Looking to Make Your Yoga Practice *Even* More Challenging? Ditch Your Mat

Photo: Getty/ Thomas Barwick
I've gone to enough yoga classes that the urge to compare myself to the uber bendy, or those whose bodies seem to defy the laws of gravity has subsided. I’ve come to appreciate what my body can do (hint: it isn’t the splits). But the other day as I looked around the studio I noticed another disparity. Not only was the instructor practicing yoga without a mat, but a handful of the seemingly more advanced students were also contorting their bodies right on the wood floor. I wondered if going mat-less is a more authentic way to practice, and if so, was I ready to move beyond the comfort of my squishy rectangle.

“There is absolutely nothing more advanced about not practicing yoga without a mat, but there are a lot of reasons why you might want to give yours up,” says Mandy Kruger, a yoga instructor in Portland, Oregon. While the straight lines of one’s mat can be a way to gauge alignment in certain poses, in others they can be restrictive. “In shadow yoga for example, we move in a lot of circular or non-linear flows. You want these movements to be fluid, and if you have a mat bunching up under your feet you don’t get that experience,” says Kruger.

If you’ve ever done downward dog on sand or grass, you know that keeping your hands and feet from slipping takes more muscle strength than it does on a mat.

There are also those who believe the stickiness of yoga mats might contribute to more wear and tear on the joints. If you’ve ever done downward dog on sand or grass, you know that keeping your hands and feet from slipping takes more muscle strength than it does on a mat and makes the poses more challenging. This bit of instability forces you into isometric contraction, and without it, it’s much easier to crank yourself deep into a posture, and possibly into your joints. “You want a balance between strength and flexibility in your poses, and sometimes a mat can be a stand in for that strength,” says Kruger.

But don’t feel obligated to toss your mat into the back of your closet just yet. For many of us, the design, color, and thickness of that 2' X 6' piece of rubber is not only a reflection of our personality, but the area it defines is also the physical representation of our sacred space. We assign meaning to the simple act of unrolling then stepping onto our mat, and that meaning can heighten the benefits of our whole practice.

“Like everything in yoga, when it comes to using a mat or not I tell my students to meet themselves where they are,” says Kruger. In other words, if your body is more tender, or you have a thing about personal space or germs or maybe just like the feel under your feet, then by all means keep using it. But, if you want to venture into a practice that might be a bit more free-flowing, and possibly more challenging, then maybe it’s time to brave the cold hard floor by practicing yoga without a mat.

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