Thursday, April 8, 2010

Musical Mats

I've noticed that finding a spot for one's yoga mat in a crowded class is like trying to sit at the cool kids' table during lunch. It's the bane of a yogi's existence, both for those who've already found their place in the room as well as for those who must navigate the sea of stoic bodies. The battle of the mats sets a tone for the class and before you know it students are vying for spots at the wall and full ownership of props. I once took an Iyengar workshop where a woman barked at me for accidentally taking her bolster ("that's mine!"). Curious. I was under the mistaken impression that A) the props were the property of the studio, B) that they are, to the best of my knowledge, not monogrammed and C) that sharing might be considered (to some) a pillar of yoga. These bullet points arose through heated and well-rehearsed inner monologues subsequent to this little showdown...a good 48 hours later, to be exact, but I can tell you that a lecture on aprigrahah (non-hoarding) was definitely part of my script.

Anyway, back to the bit about finding a spot for your mat. For those in the trenches strategizing your approach, you must size up your fellow practioners in order to locate a willing (read "weak" for "willing") volunteer who might consider moving a few inches to the right. The possibility of a conversation (where one could ask relevant questions pertaining to willingness and spacial relations) is out of the question. A plan must be orchestrated ahead of time, especially since you're pretty sure that those already established in the room want you dead. Having found your "in", you walk unobtrusively (keep your head down) towards your spot only to be greeted with expressions of utter distain. To be fair, you were expecting this, but you still feel small and slightly guilty for disrupting their space. By "their space", I mean the magnetic field that surrounds their mat and extends at least five feet past the perimeter. You quickly glance into their eyes to judge your next move - a critical step. It's all very National Geographic. You're pretty sure you're experiencing a fight or flight response (luckily for you, you're in a yoga class). If you're really lucky they'll quietly move to the right, but more often than not they'll flash you a look of disgust so that you're absolutely, positively aware of your own ignorant audacity. Once seated, don't make any sudden or extraneous movements. Just sit there, dammit, and keep quiet. That same person who wants you dead is now going to warm up before class with a few handstands and an arm balance. Now look who you've chosen to reckon with. Way to go.

I've been "that" girl far too many times than seems appropriate for the yoga world, but I've also been the one whose universe has been rattled in the name of making space. It's only fair to defend the other side by saying that some yogis' approach in asking for a few extra inches seems far more like a fanny pack-sporting American in Paris than a polite, unassuming comrade. Is it that we feel they're only looking out for themselves? Do we see them as unconscious and communally-challenged practioners, like someone whose poor parallel parking job has cost you two potential parking spots? Or is it possible that having once been the victim of an obnoxious mat smack-down, we're more motivated to stand our ground? Perhaps, in our minds, their presence threatens to encroach on our experience. We fear that the precious time on our mat will be spoiled by the breathing of another. I think it's this fantasy of the perfect experience that gets us into this mess in the first place, because yogic perfection is just that - a fantasy. As proof, let me just say that I've traveled all the way to the jungles of India in quest for truth from a yoga guru only to have him interrupt me so he could answer his cell phone. The desire for space is valid, especially in a crowded studio, yet it presents us with an opportunity to practice our yoga...yes, our asana but really, our yoga. If sun salutations and inversions can't better equip us for life on the outside (or in this case, the inside), then why are we there? Yoga is skill in action. Acting in the spirit of yoga in a yoga class (novel, really) requires great skill. I know it's hard - trust me, I know. I encounter the same karma on Amtrak, where the loud and crude seem to always find the seat next to mine, despite my attempts at making it look occupied or by pretending to be asleep.

I've taken the liberty of offering you some mantras to aid you in this dog eat downdog world.

For the yogi happily settled on their mat:
Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy and free. May my thoughts, my words and my actions contribute in some way towards happiness and freedom for all, even the people who open their yoga mats with a big loud smack during OM.

For the yogis in the trenches, strategizing their entrace:
Om gam ganapataye namaha
Please Lord Ganesh, take your elephant trunk and get these people to move their mats so I can practice my yoga today. Thank you.

Embracing your sangha (community) may come with some surprise benefits, not the least of which is meeting people who share the same passion for yoga. You may find that there are others who struggle with inversions or who can't figure out Downdog. Maybe you find a true friend. I've seen many deep and sincere friendships develop from the shared experience of this practice. I even know a couple who recently got engaged after having met in a yoga class. Who knows...your graciousness may even spread to the movie theater, Amtrak regional trains or the airport. Flash a smile to your yogi neighbor and see what happens. We will all appreciate it.


  1. i LOVE this post. I try to arrive SUPER early to avoid this, but there have been times where I have been that yogini, trying to politely ask if people will move. I also get irritated with the teacher who just lets me stand there... the entire row needs to move though! sigh.

    I'm also always that yogini who stresses about other people who might be trying to find a spot, so i end up watching and going out of my way to move... sometimes that means that the yogis around me will here and move too- which is nice :)

    sometimes, some yoga classes are so far removed from community- each person is there for themselves.

    fantastic post.

  2. Love it. This made me laugh out loud with recognition.

    As yoga students we've probably all been on both sides of this particular situation. Both the humble and the righteous. But for those of us who also teach yoga we're offered a third thorny experience. What mantra for the teacher whose focus is wrenched from the meditating students under her care by the thoughtless latecomer who slams into the peaceful space expecting to be accommodated?!

    Looking forward to the next post sister.

  3. Love! Reposting it on our FB wall! Mat karma is good karma. Love, lululemon Georgetown

  4. I loved this! Especially your mantra suggestions! Why do people insist on smacking their mat down when they arrive?

    That you were still thinking about what you should/could have said to the bolster lady is too funny. I had a similar experience a few weeks ago, and I realized part of the way into the yoga class that I was still glaring at someone and cycling over the situation in my mind. Finally I had to force myself to let it go - I was in yoga, after all!