boy in the modern South, weighing 50 pounds more in eighth grade than I do now at 26—self-hatred, self-doubt, eating tuna out of tin cans in the football locker room. I press the balls of my feet into uncertainty—of how I am going to pay rent next fall,
if my work is good enough, if I will ever find a partner to love and who loves me. I wrap my toes around my father’s death—60, having spent his last months between the psych ward, ICU, and our basement, where he died with oxygen tubes running up his nose.
We root down into dark soil.
Into these things we bury, so we can rise. In our practice we root down, working through complex emotions and situations of pain, anger, doubt, and regret in order to fully appreciate the life we have—its pleasure, joy, hope, and satisfaction. I try to think of the dirt as something we are not divorced from, but rather as an integral part of us—a sustaining force, a bed of nutrients, the reason why we grow.
In woody plants, there is a direct correlation between what grows underground and what grows above. Research shows that roughly five percent of a tree’s total mass is contained in fine feeder roots equaling the five percent of its mass in leaves. Likewise fifteen percent of a tree’s mass lies in large roots that transport nutrients, while the limbs and branches account for another fifteen percent. If a part of the root system is damaged or killed, a corresponding amount of canopy will bear the consequence. Similarly, drastic pruning can result in an equal amount of root death.
For a tree to grow up, it must also grow down. For the canopy to put out more foliage, the subterranean system must also produce more fine roots.
Growing down is just as active a process as growing up.
The color of my mat is now largely bleached and the spots where I typically place my hands and feet are stained a bit dirtier. Missing chunks of rubber around the edges and baring tiny holes on the faded surface, the mat has contained the sustenance needed for growth, and in a few years maybe its ultimate lesson will be teaching me to let go of even it. But until the day it tears apart, I won’t buy another mat. I’ll just touch the new ones briefly as I walk to the front desk, smiling and thinking about whose ground they will become.
Author: Stewart Moore
Editors: Erin Lawson; Cat Beejmans