Yoga mat and its origins

If we look at the yoga mat and other props, we find that there has been a radical change in the materials and the variety of products on offer to practitioners. We even saw a neat marketing presentation that shows how marketers classify yoga mats.

  • PVC yoga mats
  • Rubber yoga mats
  • TPE (plastic and rubber combo) yoga mats
  • other yoga mats

Most of the prominent materials mentioned are modern and as a practitioner,  we (myself and better half) :) were curious to know what did yogis use in the classical sense, before the advent of these modern alternatives?

Folklore and ancient practices:

Growing up in India, we have been lucky to be exposed to the folklore and some of the ancient practices. Our research on “yogic aids” led us to this beautiful set of verses from the book - Bhagavad Gita ( a 700-verse Sanskrit scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata).  It is essentially a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna that covers a lot of topics including spiritual, moral dilemmas and philosophical issues. 

One of the verses in this scripture talks about how a yogi should lead his life and go on the path of self-development using meditation.

 

yogee yunjeeta satatamaatmaanam rahasi  sthitah
    ekaakee yatachittatmaa  niraasheeraparigrahah  // 6.10 //

A  yogi should always try constantly to concentrate his mind (on the Supreme Self),  remaining in solitude, living alone with the mind and body controlled, free from desires and possessions.

Lord Krishna explains the method of self-development through meditation on the lines of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

shuchau deshe pratishthaapya  sthiramaasanamaatmanah
    naatyucchritam naatineecham  chailaajinakushottaram  // 6.11 //

Having established in a clean spot his firm seat, neither too high nor too low, made of cloth, a skin and Kusa grass, one over the other.

In the following verses, Lord Krishna goes on to explain the aids necessary for meditation like how to sit in posture, practice in a clean place, etc.

The materials used were perhaps what was available in nature, and the cloth was probably cotton to insulate from the cold, dampness or heat. 

 

Early 20th century

 

T Krishnamacharya

Early 20th century, in South India there was a yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer, and scholar named T Krishnamacharya, who is often called the “father of modern yoga”. His approach to yoga was that yoga is a spiritual practice and a mode of physical healing. He was also a physician of Ayurvedic medicine. He often prescribed a blend of remedies to treat ailments. The prescription included dietary adjustments, herbal medicines and series of physical asanas to heal.

We were curious to see what kind of mats were used by these modern gurus. It was nothing fancy, a cotton rug.

 

BKS Iyengar

 

BKS Iyengar was one of the earliest students of T Krishnamacharya and is the founder of the Iyengar style of yoga where the focus is on the alignment of the body during a posture. He has been teaching yoga from the 1930s and is widely recognized as the foremost teachers of yoga in the world. Here is a fabulous demonstration of yoga by BKS Iyengar on a cotton yoga mat.

 

 

K Pattabhi Jois

Student of T Krishnamacharya and the one who popularized the vinyasa style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. His practiced and taught yoga for over 70 years in the city of Mysore. His yoga shala uses only cotton rugs and towels as props in the practice. Profuse sweating is a byproduct of this style of yoga and the cotton rug is the ideal companion to ensure that it grips when you sweat. Unlike the rubberized / PVC mats, the mats don’t slip when you sweat.

Here is a peek into the JPJAYI yoga shala where the majority of the practitioners are using cotton yoga rug.

 

We were now curious when did the switch happen to rubberized / PVC yoga mats?

The 80’s invention

The nonskid mats made of was invented by an Iyengar yoga practitioner Angela Farmer in Germany to avoid slipping when practicing on smooth surfaces like wooden floors. Sara Chambers re-designed these mats and offered an alternative under the brand HuggerMugger in the US. This kicked off a tsunami of yoga mat brands that used a variety of materials (mostly synthetic) to create yoga mats to serve the world that has warmed up to the idea of yoga as a physical fitness routine. These sticky mats will slip once you go deeper in your practice (when you sweat). Then came another invention called the microfiber towel that can go on top of the PVC/ rubber mat to avoid the situation of slipping.

 

Alternatives

Today we have a lot more eco-conscious brands that offer alternatives like yoga mats made of cork, organic cotton, natural grass, and fibers. There are cross-over offerings from established PVC yoga mat manufacturers, especially when consumers are becoming more aware of the issues of the synthetic mats to us and our environment. Many of them offer organic cotton-based mats which is a good thing as natural fibers are bio-degradable but the colors and finish of these products are synthetic. During the manufacturing process, the raft of chemicals in the form of bleach, mordants, chemical dyes, and finishing agents are used. How safe are they? No serious research has been conducted in the world of fast fashion. Unfortunately, most fast fashion brands are about the turnover of inventory. Everything else takes a backseat. Consumers are either ignorant about the manufacturing processes or really do not think much about it! Yes, ignorance is bliss! If it looks good and has a popular label on it... Nothing else matters!

Today most studios have wooden studios and offer a base rubber mat. Many yogis are using their own yoga mat or rug on top of the studio’s rubber mats. We personally like this idea as it is a good way to get more out of existing investments in the rubber yoga mat.

ayuray yoga mat:  Our approach was to look at traditions and staying true to the essence of yoga by being close to nature. We use organic and natural materials. as mordants and dyes. There was no compromise on that. So we chose the best available fiber that is suitable for a conscious yoga practice, which was organic cotton. 

We created an aesthetically pleasing design and worked with artisans to weave their magic. We also believed in taking this eco-friendliness to the next level.  The colors of the yarns were from ayurvedic dyes.  We identified partners who have perfected the art of extracting hues and wellness from the herbs on to the yarns. We also solved the problem of slipping on a smooth surface by treating the underside of the mat with some natural rubber.

We believe that choosing the yoga mat is a personal choice, however, if we can bring awareness, perhaps yogis will realize the impact of some of their choices. The impact on them, the workers who manufacture these synthetic yoga mats and our planet.

 


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