Category Archives: tools

Instruments can help us travel a path

A yoga mat that keeps you grounded

Photo: two yoga mats
The Barefoot Yoga Performance Grip Mat on top of my Manduka eKo mat: a little longer and a little narrower.

In 2007, I was desperate to buy a new yoga mat because my practice had outgrown the entry-level, low-cost one I’d been using. I had my eye on Barefoot Yoga’s Eco mat, an environmentally friendly combination of jute fiber and rubber, because it got a thumbs-up review in the New York Times, For Some Things, It’s O.K. to Be Sticky (Yoga Mats). I visited the online store repeatedly, but it was out of stock for months. Obviously, the NY Times article generated a lot of demand. I eventually ended up getting a Manduka eKo mat, as I reported in On Mats and Towels.

I’ve stayed loyal to Manduka since then. I bought another eKo mat at the end of my yoga teacher training in the summer of 2013 because the eKo mat was falling apart. The rubber surface was coming unstuck from the foundation layer, and the rubber was oxidizing so I no longer had traction, especially when the mat was moist. I hurt myself in a jump-back because my toes did not grip the mat.

Seven years later and still operating, Barefoot Yoga has the original Eco mat in stock, priced at $85. as well as an array of Barefoot Yoga-branded mats, and Prana, Jade, Manduka models. Barefoot Yoga has evidently decided that they are going to commit to earth friendly products.  As they explain on their site:

“Traditional mats can be an excellent surface for yoga practice. However, these mats are made from PVCs (polyvinyl chlorides) that release dioxins and other carcinogens into the atmosphere during manufacturing. Toxic additives migrate into their surroundings in the form of gas and small particles. Thousands and thousands of mats and other products are made with PVC, and none are biodegradable or recyclable. Hence the need for more eco-friendly alternatives.”

But if mats are eco-friendly and biodegradable, they age and wear out. That’s what biodegradable means, breaking down into non-toxic components over time. Sun light accelerates the process for rubber-based mats, as with my Manduka eKo mat. I also have a Jade Harmony mat, a gift from my daughter, that has lost texture and feels like an old, crumbling eraser. So there’s a downside.

Testing a new mat

Why do I mention all this? In early August I got an e-mail from Carolina Mills at Barefoot Yoga Company, Seattle, Washington, asking me to a do a review of one of their mats, either a Hybrid Eco-Lite Mat ($23.95 on sale, $26.95 regular) or a Performance Grip Mat ($59). I chose to test the second one, but I told her that I would not get to it until after I came back from my European trip, say October. Carolina sent me a demo right away.

The mat stats measures 24″ x 72″ x 4mm,  and weighs 5 pounds. It is made of Polymer Environmental Resin (PER). “It does not contain phthalates or heavy metals, and its method of production is completely non-toxic and latex free,” says Barefoot Yoga’s write-up. It comes in three colors, black, charcoal and espresso, a rather somber selection but that may have to do with the manufacturing process.

The mat comes with a lifetime warranty:

Lifetime warranty covers one-time replacement of your Grip Mat due to any defects that arise as a result of normal use of the product.

Considering the mid-range price and eco-friendliness of the mat, these terms are extraordinary.

Initial assessment

Photo: three yoga mags
You have three color choices: black, charcol and coffee, Sorry, no happy pastels. Photo: Courtesy of Barefoot Yoga

First, the mat is exceptionally light and compact, easy to roll up and slide in a bag (none of the struggle as with a traditional sticky mat). I have no problem carrying it around.  As mentioned, the mat comes in one size. In my case, I prefer a wider mat, say 26-27″, but I’ve discovered that I am not as picky as I used to be. However, if Barefoot Yoga wants to cater to male buyers (taller and broader), they might want to offer a selection of wider and longer mats.

Since getting back to my yoga practice, I’ve taken a low-key approach: yin, restorative and nidra yoga mostly, as I try to tame a Type A+ intensity that has predominated in my practice. The Grip Mat was designed for a more active practice so I have not put the mat through a stress test. Its grip should get better as it wears down. I wiped down the mat with a sea salt and water mixture, as suggested on the Barefoot Yoga FAQ page, to speed up the break-in process.

A few days ago, my daughter, Stephanie, told me that while I was traveling, she used my Barefoot Yoga mat for her practice. From the start, she found it had a great surface that kept her from slipping, even though it’s not “sticky”.

If you want cushion for hands, knees and feet, you may want to use a yoga towel or cut-up mat squares for padding. This mat is not a big, flat sponge.  Personally, I appreciate that I don’t feel as if  I am sinking into the mat. I am balance-impaired and have peripheral neuropathy. Too much padding introduces a kind of sensory noise. With the Performance Grip mat, I sense a firmer foundation under my feet, and I can move through my sequences with confidence. In fact, the more I use it, the more it grows on me (or under me).

Since this mat’s strength is durability under heavy use, I will come back later and review it for this characteristic at a later time.

An insider view of a dramatic Indian religious rite: Kumbh Mela

Since I am on the topic of James Mallinson, I missed a recent showing of  Mystical Journey: Kumbh Mela on the Smithsonian Channel.  But you needn’t worry. It’s coming again on December 2 at 3:00 pm, December 3 at 2:00 pm and December 12 at 1:00 pm:

West meets East when acclaimed actor Dominic West joins his childhood friend on a pilgrimage to Northern India and the biggest religious festival in the world, Kumbh Mela. Here, 100 million Hindus have gathered to wash away their sins in the holy rivers near Allahabad, on the banks of Sangam. It is also where Dominic’s friend Sir James Mallinson will be initiated into a senior role called a mahant. Follow these friends on this incredible two-week journey, and submerge yourself in the sacred waters and culture of this triennial celebration.

Smithsonian Channel trailers

YogaU Online writes about the show.

And YouTube has several videos on the topic of Kumbh Mela.

Taking care of the tools of yoga practice

Sometimes you have to use drastic measures to keep a mat functional.
Sometimes you have to use drastic measures to keep a mat functional.

I almost ruined my main yoga mat.

I’ve been using the Manduka eKO line of yoga mats since mid-2007. Heavy and bulky, I take it to class at Thrive Yoga when I can dump it in the backseat of my car. It’s not something that you want to carry around to and from class. It supposed to “last forever” and be eco-friendly.

A few summers ago, I left it in the car while parked at the Metro station several days. Bad idea. The exposure to heat and sun light started degrading the rubber (Manduka instructs you not to expose the mat to the sun for extended time). I also made the mistake of rolling it up with the top surface exposed, rather than the tougher base facing out. The result was that the mat lost its stickiness and grip, as if the rubber began to oxidize and harden, becoming discolored and slick. In class, my feet and hands began to slip in downward-facing dog, especially once I had worked up a sweat, and I knew I had to do something about it.

The solution was similar to removing rust from metal: I used a fine-grained sand paper to remove the crusty surface to expose a fresh layer of rubber. When I finished sanding the surface area that had gotten exposed (about a quarter of the mat), I realized that the rest of the surface had also started to degrade, though not as badly as the sun-damaged part. I applied the sandpaper to the whole mat. I then washed down the mat to remove the loose powdery substance resulting from the sanding. Once again, I had a good grip on the surface.

I suspect there is a limit to this method because I will eventually work my way through the top surface. Manduka has made design changes and introduced new technology to their yoga mat lines, including imprinting patterns in the top surface so this sanding technique would remove that feature.

A new face and name for an online resource

I tapped into a resource that helped me understand my body better.

I’ve been a fan of Yoga Spirit as it pioneer the use of online audio and webinars with leading yoga teachers and other experts, like Amy Weintraub, Leslie Kaminoff and Judy Hanson Lasater. It disappeared from the web for a while only to come back to life as part of YogaTherapyWeb.com. In January, the site turned itself into Yoga U. Most content requires payment for downloads, but there are a lot of free resources that can wet an appetite for the for-pay material.

I signed up for Tom Myers‘s two-session webinar: Fascial Fitness – An Emerging Revolution in Movement Science (January 25 and February 1). It also comes with other material, including some videos of fascial fitness routines. He wrote Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, 2nd edition and I plan on reading it as soon as I get through the dozen other books piled up on my desk. That’s why I signed up for the webinar — I can capture the essence of what Myers is teaching in a couple of hours. The first session clarified in my mind that I am on the right track in trying to deal with my peripheral neuropathy. He has an elegant compelling conceptual framework for parsing the body and its internal matrix, backed up by the latest scientific research on the role of fascia. In this webinars, he is tailoring his message specifically to yoga instructors and giving suggestions for optimizing sequencing to improve fascial fitness.

This webinar, along with other webinars and interviews, will be recorded and available for purchase at a later date at YogaU Online.

Another use for Yoga Tune Up Balls

To protect my knees in compromising yoga positions, such as half pigeon, I normally stick a rolled-up hand towel behind my knee, pressed between my thigh and calf, to prevent my meniscus from being pinched.

Today I took my Yoga Tune Up Balls to class and used them in half-pigeon in place of the towel. With its uniform size and resilience, the ball fits snugly in the hallow created by my knee ligaments and seemed to generate more space in my joint. I will investigate what other poses which I can use the balls with.

I got the idea from doing one of Jill Miller’s lower body routines, in which I sit in hero’s pose, with the balls between my thighs and calves, and gradually work the ball position from just behind the knee to mid-calf, giving the muscles a massage by moving from side to side.

From vulnerability to authenticity through wholehearted living

I’ve run into a person who has changed my outlook on life, but I’ve never met her personally. Her book has deeply influenced how I view life.

Brené Brown is a psychologist/researcher who wrote the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden: 2010) and also has an sprawling website and her blog Ordinary Courage. She first came to my attention when I saw her TEDxHouston talk, which was recently picked by Huffington Post as one of the top 18 TED videos of 2011:

Her 20 minute talk hit some deep personal scars and led me to her site and then the book. While reading the book, I was undergoing all the problems with my peripheral neuropathy, and there was an amazing interplay between my myofascial release therapy and the central concepts of Brown’s book. On the masseuse’s table, I had to strip down to my boxers and bare myself to the therapist, communicate my pain and numbness, convey how one type of stroke was making me feel, and trust that he would be able address some of the constrictions of my tissues. I had to expose my physical vulnerability to be able to start healing.

Shame and numbness


On another level, I discovered from my reading of Brown’s book that I felt deep currents of shame and, indeed, shame may actually have been one of the strongest motivating forces in my life. Shame is a “fear of disconnection” that people might find out what I am really like. Shame is such a blunt instrument that I couldn’t use it all the time, but once it’s out, it’s hard to lock it away. One way of dealing with this sense of shame is to block it out by numbing it. Brown says you cannot numb just one emotion (in my case, shame), you end up blocking the whole emotional spectrum.

Although doctors might argue otherwise, my numbness was both emotional and physical, and the deaths of my parents and the disruption that those events brought to my life this year had worsened my peripheral neuropathy to the point that it was threatening my well-being. I was grasping so hard to to my personal facade that I was choking off parts of my body and soul. Taking pain medication was just another way of blocking out parts of my body, when I needed to get back in touch with them.

Brown’s book, which has the subtitle of “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” does a great job of breaking down her approach to dealing with life and accepting the vulnerability of being imperfect, and then lays out 10 guideposts that can help anyone follow her map.

Brown has a manifesto that I keep posted near my desk and stashed in my shoulder bag, and it’s available as a colorful postcard. I am going to cite it in full because it conveys her message better than I can:

Authenticity is a daily practice.

Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving — even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the job is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searchng struggles is how we invite grace, joy and gratitude into our lives.

Hollow, but so powerful

Great tool for relieving built up stress For the past month, I’ve been using the TriggerPoint GRID – Foam Roller on a nightly bases, just before I go to bed. I first bought a more traditional solid foam roller, but my body weight compresses the foam fairly quickly while the Trigger Point GRID has a rigid plastic tube that holds up to my weight. Trigger Point Performance Therapy, the manufacturer of the GRID, has lots of videos to guide you through exercise routines based on the grid. I work my back, things and calves. The New York Time had an article about the value of self-massage for athletes.

While the GRID does not have the focused, accurate touch of my massage therapist, Howard Rontal, it does sit in my office and I can use it whenever I want. I even took it to Buenos Aires because it takes up practically no space in a suitecase (stuff it full of socks). After being confined in a conference room all day, I’d rush back to my hotel room and relieve all the compressed stress.

I also noticed that my strength has increased for sustaining full boat pose (Paripurna Navasana): when I roll my calves and hamstrings over the GRID, I am propped up on my arms, moving forward and backwards. An added bonus since it’s one of the areas where I’ve been the weakest.

Yoga Spirit is back

About 18 months ago, the site Yoga Spirit, now Yoga U Online seemed to disappear from the Web when I was hoping to get one of its online yoga therapy courses. Today, via Amy Weintraub, I found Yoga Spirit, now using the domain of Yoga U Onlne. If you look on the teachers directory, you see a listing of big names in yoga: Judith Hanson Lasater, Richard Miller, Nischala Joy Devi and Weintraub, as well as Thomas Myers, one of the most original voices in bodywork (see Anatomy Trains). In addition to the downloads, the site has other resources for yoga therapy.