Where For me yoga mats are like surfboards. The stretches of yoga help me surf. Surfing and yoga both require a mixture of control and going with the flow. An idea of where you want to go, an ability to let go of that, and a lot of practice. Yoga mats are like surf boards, or more particularly where and how we do yoga. When I’m standing in the water, wobbling on a board, being bashed around by waves I’m also often thinking about yoga – the connection in my feet, my body, my breath. I’m thinking anatomy, philosophy and the meaning of life. So for me the connection is quite natural.
The surf boards
We have a delightful old soft-top which I couldn’t take with me so used a range of boards. For those of you who don’t know anything about surfing this is a big deal. It means I’ve moved from absolute beginner to beginner. My sister and her husband have a quiver (the collective noun for surfboards) so I got to try a range. The more boards I tried the more I thought of how I practice yoga and how our connection to the ground changes the sort of yoga we do. Now reading this you might be mistaken into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Really, I promise you I don’t. I’m just learning and having fun along the way. If you have done some surfing, a lot of surfing, I encourage you to enjoy how much of the below I have wrong. I know that a long board ridden well can be a delectable beast – it’s just that I’m not there yet.
My old soft-top
Normally I have a soft-top – a very old one, which is light enough but doesn’t move much – meaning turning is tricky.
A rental… I thought it’d be like my own but it was a brick. Heavy, immobile, horrible, it was stable but that was not enough to make up for the boredom. Too cumbersome to allow any freedom or joy.
This was another rental and actually pretty good, it could move a bit and had stability.
this is the longest sort of board and is good for when there are less waves, its length means it catches waves more easily. I thought it would be pretty boring, but it was a very smooth ride and still moveable. Its dangers are that it is so long that it is more vulnerable to snapping than shorter boards.
9” mini mal – this is a longish soft nosed thing – it was light, moveable and smooth. A real surfboard, and often one for novices.
My daughters 7” fishtail – now this is a nippy number, before when I tried it Id slide like a maniac (not waxed properly), hit my face of the board and other glamorous things like that. This Summer I made it up for a moment, and with it came a fluid moment of joy. A moment of being able to dance on a wave. The problem is for me, that Im not in control. To be fair I am rarely in control, but not usually out of control. The danger is that if it goes wrong with this board it has a pointy nose hat can take eyes out, cut and damage.
The yoga mats
How many yoga mats do I have? Let me think: a eco Jade one, a light travelling one, a 5mm padded one, 2 turquoise ones that are filthy, a yellow and orange funky dude, a cheapo pink one. A bright blue travelling one that is too blue for its own good.
Each yoga mat is different. There’s short ones, fat ones, ones with lines to guide you, round ones. My choice of yoga mat goes along the lines of: healthy eco material, a little bit of tack and most importantly colour. Why? Because I look at my mat and colour affects me. Why don’t I care about the amount of tackiness more? I just don’t. I’m very mindful of safety, but the way I practice means I will learn to be safe on every surface, not just a favourite mat. I practice on the floor without a mat, the carpet. I’ve done yoga at the beach, at the airport, on a train, on a horse, in bed and in a field.
Mat and a chair
Right now, doing yoga with a chair beside me at home feels constricting. It feels as if it weighs me down and I can’t move freely. It makes me feel dull and bored. At some point in my life I will need the chair. I may injury my ankle and need to support myself to heal or I might be in the later stages of my life and need a more supported practice. Right now the heavy foamy is dulling, one day it may be heavenly. There is no right or wrong, just right for this or that time. When the day comes when I need a chair beside my mat I hope to celebrate that time, different to this time, but no less precious.
It’s easy to think of yoga on a mat in class. 3mm of sticky padding beneath a nice flat floor. This is my soft-top. It’s stable, predictable, good for learning on and gaining confidence. Tried and tested… but not quite as alive as other experiences.
Last year I did so much house building on my knees I ended up with a knee problem and needed a puffy 5mm fat mat when I started to rehabilitate. This is the nice soft-top, it offers challenge as it can move and it also has security. The nice soft-top can turn, the fat mat is super cushioned. It brings challenge as you can move one the board and balance is trickier on a 5mm mat due to the amount of padding.
What about grass outside – flat garden grass. Its warm, soft, and largely predictable in the way you meet the ground. You might get a wee visit form a bug. There might be a little undulation in the lawn, but over all you can feel what’s going on and feel confident that your changes are more profound than the floor beneath you. This is the longboard, its predictable, a nice ride, and enlivening.
Over Summer I went to the Angela & Victor yoga retreat, and had the pleasure of yoga in a field. The grass was high, the surface of the ground soft and smooth in places, stony and bumpy with unpredictable sensations in others. One minute you would know what was going on and feel stable, the next minute not. Nestle back into the grass, into the nest like clearing, and then stone under the elbow. Feet moulding round the shapes of the earth to balance, and then as you come into tree pose and the weight changes you find the stone under your foot more challenging than 2 seconds ago. It was wonderful, very refreshing, just like the minimal.
I was working with a photographer recently. It was beach yoga and I was doing a headstand. It was phenomenal and precarious. The sand when soft gives way. So I was settling my elbows down, but as soon as I lifted up the transfer of weight the sand give way and my elbows would slide wider. It was a whole load of fun, but it was very challenging. For me this is like the fishtail. Doing a headstand on dry sand gives you loads of movement and change, lots of fun filled precarious moments, and also the danger of getting it rather wrong.
The funniest place I think I’ve done yoga was on the train to London. I met a woman who was saying how she just couldn’t do head stand, so I showed her the simple steps I use so she could try them at home. The train was lurching, it was in the corridor and people we passing, so not my usual quiet zen like yoga place. But it was real, fun and a good teacher. I’ve been doing yoga for 30 years now, and most days, so I can handle a headstand on a train…. But I’m still a beginner at surfing, so for me head stands on a train is the surf board I’ve not tried yet and to be fair am unlikely to ever be good enough to get on well with.
What sort of mat is right for me? Where should I practice?
It doesn’t matter where you do yoga, or what you do it on, but it does change your practice. It can be good to wobble as it helps your muscles to strengthen and work together, on the proviso that it feels fun and is safe. It can be good to feel very grounded and stable – it helps you consolidate your practice and build on safely. You want to think of how much newness, exploration, rediscovery you want in balance with how much routine, known and stability you want. Explore what you really want from your practice. How much predictability do you have? How much stability from the ground? How much enlivening? How much challenge?
Yoga should be about fun, self-development and growth. So if you think you’ve got it nailed, and find yourself lack lustre; try something new. If you are feeling flighty and nervous go get the chair! Find a new surface, a new sensation. Stay alive, stay alert and find your learning place – with enough challenge to keep you sparkly and enough security to keep you content. Explore the floor beneath you, explore the ground and learn to grow.