The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are in many ways the pillars of contemporary understanding of Yoga. In the Sutras, Patanjali spoke of Eight Limbs of Yoga as a sort of roadmap of liberation from suffering. So, for thousands of years, yoga functioned quite well with its Eight Limbs. Then, just after a few decades since its landing in the West, Eight Limbs were no longer enough to keep up the fast pace of the Fast Fast West. Yoga had to grow a 9th limb, a rubber one: the yoga mat.
Born as a solution to its inventor’s medical condition, the yoga mat slowly became a sort of Status Symbol for the Western Yogi. Today the appeal of any given city or of neighborhood is more or less measured by the number of yoga enthusiasts walking around with a green drink in hand and a yoga mat rolled under the arm like a hippy French baguette. When, sometimes towards the end of the 2000s in Brooklyn I started encountering several of such specimen around my neighborhood, I knew rent prices were bound to go up soon. I had no right to complain though, as I happen to one of those people proudly carrying the yoga-baguette.
In the early 1980s, Yoga teacher Angela Farmer likely did not anticipate the success of her invention, when she came across rolled rubber material used to lay under carpeting and started adopting as a aid to her yoga classes. The issue of slipping while practicing yoga especially plagued Angela because of a medical condition that prevented her from sweating from hands and feet. Angela’s father later turned her clever makeshift solution into a business venture and a quarter century later the mat is the ultimate yoga-essential.
Although Angela’s idea was undoubtedly creative and quite effective, it is hard to imagine ancient Indian yogis practicing on colorful mats thousands of years before rubber was even invented. Many of them in fact practiced simply by maintaining a meditative position seated on a carpet, or likely even on bare dirt. With yoga’s westward pilgrimage, the third of Patanjali’s eight limbs, the Asana (posture), became more central in yoga practice, to the point of now being mistaken by many as the entirety of yoga. As a result, slipping during practice has slowly become a more relevant issue in yoga.
Today, there are mats of all kinds: cheap mats, rental mats, thick mats, eco-mats, expensive mats, cork mats, pretty mats, fancy mats, mapped maps. But is slipping truly the sole reason of this mat-mania? I am not so sure. Are yoga mats truly so essential to yoga-safety? They certainly make yoga more comfortable, or rather, they make it easier. Just by practicing the same asana sequence with and without a mat, one can find that WITH a mat, suddenly strength and balance become less central to the practice, leaving the stage to flexibility. Not slipping means that a pose can be held even applying less strength and with less stability. This is often at the cost of pushing joints beyond their natural limit, exceeding the body’s true capacity for flexibility, hence exposing it to the risk of injuries.
Isn’t this after all what westerners are great at? Finding short-cuts to make things easier and easier, accessible even to the ones who do not want to work too hard. Then, short cut after short-cut we end up losing sight of what we are doing and – to everyone’s surprise — someone gets hurt. We take something that by nature is not for everyone, because it takes a lot of work to attain, we twist it and turn it, until we make it commercial enough that it can sell. Look at what we have done to mount Everest (which truly should be for almost no-one at all). High-tech gear after high-tech gear, tour package after tour package, we have filled the place with plastic left-behind by thousands of enthusiasts who collectively spend millions to bring their big egos on top of the world (along with their trash).
How did I get from yoga mats to mount Everest? Not sure. Anyhow, back to yoga mats. I have nothing against them per say, especially when they are environmentally friendly. I still use my very own first mat, bought in 2009 in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn at a garage sale for just $2. I love it so much that I shipped it along with my stuff all the way from New York to Italy when I moved in 2013. So, no doubt, I am part of the mat-race. What I find interesting, as a psychologist, are the emotional and relational functions that yoga mats play.
Why then have mats been so successful? Most people, unlike Angela Farmer, do not have a medical condition that prevents them from sweating from their extremities and while not slipping in convenient in yoga, no one was that bothered by it until the 1990s. So what happened then? What happened was that Yoga slowly became something for everyone and it had to bend to the needs of the Wild West. Mats do not just prevent us from slipping, they define us. And we westerners, sure like our labels and neatly defined little boxes. Tell me what kind of mat you have, I will tell you what kind of yogi you are.
Having a yoga mat seems to make a real yogi. Moreover, mats are a representation of how much Western-Yoga is now its own thing, which bent and changed so much to adapt to the rhythms of the west that it feels almost like something anew. We managed to take a practice that is all about connecting with the world around us and about radically accepting our circumstances and turned it into a practice that happens within the individual, confined, sterile, space of a colorful plastic mat. Each so isolated on our diligently sterilized little rubber-squares, separated from our fellow yogis and from the earth, we feel happy and safe. We can meditate without feeling the discomfort of pebbles under our butt, we don’t have to get our hands dirty, we are not faced with the risk of coming face to face with an ant crawling under our face while in Downward Facing Dog. As we clearly send a message of “keep away” to our fellow practitioners, we feel content and protected in our rubber bubble.
Sarcasm aside, again, if this is what it takes to slow down the Fast-Fast West, to bring a Wolf of Wall-Street to meditate just even for a few minutes, who cares, so be it. If yoga is Union and a way to connect the various parts of the world, maybe to grasp a limb of the Fast-Fast west, we had to go through yoga mats. So be it. The world was not built in a day. Personally, I try to keep an open mind. I still love my old Brooklyn mat, and use it quite often. Though, when I am at the park, at the beach, in the desert, on the hard wood floor, I do not say no to yoga, just because a mat in not in sight. I just take off my shoes and dive inward.