I had been doing Pilates for years before I started doing yoga. The Pilates classes I attended had these massively large, well padded (two inch plus thickness) mats that we did the classes on. When I started doing yoga, I bought a yoga mat and went to the studio. I was surprised how small and ridiculously uncomfortable the yoga mat was. However, the yoga mat seemed to be a defining trait of the exercise modality. I came to accept doing lunges with just millimeters of some crappy synthetic padding between my knees and a wood floor as some kind of hazing ritual by which I could be initiated into the cult of the yogi.
This is actually ridiculous.
Yoga mats are a new thing (as in less than the last twenty years). There is no connection between the yoga mat and the thousands of years of tradition of yoga. One does not achieve enlightenment by grinding their knee cap into wood or concrete. They are not comfortable and, even worse, put restrictions on the type of practice one engages in. When placed on a long, skinny penalty box, teachers and students constrain their practice and movements to fit in this framework. I think that this leads to a lack of creativity and causes people to think in a very front to back, linear way. It also keeps people from spreading out to occupy more space than would be covered by a mat.
When I first started doing aerial yoga, I tried doing it with mats under the equipment on a hardwood floor. I wasn’t happy with the results at all. When holding onto a fabric, one naturally wants to move side to side and front to back as well as twisting. I tried doing things like two mats in a cross formation Universal Yoga style or even side by side mats to make more of a square, but the mats would get snagged and move around and it also just wasn’t enough padding to be comfortable.
I had a friend moving away and selling roll-out, two inch thick, carpeted acrobatics flooring. I bought it from her and taught on it for a couple of years. While it was quite comfortable, padded, and had excellent traction, it was so thick that balance exercises were challenging and the carpeted surface couldn’t be cleaned easily or thoroughly.
Around the same time, my friend Matt Meko tried using inch thick martial arts flooring in his studio. He raved about it. I went to check it out and liked it. It featured a surface finished like a yoga mat but it could be sprayed and mopped clean easily like a hard wood floor. It was very comfortable for something like falling out of a handstand or dropping down from a low height aerial move but not so padded that it hindered balance poses like tree or handstand. Traction was a little slippery when brand new (but not so much as a brand new yoga mat), but quickly became grippy.
I’m frankly in love. The thought of ever doing yoga on a hard wood floor on a mat seems silly to me. Like a trying to make a smoothie with a wire whisk after you’ve gotten used to a Vitamix. I went to a conference with yoga mats on concrete floors and it felt like the dark ages. I seriously don’t get why anyone practices like this anymore.
I suppose the lesson to me is that we shouldn’t just blindly follow things and accept them as cannon. To many people, the yoga mat symbolizes yoga. In reality, someone came up with the idea very recently, marketed it well, and it got some traction when insurance companies started requiring it to insure people. While I appreciate the business chops of the person who pimped this out to the masses, I really think that yoga mats hinder one’s practice and studios should investigate alternatives. In general, I think people should use a skeptical eye towards many of the assumed sacred cows of yoga. I’m going to look at some other aspects in blog posts over the next couple of months, but it’s a good idea to remember that yoga was very recently transferred to the West and has been HEAVILY modified and been filtered through a corporate machine to make it more marketable. I feel like the yoga industry tries to bully people into compliance with the supposed thousands of years of tradition behind yoga when a large portion of Western yoga is a modern creation with very little linkage to these millennia of tradition. It’s always a good idea to ask questions and research things that don’t seem natural to you. You might come away with a better understanding and appreciation of the doubted item. Or you might come up with something that works for you better. Both possible results are goodness.