Yoga is for everyone!
It has been a few years now that I've stopped using a Yoga mat for my practice. I still use a mat at the Studio where I teach just for appearances sake, but I prefer to step off it while doing standing poses, and I usually cover it with a blanket if I am lying or sitting down. At home I have a carpeted floor for Yoga, and I hardly ever use the mat there anymore. I understand that a mat can become a kind of security blanket for some, or an ego enhancer for others, but if you've never even considered doing Yoga on the bare floor or a carpet, or grass, let me try to win you over. I went matless for one set of reasons, but ended up staying matless for another, as I've discovered a few things I did not expect.
For one, a sticky mat for Yoga is a recent invention. In a group class it serves the purpose of marking a personal space for you, and if you bring your own, a surface the cleanliness of which you control. It is a space you can reasonably expect to be free from intrusion (unless a teacher comes over to pay you special attention). But is it all that necessary? Does it enhance or detract from Yoga?
Let's go first into the reasons why I decided to stop using it. I love to travel, and I do Yoga everywhere I go (this site was originally called Have Mat Will Travel). I love to travel light, and I tried to bring a Yoga mat with me a few times, but it soon became a drag, so I started to leave it behind. At a hotel I would put down a clean towel on the floor and do Yoga, at the beach - a beach towel, etc. Or nothing at all. I enjoyed the fuss free set up, but also - the feel of different terrain under my body. Sometimes I was doing Yoga on a very plush carpet, sometimes on hard floor, or on grass, or warm rock, or on shifty sand, and each of these different surfaces forced me to adapt my stance, my movement, it challenged my balance, awareness, and proprioceptive capacity. I was experiencing gravity in new ways each time I changed the surface.
When I was no longer sticking to the mat, I found myself responding differently to the pose and the movement. I discovered that I can slide, dig, drag, and traction, that my skin is sending a myriad of new interesting sensations to my nervous system. Plus, without being limited by the rectangle on the floor, my movements began to become more creative, taking advantage of the unlined space around me. I felt, literally, set free. Thus, Liberated Yoga was born.
Months turned into years, and I've stayed off the mat, but occasionally I do go back to it, and I started to notice additional differences, which are the reason why I am never going back. Since there are no studies to support my observations, my reporting on the effects is purely anecdotal, but if there is a study one day, I would be curious to see if their findings correlate with mine. But, I can now attest to the long-term effects of doing Yoga whenever and however. So, let me count the ways...
On the physical level, I have noticed a positive effect on my joints. Maybe because of the extra traction and the ability to slide and thus elongate, my joints off the mat feel more supple and spacious. I find that if I am sticking to the mat, I more often experience compression where off the mat I feel traction. For example, while doing bridge pose off the mat, I can feel my head slide and the back of my neck elongate without losing neutral curve. When doing bridge on the mat, my head gets stuck and the cervical spine gets a bit "bunched up" as the legs (also stuck) push my body weight back. Without the mat I ground differently through my legs and distribute the weight and the effort more evenly.
Another example is a supine twist. I like the feeling of the shoulders and pelvis sliding a bit away from each other as I release the knees in one direction while turning the head in the opposite. The surface itself invites me to reach my whole body into the shape. On the sticky mat the distance between shoulders and pelvis cannot be adjusted while twisting, and the opportunity for additional traction is lost. I know this also because I always have to re-level my shoulders and hips after twisting off the mat, while I generally do not drift while I am twisting on the mat.
Standing poses are also a whole different experience. The stance has to adjust and generally become shorter, and I have to be aware of gravity and use my muscles differently. The poses feel more grounded and grounding, requiring more focus, more presence, better attention. The variety of surfaces allows for a variety of distance between my feet, which always keeps my nervous system guessing and interested. The propioceptors in my feet greedily soak up sensations, adjusting the angle of ankle to suit. All of that has delivered non-physical benefits as well.
On the mental level I am never bored anymore doing Yoga off the mat. The free space is calling me to move into it. I have become more creative in my use of that space and invented a few "signature" Liberated Yoga movements that have taken my practice and teaching to a whole new level. You can check out my Youtube channel for such things as The Spiraling Spider, The Kicking Cobra, The Bowing Pidgeon, and the Slithering Sun Salute. I have discovered new joys and pleasures in free-form, uninhibited movement. Yoga now is truly meditation in motion for me, and the floor is my playground. Hope you join me!
Love doing yoga off the mat as well! The space becomes more accessible and I’m not limited to only use a rectangular box to explore reaches into space ...creativity is enhanced moving in 3D dimensions