Do we need our yoga mats?

View of rolled up yoga mats end on

Image by Jon Fife CC on Flickr

A month ago I read a very interesting article about the use of mats in yoga and how it can fundamentally alter what’s going on in your body, the muscles, how they’re being used etc.

Written by two yoga and body specialists (Dr Brian Cooper and Dr Christopher Norris) it discusses what happens in the body when we use a mat when practising physical yoga postures (they use four examples), and what happens if you try doing the same things without a mat, and particularly in socks on a wooden floor!

Rather than me badly summarising the article and their views, I recommend you read it. You may want to read it and practise the postures without a mat as an experiment.

Whilst the authors are coming from this from an anatomical viewpoint, I’ve had discussions with a few people in the past who argue that the mat is an unnecessary piece of equipment, and comes complete with a potentially large environmental footprint (PVCs etc) and plugs us into the commercialisation of yoga. I’m struggling to remember what I used, if anything, when I started practising yoga in 1991. I know I didn’t own a mat. If we go back further, to the time of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika text (c.1400s), the yogi was to live and practise yoga in a very basic hut “well plastered with cow dung”. But then only men became yogis and so we don’t want to go back to that era! And I’m not going to practise on cow dung. But we can look at our current perceptions and habits and experiment a bit now and again.

As it’s coming up to summer now is the perfect time to do some yoga outside – try it without your mat and see what you feel.

12 thoughts on “Do we need our yoga mats?

  1. As one of the no-mat promoters it is interesting to see others with this view. In a yoga class I would expect a mix of people using mats, and those that don’t. But that is never the case, and everyone apart from me uses mats. I wonder how much of it is just conformity too, not wanting to stand out or question other people’s assumptions, easier to follow the herd? Luckily whenever I feel peer pressure I do the opposite, but many people don’t feel comfortable doing that, even though ideally yoga should strengthen the mind and spirit, not just the body. Thanks for flagging it up.

    • Thanks for your comments. The article was particuarly focusing on the standing postures and I can understand their arguments on that. For sitting postures, I sometimes like a bit of padding for ankle bones in cross-leg position etc, and for the spine when rolling up/down the mat. So, maybe people can feel able to use a mat for different parts of the class. Your point about people not wanting to stand out or look different is very valid though. As a teacher I could set an example, sometimes, to go without a mat. Hmm. One to ponder.

    • Hi Lyza – there’s also a new current trend for people to practise with a cotton rug, over their yoga mat. I tried socks on wooden floor tonight for the standing postures as an experiment – I didn’t slip!

    • In that case I still wouldn’t use a mat! The hardness of the floor toughens you up; also it doesn’t use up any resources then. I can understand mats in some martial arts with throws, since the injuries on a beginner could be fatal otherwise, but whenever possible I liked to train without them – that’s when you REALLY knew that your ukemi was improving! Whereas in yoga you’re mostly just standing, sitting or lying down, it’s good to have direct contact with the ground and get the bones and muscle to be able to deal with and ignore any discomfort until the mind can over-ride it. We live such easy lives that where possible it’s good to remind us that things can be hard. πŸ™‚

  2. I definitely understand the point they are making in the article. The mat is rather unnecessary. This is very similar to shoes, we need a mat to practice yoga about as much as we need shoes to walk. Shoes, though I think are a bit more damaging. However, this discussion is about mats.

    I noticed myself falling into this reliance the other day while practicing yoga at the park. I was on grass and I rolled out my mat, after the first sun salutation and struggling with the mat, since the grass’s cushion made it much harder to lie flat, I had an aha bell ring in my brain. I thought, “I do not need this mat at all.” And thus, chucked it a few yards away. The grass provided ample padding and it was nice to feel and connect all the way to the ground, which is not actually flat. So “no mat yoga” aka yoga is definitely something that I will explore soon.

    Still, this article is mainly talking about the reliance people have on their “sticky” mats. The one I have is so worn out that it is actually quite slippery and fairly worn through in major spots. I wonder what they would say about a slippery mat that actually forces engagement of the adductors. I think that s there main issue in the article. Even without a mat, you are going to practice on different surfaces. The concrete in my basement and the wood floor in the kitchen will be very slippery while the carpet in the other room and the concrete in the driveway will actually be very sticky. Grass will depend on whether it is wet or dry or thick or thin.

    The idea that you aren’t engaging your adductors in many poses while on a sticky mat is one that engages me you could say it sticks in my mind! The reason for this is that I have disproportionately weak adductors and am always looking for ways to help me engage them.

    I think the mat is a function of our very capitalist culture. Sometimes we need our little security blankets. The mat gives people something comfortable, allows them to establish their own space, express a bit of personality, padding, grip, cleanliness. It offers a multitude of things that people have become accustomed to.

    Still it does tie into the commercialization of yoga. This phenomena is at best annoying and at worst destructive of the main idea of the practice. The yoga clothes evolution is particularly annoying, If I wanted to go to a meat market, I would go to a gym or a bar. It is my understanding that yoga is supposed to make you more okay and at peace with yourself, which should include your body. I am talking to you Bikram and Core Power.

    So I guess I agree that you do not need a mat to practice yoga and I will be exploring this in the next few months. Still I understand that some people may need them, whether for comfort from pain or from their fear of dirt, their need to express themselves or to create personal space. There are always options of purchasing recycled and environementally friendly mats. I do like the idea of viewing it like a prop though a way to allow you to get to the pose and then trying the pose without the mat.

    Still, whatever the case the more people that do yoga the better. They may come for relief from pain, desire to be fit or be part of the fad. I have found though with consistent practice, people leave the studio and the mat with a clearer headspace and more of a connection to their soul. If they need a mat then so be it.

    Thank you Alyson for posing this question here. It is a part of my practice I had not considered much. And finding a new way to activate my adductors will be supremely helpful.

    ~C.A.

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