The Best ... Worst Yoga Mat on Campus

It was the last mat left at Target, forlorn-looking beneath the stock photo of a woman in smiling, acute downward dog. The label was so torn and the rubber so grubby I considered walking out without paying—but, begrudgingly, I forked over $21.99, shuffling off with my practical purchase.

Isabel ZachariasPhoto by Steve Smith

Now it unravels onto the studio floor, and I take care to avoid the sharp whack that tends to happen in descent. Even the sound of bare feet filing in is just about soundless. It’s still the morning, still the summer. Right now, it still feels easy to be here, only here—to hear the oak leaves batting against the studio’s bright, high windows like eyelashes.

One of my teachers used to say before each practice, “Look at your hands. Bring some awareness there.” My eyes have always drifted instead to that God-awful mat. Its rubber has eroded away as finger- and toeprints in the places I’ve pressed again and again.

Rolled loosely, it swings about my shoulders in a sling, the color of a perfect summer plum. I love it, but not because it’s perfect. Against my will, the mat has become me, and here is why I must love it: the practice of yoga, for me, is one thing—a practice of reckless self-love.

***

I learned that this was true in one specific instant.

My most beloved teacher, Joan Dobbie—who writes memoir poetry about her youth in the ’60s and now removes small spectacles to stand on her head every morning—was leading us into a shoulder stand.

Take a real pause now to imagine Joan. Brown hair half gathered up, small frame. She doesn’t fit the gym yoga teacher prototype—no longer young, not supple, not flawless. But here she is, strong. She sits calmly in full leg splits while instructing us. Her voice sounds the way lavender smells. She says, “Walk your hands . . . slooooowly . . . up the back . . . only as far as your body speaks to you.”

I’m having trouble. (It’s worth noting that I am not notably graceful, flexible, or strong.) I can’t quite get into the posture, and when I do, I fall over. Typically, I’m good at laughing when I fall. This, though, feels awful, and afterward, like clockwork, Joan asks our little class of eight: “How did that feel?”

We go around the circle. Most people say “strong,” “confident,” “calm.”

I want to lie, and usually I would, but the truth falls out of my mouth. “I felt afraid, unstable, and sort of ashamed.”

Joan gives a small nod and a smile like she’s heard this answer a thousand times. “Fear becomes part of the practice, certainly,” she says. “But we are lucky. We have forever to be in our bodies. What a shame if there were nothing to work toward.”

***

Two days later, in my apartment facing the big, hot, early-morning sun, I got into a shoulder stand and screamed. It now seems incredibly facile to me, and in fact, it’s hard to imagine not being able to do one. This is the gift Joan gave me, to see past my own dumb ego to the part of me that knew I was already perfect as long as I was full of love—that everything I dreamed of for myself would come with enough patience and honesty.

There are so few spaces in college where students are encouraged to feel they are enough. In those 68 inches of Target-issued delineated space, I don’t have to compare myself to others.

It’s scuffed and worn and far from perfect, but, thank God, it’s mine.

 

Isabel Zacharias is a senior from Kansas. She is majoring in journalism, with minors in creative writing and music.

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