Do you really need a mat to practice yoga? Here’s one yogi’s lesson in detachment.
I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years, and lately I’ve been at odds with my yoga mat. I don’t remember my hands ever slipping forward in downward dog. I’m not talking about slippery sweaty yoga palms, either. These days, no matter how firmly and widely I spread my fingers against the ground, I slither forward ever so slightly. There just doesn’t seem to be a mat with enough traction for me.
Firm grounding is key to proper alignment in yoga, but so is flexibility of mind. Slipping off my true north has been annoying, but also a rich opportunity to shift my perspective.
To hell with my mat, there’s a beautiful wooden floor right under me!
I started playing — folding the mat over, or standing further forward in mountain pose, which takes my vinyasa off the mat. The sensation of real groundedness took over my practice. Just like that — a simple journey of a few inches opened me to sights unseen.
Sweet floor, where have you been all my life? Why had I been so attached to my damn mat, when yoga is a path to non-attachment?
I’d only ever owned one mat, and like a favorite shirt, threadbare with history, I never replaced it. How could I? If it aint broke, don’t fix it, right? Yes, you heard correctly: the same mat for over 20 years. The mat, which I washed regularly, held memories for me. We tend to hastily replace things when we perceive them as broken — mats, relationships … but the mat wasn’t “broken” — it held evidence of my beautifully flawed journey in its perfect imperfection.
Fast forward to last year. I left my hometown of Miami and dispensed with that war horse altogether, since I wanted to travel light, unencumbered by spiritual and material baggage. Also, it was simply inconvenient to schlep a yoga mat on Greyhound buses. And so for several months, I practiced with gratitude on whatever ground life offered up to me.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to be part of a solstice group practice in Time Square in New York City. Effin’ Times Square — the noisiest, busiest, most crowded place in the world to practice full presence, complete with hard, dirty pavement. The organizers of the event provided mats. Oh gawd. So now I “possessed” a mat, and then I realized that I had become so “attached” to the idea of being “free” from a mat that even that was a form of attachment.
So I kept the damn New York City mat, because effin’ Times Square — not only was it a souvenir, it also already had crazy history. If I could practice yoga in the incessant, pounding energy of that buzzing metropolis, which otherwise truly rattled me, I could center myself anywhere.
What is my relationship to the yoga mat?
NYC mat served me well when I landed in upstate New York, where I practiced outdoors on the hills and couldn’t do hand balances on the uneven earth. But even then, I would do wide legged bends with my face on the ground, my nose breathing in the delicious scent of dewy dirt. In the Adirondacks, where I spent a week practicing at sunrise on a lake, the mat protected me from the splintered wood of the docks, but even then, I’d breathe in the morning mist through the cracks of the wood.
Fast forward once more. I move to Washington, DC and rent a lovely furnished studio. A previous tenant left a brand new blue mat — the color of my original mat — complete with carrying strap. Oh sh*t. Now I am owned by not one, but two mats!
The universe is a prankster. What are you trying to tell me, dear one?
Well, it really is about going with the flow.
In my case, slipping on the mat prevents me from working on the practical matter of alignment, so I take a leap of faith and put my hands on the ground, knowing full well that the real test happens off the mat, “out there” in the luscious messiness of life. I’ll be truly flexible, instead of sticking to the mathematical reality of a rubber rectangle. After all, yoga is about playing with the formless in form — aint no room for stifling dogma.
I’m reminded of quote I heard on a Wayne Dyer recording earlier this week: “Are you a host to God or a hostage to your ego?” The same could be asked of our relationship to the mat: am I hostage to its fixed point of reference? Or am I host to the infinite fullness of being?
Even so, I won’t get too attached to this idea of practicing without a yoga mat. But I certainly don’t need two mats! Anyone need an extra mat?
— Originally published in Medium.