10 uses for your old yoga mat

Yoga mats can last a surprisingly long time, which is fantastic given the potentially negative environmental impact of your mat.  Sadly, the more affordable mats generally contain PVC, which is not the most environmentally-friendly substance to manufacture or dispose of.  The alternatives tend to be quite expensive and may not be so easy to keep clean.  In the case of rubber mats, they also come with a rather overpowering smell.  However, when the time finally comes to say good bye, your mat doesn’t have to end up at the landfill site.  I really dislike throwing things away if I can find a use for them, so here are some ideas for reducing the environmental impact of your unwanted mat by recycling it into new uses around the house and garden.  Some are ways to use the whole mat, others will require a pair of sharp scissors and perhaps some glue or tape.

  1. Keep using it, underneath your new mat, to provide extra padding in class
  2. Line the boot of your car to keep it clean or as padding for pets
  3. Line your cat or dog’s bed to provide extra insulation and padding
  4. Cut out pieces to line terracotta plant pots in the garden.  It will help reduce water loss in the summer and increase protection from frost in the winter.
  5. Keep in the car as an impromptu picnic ‘rug’
  6. Cut a piece to stick on a step stool for extra grip
  7. Fold up the mat into quarters (or less) and tape or stick in place to create a kneeling mat
  8. In the garden lay it over bare soil on new flower beds as a weed suppressant before you plant them up
  9. Use small pieces to protect wooden floors from table legs
  10. Pass it on; sell it on Ebay to make some money, advertise it on Freecycle or donate it to charity.  You might be able to help out someone who can’t afford to buy a new mat.

If you have more ideas please share them!


In search of simplicity

Every so often i am confounded by the complexity of modern appliances.  Kettles that will vary the temperature they heat water to, tumble dryers that vary the dryness of the clothes and a fridge with a built in radio.  As one of those people who uses just 2 of the 15 wash cycles my washing machine has to offer, I find this complexity bewildering.  Modern appliances are intended to be labour saving, but I wonder if while we save time and effort on the physical work, the amount of time spent scratching our heads is increased. Sadly, marketing methods encourage us to feel we must dash out and buy the latest model, as our current device is sadly lacking in unnecessary functions.  The result?  Our perfectly functional but out-dated appliances are relegated to the scrap heap, adding to the environmental toll we exact on the planet both in the costs of producing new goods and in disposing of the unwanted ones.  I read recently that the average householder replaces their kitchen every 4 years; just think of all those unwanted kitchens mouldering in a landfill site somewhere, because the fashion for cupboards and worktops has changed.

As for me? I am the appliance manufacturer’s nightmare.  I squeeze every last ounce of use out of an item before I feel ready to dispose of it.  My last vacuum was held together for many months with duct tape and string before I admitted it was time to consign it to the scrap heap.  OK, maybe I go a bit far, but by making better use of the items we buy we can both reduce our impact on the environment, part of the yoga principle of ‘non-harming’ (ahimsa), and simplify our lifestyles at the same time. Do we really need so many gadgets that can do so many things?

This move to complexity is insidious.  Even choosing a yoga class is complicated; when I list classes on the directory site ‘Yoga Nearby’ I have to choose a style of yoga to create the listing under.  At my last count, there were 49 types of yoga in the drop-down menu for teachers to select from.  Mind boggling!  To me, these are the yoga equivalent of the brand names that litter our high streets (or the Internet, if you are an online shopper), each promising its own benefits.  Are they that different?  Or does the urge amongst teachers to create and market their own ‘brand’ of yoga just serve to confuse matters and distract us from the real purpose of the practice?  You tell me.


You are what you eat

One of the principles of yoga philosophy is ahimsa, which means to avoid causing harm.  This might be in what we say, think or do.  If we become serious about yoga, a topic that tends to come up sooner or later is what we eat.  It’s quite common for yoga events to advertise that catering will be vegetarian, as many extend the principle of ahimsa to their diet.  Of course, there are plenty of arguments both for and against the consumption of meat and the environmental impact of different diets, alongside the whole issue of animal welfare.  Without wishing to get into these emotive debates, we can bring the subject closer to home and consider the effect of a vegetarian or vegan diet on our own health.

A diet with higher levels of plant-based foods tends to increase the amount of fibre we consume, promoting good bowel health, and raise of levels of important nutrients such as folic acid and vitamins A, C and E.  Vegetarians are often found to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with reduced risk of heart disease.  A vegetarian diet can also reduce the risk of developing diabetes, or help manage the effects in those with the disease.  Just the act of thinking more about what is in your food can prompt you to make healthier choices, and vegetarians may be less likely to suffer from obesity and its related health risks.

It now seems to be accepted that processed meat can increase the likelihood of developing cancer, and recent studies have shown that eating dairy products may actually reduce bone calcium rather than improving it, as previously thought. All in all, there are now many reasons to become more savvy about our intake of animal products for our own health.  We are then applying the principle of ahimsa to our own body and taking more conscious decisions about the impact of our own consumerism on other living creatures and the wider environment.

With organisations like America’s FDA now advocating a greater reliance on plant-based food products, there has to be something in adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Of course, anyone can eat a junk food diet, whether it is animal or plant-based; swapping your beefburger for a veggie one won’t necessarily help your health much (although it’s good news for the cow!).  While you might not want to completely renounce meat (or dairy and fish as well), even cutting back on some days of the week can make way for a greater range of vegetables in your diet and ultimately pave the way to improved health.


The height of fashion

I had my hair cut yesterday.  My hairdresser was padding around in canvas pumps with a bandaged foot, having ‘fallen off’ her towering heels at the weekend.  While she, like myself, is not a veteran stiletto addict, I am sure there are plenty of people out there for whom high heels are a regular part of their daily attire.  Apart from the risk of injury from falling off them, the inability to run and the crippled toes, there is also the longer term effect on our posture and internal structures from realigning the feet to stand on tiptoes for hours at a time.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Actually, scrub that, as the answer could form the subject of a Ph.D thesis!  My interest is more in how yoga can help to ameliorate the after-effects of tottering around.  Here are some suggestions:

  • The toe and ankle movements from the joint-freeing series are great for loosening up your feet at the end of the day. Flex and bend the toes, circle the ankles and point and flex the feet.
  • Any of the standing postures with an assymetric foot position will stretch out the calf of the back leg. Try warrior I or the side angle.
  • Moving between cat and child’s pose will help to release tension in the lumbar spine, typically caused by overarching the lower back to compensate for the heels tipping your pelvis forwards.

Considerate living

This week in the Tuesday class we looked at the yoga principle of ahimsa.  Yoga is so much more than the set of physical contortions that it may appear to be when attending class for the first time.  The philosophy of yoga as set out by Patanjali in around 600BCE includes a system known as ashtanga yoga, or the 8 limbs of yoga.  This is not the physically demanding ashtanga yoga sequence undertaken by followers of the late Pattabhi Jois!  Rather, it is a set of principles of how to become a true yogi.  The first of these are the outer observances, or yamas, of which ahimsa is the first.

Ahimsa is generally translated from the Sanskrit as ‘non-harming’, and to be honest, it underpins the whole practice to such an extent that Patanjali needn’t have bothered with the rest; he could have left it at that one word.  Donna Farhi defines harm as “any thought or word or action that prevents us or others from growing and living freely.”  So we can live the principle of ahimsa if we do our best to avoid causing this harm.

Harm might manifest in a variety of ways.  Closest to home is the harm we do to ourselves, with negative thoughts, inappropriate diet (my body is a temple!) or other actions that harm our body.  Even apparently positive things,  such as doing the gardening, can be harmful your back hurts afterward.  And then we have the harm we cause to others in actions or words, as well as the greater harm to the environment or the planet.

Of course, it is impossible to live without causing some harm; our aim in yoga is to minimise this to the best of our ability.  By taking a compassionate and thoughtful approach to ourselves and others we become more aware of the impact of our everyday interactions. One step at a time…


Raising the profile of yoga for good

Yoga seems to have been in the news rather a lot recently, and not for very good reasons.  First there was a married yogi who decided against wearing yoga pants because they made her too attractive to men.  This then escalated into a full-blown yoga-pants-gate when a councillor in Montana stated that wearing yoga pants constitutes indecent exposure.  It certainly sparked a furore of responses in the press and brought yoga to the attention of many more people!

Then there was the yoga teacher in Bristol who was banned from using a Church of England Hall to teach classes in, followed by the Irish priest who as good as told the world that practising yoga may set us on a body-obsessed collision course with the devil himself.  Powerful stuff indeed!

I suspect that this sort of bad publicity is fuelled by the modern explosion of yoga styles, which strike me as being more about generating a hefty bank balance for the entrepreneur in question than in connecting to the underlying premises of yoga, giving a framework for lifestyle choices or just a way of living more happily in your body.  And it certainly doesn’t when these peaceable messages are perverted by individuals wielding considerable power over potential vulnerable students, as has sadly happened in the Satyananda and Bikram schools of yoga recently.

In the face of this negativity, I find it helpful to revisit why I choose to live a life in yoga.  I reflect on the huge benefits that it has brought to me mentally and spiritually as well as physically.   I consider how it reflects the moral and ethical choices that provide me with a solid ground on which to stand, and to be proud to be who I am.  We each find our own path and I hope that yours will be full of happiness, whichever way you choose to go.


The subtle pressure of should

Our much of your waking time would you say you spend with a purpose?  I suspect it might be quite a lot.  With our long-hours culture and the pressure to achieve in whatever we do, I know I certainly hear a little voice whispering ‘But’s that’s rather lazy!’ if I consider taking some time out to do precisely nothing for a while.  To spend time as a human being instead of a human doing.

Much of our striving to achieve is associated with two words; should and ought.  I would like to ban them from my vocabulary, delete them from the dictionary. “I should take more exercise” “I should have tried harder” “I ought to clean the house”. Should and ought imply that something will be better if we do it.  It implies we didn’t do enough, that something needs fixing.  This might lead to feeling guilty, lazy, or all sorts of other negative emotions that arise when we ought to do something and we don’t.

When we are constantly striving to achieve these things we ought to do, there can be a tendency to focus on the end result, on what will be achieved and our plans to move onto the next project.  The present moment is lost in the need to get to the goal.  This might arise in a yoga class as a need to get onto the next posture, or to fill the time between postures with extra activity.  Maybe a few more repetitions.  Perhaps a quick spinal twist while you’re waiting.  Or perhaps you do the posture a particular way because that’s how it’s done, how everyone else does it, because you feel you should.  Even though it hurts and maybe an adjustment would help.

But what if we experience the present on the way?  We stay with the breath and allow the mind to rest?  We are mindful of the body and thoughts as they arise.  We still achieve just as much but by paying attention to what is happening now suddenly the pressure is lifted and the self-induced stress beings to fade.  We enjoy the journey as well as the destination, whatever that might be.


Are you a plastic polluter?

According to Patanjali’s philosopy of yoga, the concept of ahimsa should underpin everything we do.  The principle of ahimsa is usually translated from the Sanskrit as ‘non-harming’. Its application can range from taking good care of our own body and mind through to considering the impact we have on the planet and how we affect the future through our actions today.

This concept was brought strongly to mind as I read a Facebook post from the Marine Conservation Society about their efforts to clean up our beaches by removing all the rubbish washed up there.  So much of this debris is plastic, and even if it is biodegradable it takes years rather than months or weeks for it to break down.  As well as the risk to wildlife through the consumption of plastic floating in the oceans, scientists have also found that these plastics are broken down faster than was previously thought, releasing harmful chemicals into the sea.  So either way, plastic is bad news!

In our modern society, it is increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to avoid using plastic altogether.  Even if we avoid plastic supermarket carrier bags, think of all those plastic tubs and bottles we buy; shampoo, bleach, cordial, olive oil, margarine, yoghurt.  The list is endless!  However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t try to reduce the amount of plastic we use.

Many pre-packed meals and convenience foods come contained in several layers of packaging.  We as consumers can choose to spend our money on the products that will produce the least waste, and thus reduce our impact on the environment. There is also the option to buy things loose rather than packaged, and to prepare meals from scratch at home.  If you do need to buy something that comes in a plastic bag you could choose the version which is wrapped in a plastic that can be recycled.  I try to reuse plastic as much as possible before I dispose of them, and when the time comes, I take them to a local supermarket that collects plastic bags for recycling rather than putting them in the bin.

The Marine Conservation Society runs ‘Plastic Challenges’ in which supporters spend the month trying to reduce their use of plastic products, and organises beach clean ups to help reduce the marine litter that is so dangerous to wildlife.  Visit their website for tips on how to help.


Going, going, gluten is gone!

My downfall has always been wheat-based products. I can ignore chocolate, crisps, sweets, ice cream…but don’t ask me to walk past a bakers without popping in for a little lunchtime treat.  Freshly baked bread, cakes, traybakes; the bakers’s storefront is my idea of heaven.  I admit it, I am addicted to wheat.

I have been reading a lot recently about the impact of wheat and gluten in our diet.  It is suggested that large numbers of people have an intolerance to wheat and gluten that can lead to a plethora of symptoms, ranging from acute digestive discomfort through to tiredness, lethargy and conditions associated with hormonal imbalance, symptoms that might easily be passed off as being due to a busy modern lifestyle or some other cause.  While some reports, such as that by Davis, portray wheat as the root of many a physiological evil, others refute those claims.  While the academic jury may still be out, the fact still remains that there are plenty of people claiming that removing wheat from their diet has resolved long-standing health issues for the better – just check out the comments section here.  If you are not gluten-intolerant, removing gluten is obviously not going to help with any symptoms you may be experiencing, but where there is intolerance gluten does seem to exacerbate the situation.

So what has all this got to do with yoga, you may well ask?  Well, the first, and over-riding principle of yoga philosophy is ahimsa, a Sanskrit word which is usually translated as ‘non-harming’.   This is the first of the yamas, a set of principles for life.  This can be applied equally to our own self as well as to our impact on others and our environment.  The principle of ahimsa encourages us to look closely at our lifestyle choices and consider their effect, aiming to behave in a way that minimises harm.

I experimented with going wheat-free a few years back, but gradually the habit slipped as I succumbed to the occasional bread-based treat, without undue problems, until eventually I was eating wheat most days again.  It makes life much easier, especially when you are vegetarian as well.  However, I suspect that since then my body has gradually become more sensitive to the effects and regardless of the divided opinions in the medical community, I have decided it’s time to try again.

It turns out that the only way to be sure of the effect of on your body is to completely eliminate gluten for a few weeks (or even months) and assess the effect.  A little bit can be as bad as a lot, so there can be no cheating if this is to work! So, here goes.  If I experience changes for the better I will know that eating wheat is not a healthy lifestyle choice for me.  If not, I’ll see you in the cake shop in a couple of months!