Choosing a yoga mat

My yoga mat and I go back about two and a half years.  It was a Black Friday sale that started it all… I’d sworn I wouldn’t buy anything as an anti-consumerism protest, but then an email came through from a local yoga shop.  Half price, reduced from £50 to £25.  I did need a new mat, and why pass up an offer and end up paying more the next day?  It was the start of a great relationship.

A good mat improves your practice, and it makes practice easier and more fun.  Downward dog suddenly stops being about “how do I avoid sliding in this pose?” to “how can I find more ease in this pose?”.  You stop having to have flexion in your shoulders to be able to stay in place and start being able to straighten out and open up.  It gives you confidence that you won’t slip.

So, if you’re looking for yoga mat advice, here’s my tuppence worth…

  1. Consider the type of yoga practice you do and the requirements you have. Do you do a lot of flow yoga where you’re in downward dog and warrior a lot?  If so, find a mat which has a little grip – your downward dog will thank you.  (If you are doing hatha yoga avoid sticky mats.  You want grip without stickiness.)  If you decide on a mat with some grip then consider the texture you prefer.  Lululemon and Lifeforme mats have smooth surfaces but great grip.  The Calyana mat I have has a textured surface and great grip.
  2. If you kneel a lot in your practice then consider the quality and thickness of the mat so that you get protection for your knees (yoga should help your body not cause new problems). Cheap yoga mats are generally 3 or 4mm thick and will compress to almost nothing when you stand or kneel on them.  But a quality mat won’t do this.  Mine is 4.5mm thick but because it’s made of a good material it doesn’t flatten when I kneel on it and so gives great protection for my knees for crescent moon poses, camel and various lunges.
  3. How tall are you? You want a mat that is long enough that your whole body is on the mat when you lie down.  A lot of the cheaper mats are about 173cm or 5’6”.  Longer mats of 185cm or 6 foot long are also available.

A cheap yoga mat will set you back less than a tenner and it’s a fine way to start while you work out if yoga is for you.  But long term, a little investment goes a long way and makes your yoga practice so much more rewarding.

It’s good to bear in mind that a wider, thicker mat may not fit into your current yoga bag and a higher quality mat will almost certainly be heavier than a basic, cheap mat.  But, all that being said, to me, it’s absolutely worth the extra money and the extra weight being carted around between classes.  I wouldn’t go back.

 

Note:

Ekotex yoga (based here in Edinburgh) also have what they call “factory seconds” – high quality yoga mats that have slight flaws so that they can’t be sold at full price.  I’m on the mailing list for notifications for when they come into stock.  If you’d like me to let you know when they become available drop me an email and I’ll add you to my list 😊

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Seasonal Yoga Workshops and the Practice of Gratitude

On Thursday, I left the library to walk across town to teach a yoga class. An autumn chill had crept into the air and the Edinburgh breeze was blowing. I checked my phone and found an email from a yoga student to say she’d like to attend the Autumn Equinox workshop on Saturday. Pure joy radiated through my heart.

“This joy won’t last,” my mind told me.

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “because I get to be with the joy that is here right now.” Joy, I am only able to experience because of the work I have done over the last year in living intentionally.

A little over a year ago, Sara and I sat on the bus home from work on a warm, sunny summer’s evening and bonded over our shared wish to do more to mark the turning of the seasons. We wanted to live more out of intention and create a space where we could do that work with others. The equinox and solstice seemed like natural times in the year to stop and reflect on what was happening in our lives, what we had achieved and what we’d like to achieve over the next three months.

As the seasons changed and the light of the summer turned into the balance of the autumn, the rhythm of life slowed and our focus shifted inwards. We ran our very first yoga, meditation and intention setting workshop. Autumn Equinox is a time of harvest and abundance so we chose gratitude as our theme.

As someone who doesn’t like to preach what I don’t practice, I started to practice gratitude. Each evening when I sat down to do my meditation I gave thanks for something – anything – but always something which I was sincerely grateful for in my life.

Winter arrived and with it the darkness which cloaks the world for months on end. For the Winter Solstice we decided to “Embrace the darkness”. But who on earth would come to such a workshop, I wondered? I found the answer, people who have the courage to look within and make space for the parts of themselves they don’t want to see. What did this mean for me? I hardly needed to ask the question, because I already knew the answer.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe I am enough if I don’t have a “proper” job. I needed to embrace the part of me that was hiding behind what others wanted me to be – a person with a “proper” job. The part of me that wanted to escape the confines imposed from outside and held tightly within, what did that part want?

Winter, with its 4pm nights and 8am sunrises, finally broke. Spring, with its daylight and the blossoming of life, arrived. My life, lived intentionally, was taking on a new creativity I hadn’t know before, a freedom to engage with those parts of myself I knew but hadn’t embraced. Creativity became the theme for spring, and dare I say, it was fun!

Creative living started to get in the way of my job. There were so many things to do they couldn’t be fitted into the day. Then the 9-5 started to get in the way of my life. I took part in a workshop with Donna Farhi about living from the core. “Better to fail at your own Dharma, than succeed at someone elses,” she said. What was my Dharma? The answer was clear: not this.

I wanted to create, I wanted to teach, I wanted to study the things that fascinate me, I wanted to explore new ideas and talk until the wee small hours about what it means to be human, about what inspires me, about what it feels like to be alive.

Summer solstice with its high energy and endless daylight was upon us. Life and all it had to offer needed to be embraced. We danced with Lakshmi and took on her invitation to taste the sweetness of this life and live it to it’s fullest potential.

Fear of failure, fear of not meeting other people’s expectations, fear of not having enough money, none of these controlled me any more. The fear of not living my life to my full potential was far more scary.

The weakest link in my life had to go.

I quit my 9-5.

I applied to university.

They accepted me.

As I walked down The Mound on Thursday, my heart overflowed with gratitude for everything that was alive in me at that moment. I was coming from the library where I’d read a paper which filled me with happiness to know that others were questioning life the way I did. I was walking through my favourite city, a place I get to call home. The sky was blue and the sun was winking down at me. And I was walking to a yoga class that I got to teach. Because I get to call myself a yoga teacher. And being a yoga teacher is a “proper” job.

None of this happened by accident. And not every moment of my life is great. But in those stressful moments, when I’m trying to finish all the reading I’m supposed to have done for class, half an hour before the class actually starts and the fear of failure looms large in my mind, I remind myself – I chose this. I, unlike many people, get to do something I love. Something that sustains me from the inside, something that makes life seem not only worth living but enjoyable, exciting and fun. I am so unbelievably lucky.

It won’t last forever. Life will change, my fortunate circumstances will disappear. But I get to have this joy in my life. And if I can be with the joy that is present right now, then I know I will be able to be with the joy that arises in the future. For that, I am grateful.

Today, we marked the one year anniversary of our seasonal yoga, meditation and intention setting workshops. We returned to our theme of gratitude, because gratitude is the doorway to joy. As David Steindl-Rast says, “It is not joy that makes us grateful, it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

For all of this – the tough moments which shaped me over the last year, the joyful moments I now am able to experience – I am incredibly grateful. Especially to the people who have shared these workshops with me and Sara, over the last year. It has been wonderful to create a space together which is dedicated to setting intentions and celebrating what we have. Thank you 🙂

And to those who would like to join us in the future, welcome!

Mindful yoga

For me, yoga asanas and mindfulness not only go well together but compliment each other perfectly. Once we have a basic grip of the postures and don’t have to think so much about how to get in and out of them we can start to explore, explore ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and the four foundations of mindfulness are the perfect way to do this.

The Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness, mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of mental objects. And we can use these as we flow through our practice and particularly when we are holding our asanas.

With gentle curiosity we can start to fully inhabit our body by connecting with our breath. In yoga we talk about the breath being the link between the body and mind and this isn’t some out there, hard to understand, mystical idea. We can see easily that the breath creates physical movement in the body and when we bring the mind to it, we are present within our body. We can then bring our awareness to the posture we are in – How does this feel? What’s actually happening in my body here? What sensations are arising?

And from this body position and the arising sensations will come an immediate response of liking or disliking it. Often this is so quick we are totally unaware of the response ever happening, it feels instantaneous.

From the sensations and immediate like or dislike of the posture comes a state of mind, an over-riding emotion, excitement, joy, relaxation, boredom, jealousy, anger or fear. In our everyday lives we would then follow this emotion, believing that I am angry, I am upset, I don’t like this. And from this state of mind come our thoughts to exaggerate and continue the state of mind. The story starts and we are suddenly somewhere else, talking to someone.

Until we cut the thoughts by coming back to our breath, inhale, exhale, how is the breath moving in my body in this posture?

But why bother? Why not just do the postures, and go home and let the physical benefits be enough? Why is it even worth exploring the deeper aspects of the practice?

Quietly, and maybe very slowly, we are bringing awareness to what’s happening. We are finding out about ourselves, our habits, our states of mind, our thoughts in those states of mind. On the mat, in the shared privacy of a yoga class, we give ourselves a safe space to be with ourselves and bring awareness to our lives, our bodies and our minds. With awareness of what is actually happening we begin, slowly, to get less caught up in the story, to see the story for what it is and we then have more choice in our lives. Choice which can only come from living mindfully.

We can see more clearly on the mat what is happening and off the mat we can start to integrate the practice, when I’m washing the dishes how do I stand? How do I breathe? Am I even conscious of washing the dishes or so caught up in my thoughts that I am not present with my physical sensations?

For me yoga is not to enable me to stretch further, be more flexible or slimmer, but to go deeper. Deeper into each posture, to really see these thoughts, emotions, feelings and sensations for what they are. It sounds so simple, and because it’s not, it makes it all the more worthwhile.

If sitting meditating isn’t your thing but you’d love to know more about mindfulness maybe yoga can be your way into this powerful practice of letting go and living peacefully.