A brief history of yoga mats

One of teeny little things that Bobbie and I liked about Nancy Gilgoff was her insistence on using yoga rugs.

For a variety of reasons — OK, mainly one, that we both sweat so much — Bobbie and I have used cotton yoga rugs (sometimes called Mysore rugs) throughout our entire practices. Standing poses. Seated poses. Finishing.

Doing so is far from typical. In different Ashtanga shalas, you’ll see different percentages of practitioners using their rugs from start to finish or just beginning with Dandasana. Many whip out high-tech, synthetic towels.

During her adjustment clinic in Los Angeles last week, Nancy made no ifs, ands or buts about it: According to her, you should be laying that yoga rug down on your sticky mat before you say the opening chant. And leave it there.

This got me thinking. Surely, that hasn’t always been true. When she and other senior students of Ashtanga (not to mention the students who came before them and Guruji himself) began practicing, there was no Manduka, Barefoot Yoga or Gaiam.

What did they do? Well, based on a little reliable Internet research (not all of it Wikipedia), this:

Famously, ancient yogis practiced on tiger skins, if they were highfalutin, or deer skins, if they were closer to the 99% than the 1%. If you were near the bottom of the 99%, chances are you practiced on bare ground.

As yoga — speaking in terms  of asana, now — got popular, newer practitioners began bringing along towels or cotton mats. As we all know, just putting a towel down on a wood floor is a recipe for yogic disaster.

Enter Angela Farmer. She seems to be credited with being the first person to grab a piece of “carpet underlay” — you know, that multi-colored squishy material — and cut it down to size. She did so when teaching in Germany in 1982, and when she returned home to England, the idea caught on in her local yoga scene. Her father then worked with the German manufacturer, and voila! The first yoga sticky mat (apparently in white) was born.

Hugger Mugger gets the nod for being the first mass producer or yoga mats, sometime in the early 1990s. In other words, 20 years ago.

But back to the rug. According to Nancy, you shouldn’t be taking time out in the middle of your practice to roll it out, or squirt it with water or anything else that draws away your focus and your breath. And being able to stay balanced on the rug is the point, and will help you build strength.

Also, for what it’s worth, David Swenson in his seminal Ashtanga practice guide, says he prefers the rug on top of mat arrangement so your feet are touching a natural material.

So… maybe give practicing with your rug the whole time a try.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “A brief history of yoga mats”

  1. Does that mean they are not into the whole yogi toes thing? I have to say… I spent a lot of money on those thinner towels but nothing is as sweet as a beautiful cotton Indian rug beneath you. Only the washing part isn’t quite as convenient.

  2. no way would i do salutations & standings on the rug. i see nothing wrong with laying it down after that & putting it back for inversions. takes one breath to do-you can stay mindful while you do it. the yogitoes are great for travel, the mysore rug is best for home practice imo.

  3. Yoga Makaranda ~ Krishnamacharya
    “In the yogabhyasa sala decorated as described above, spread a seat of grass
    on the ground in a clean space not facing the front door. Over that spread a
    tiger skin or deer skin and over that put a white blanket or a clean white cloth.”

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