Birth of the yoga mat
In her teens Ruth White had chronic back trouble and was due to go into hospital to have surgery.
She describes herself as the wild, impulsive and hyper-mobile! She loved gymnastics and did not feel at all attracted to this idea and was searching for an alternative way to cure her back problems. BKS Iyengar was on his annual visit from Puna, India to London and was to give a demonstration at the Barbican.
Ruth booked a front row seat, her nose was on a level with the stage and when BKS sat in Dandasana Ruth’s description of the soles of his feet were “they moved just like hands”. She later found, when correcting your postures, his two hands would be “levering your collar bones up and a ‘third hand’ would manipulate and educate your inner spine up”. Ruth was so inspired by his performance she sought his help, or as she puts it “fell at the feet of a master”. He showed her how to practise to be free of pain and how to strengthen her back. She was so inspired by his teaching that she followed him back to Puna where he taught her and then told her to go and teach. Fifty years later she is still inspired to teach from the heart.
Said Ruth: ‘At this time, everyone used a one to two inch thick yellow foam or carpet mats to practise on. This meant using the wrong muscles to stop your feet gradually moving further and further in standing postures as the foam stretched and the carpet slipped. In Savangasana the foam compressed and there was nothing much under your upper arms and shoulders.’
When out shopping in Munich, Ruth spied green non-slip carpet underlay. Inspired, she bought a rectangle around 320 x 130cm and took it back with her to London. She cut four mats out of the sample, the very first non-slip yoga mats! One went to BKS who used it in his next London demo and asked Ruth to bring some out to Puna with her. Yoga Today magazine, now Yoga and Health, advertised it.
Ruth returned to the store where she bought the first piece and they gave her the name of the manufacturers. They shipped over three rolls. The trouble was they were 180cm wide and 90cm long and were too heavy and cumbersome to lift. So they rolled off the delivery truck and into Ruth’s hall where they were cut and rolled for the next 20 years as the White’s and the mats shared the house!
Ruth was invited to make a trip to the factory Wonderlick, located in Osterode, Germany here she advised on texture, thickness, durability and colour. Ruth felt ill equipped to test for durability so she slipped off a scholl sandal and proceeded to work her feet as hard as she could into mat samples. The mat started to disintegrate so it needed to be more compact, and denser. They decided on grades of mat 5mm thick and 3mm for a lighter weight. The colour changed from grass green to light blue. At that time the texture was smooth but definitely non-slip and named “sticky mat”. It would stay rolled up or stuck up without help or the need to be tied. Ruth was made sole supplier for the British market and mats went flying out all over the country. Eventually, “they were delivered in an articulated lorry and were stored all over the house; used as coffee tables, supports, stools, stored in the loft and under beds and tables!” The cutting had to be so accurate a carpet cutting wheel was not good enough, so we simply cut them with a stanley knife and straight edge. Reams of brown paper with tape were required and the whole family helped to wrap and post. When advertised these much-needed mats flew out of her front door.
Ruth was able to subsidise yoga retreats and took about 14 retreats a year around Europe with 30 to 40 students on each one.
After a few years Ruth noticed her title had changed from Teacher to Mat Lady. After more years, when Nike and sports centres started importing mats from Taiwan, Ruth was delighted to hand over all her remaining stock to David West and his daughters who now run Ruth White Yoga Products Limited. Ruth didn’t stop her invention insight with the mat, she also developed a back arch and says she can always see a difference in pupils’ practise, once they start using the back arch. For more information on Ruth or to contact Ruth direct go to www.yogawithruthwhite.com
ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN: The British Wheel of Yoga SPECTRUM MAGAZINE