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For years, I would enter my favorite yoga studio on the second floor of a brick townhouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and unfurl my mat in the same exact place in the back row, far left corner. I had a spot. I didn’t question it. I just took to it, like a moth to light.
It wasn’t always convenient. I liked to linger after Savasana and could hear others walking around me to gather their possessions. Once someone’s shoe fell on my head.
Each day, as students began to move and breathe next to and in front of me, I took part in Sun Salutations and transitions through balancing postures before finally landing in Savasana from this specific angle. “My spot” offered a kind of anchor in my day, a pivot point within my consciousness and within the collective.
A handful of times when I arrived at the studio and found someone else had taken “my spot,” I noted something stir inside of me, as if the world were out of order. I laughed at my rigidity and told myself I was supposed to be practicing non-attachment as I unrolled my mat elsewhere. Still, the next day I returned to my usual spot.
In the spirit of bringing mindfulness to all that I do, I’ve begun to wonder, why was I attracted to this particular eleven-square-foot patch of hardwood floor? Why did I always place my mat in the same space, each practice, with such consistency? How many others gravitated toward the same mat placement each class? And what might that reveal?
Location, Location, Location
When speaking with other yoga practitioners about where they prefer to practice, comfort is something that came up time and time again. Of those I spoke with, 38% preferred the front row. The remaining folks were split down the middle: 31% liked the back row and another 31% opted for the middle of the room. A resounding 81% would take a spot by the wall when available versus 19% preferring to be in the middle of class surrounded on all sides by other students.
Very few people I spoke with mentioned not having a preference at all. It seems some yoga studios are responding, giving students the agency to self-select a spot before even entering the building. My current local studio in Brooklyn has assigned mat placement online. When you sign up for class, you also select which mat you want, not unlike how you might select a seat at a concert or when booking a flight.
The Front Line
Just as I’ve gravitated toward different styles of yoga at different times of my life due to shifting inner needs—Ashtanga when I was in need of routine and rigor, restorative when ease called my name—my mat placement varies with my life’s contents. One year, I told myself this would be my “front row year.” I was teaching yoga, feeling more stable and strong due to my practice, and wanted to coax myself into a general welcoming of being seen as a student. This, I thought, would be a new point of view.
At this studio, teachers often took up the front row. The idea was that from the front row, a more experienced practitioner could find the shapes and practice with more inner instruction, without the need to look around the room for clarification. A more experienced practitioner could, from there, lead others.
I appreciated that space, but the energy was different. I felt more “on.” Inevitably I ended up moving back to the rear of the room, which probably says something of my personality (shall I mention the introvert thing?). I’m not alone in my mat placement reflecting my inner needs.
“I will compare myself to all those other bodies and their abilities if I’m not in the front,” says Ali Smith, a writer. “As a newer practitioner, it’s also reassuring to know that I can leave at any time,” she said, explaining that the door at her studio was at the front of the room. “Not that I would,” she quickly added.
Other front rowers responded differently. The front row can offer focus, a chance to zoom in on the teacher’s voice and body without the distraction of others moving in your field of vision. For many, the front holds associations of taking the lead. If you’re a front row yoga practitioner, this could tell you you aren’t afraid to be seen by those in the middle and back of the room. In the front row, you can find both leadership and a sense of privacy. The front row may mean you’re bold, focused, direct. You are ready to attend to the situation at hand, and may want to focus on that by putting blinders on to those around you.
Ask yourself: how invested are you in learning from the community around you? Can you lead with gentleness and take Child’s Pose when needed?
The Middle Way
The middle row can offer comfort for some, a place where you feel you’re part of the collective body in class. There, you can both lose and find yourself in community.
Preferring the center of the room may reveal that you find support by being immersed in an experience. You thrive off letting yourself be part of the whole. From the center of the room you may close your eyes and experience yourself held by the yoga practice itself but also those going through practice with you. In community, you’re no longer alone. It’s also a savvy spot to take if you learn by mirroring others, whether visually or through feeling. I find when I’m in the middle of the room there are a variety of examples of poses around me if I feel lost.
“I like to be in the middle,” says Jennifer Guinter, lecturer at USC in Physical Education & Mind Body Health (PEMBH). “As someone with ADHD, I find the “body double” phenomenon of a group setting to be extremely helpful. The presence of other people around me and doing the same thing helps keep me anchored in the present moment. Being in the middle of a group of yoga practitioners is infectious, in the best way possible.”
In the Back
And then there is the back row. Gravitating to the back may mean you’re seeking shelter, a place to take off the mask you wear in the world, a space to not be seen but to simply feel.
“My yoga practice is the place where I process grief and trauma,” says Mary Ward Lupinacci, youth yoga teacher and professor at Eastern Washington University. “For that, I prefer the back. The physical asana practice is such an important emotional release for me and it’s so vulnerable. Being in the back of the room gives me that room to access vulnerability.”
The back row offers a place where you can be connected to community, yet remain set apart. From there, you might build a sense of safety, knowing you can simply lift your eyes and see the full space if needed. If the back row is your choice, you may be seeking the medicine of alone time while still practicing with others. You’re looking for quiet in the midst of it all. You may be seeking a cocoon.
In retrospect, I began to see that my selection of the back row wasn’t random. I loved that back row, in part, because it offered a place somewhat removed from the rest of the room but still connected to it. Sometimes my gaze would lift in Warrior 1 and, seeing rows of arms extended, I felt a welling of emotion. I was part of the body of this community I adored, but had my own unique functioning within it. Then, we would move again.
All my years of being in the back were years I was seeking safety, a place to unwind without being directly witnessed. I first entered that studio and my practice with a bad back, a broken heart, and a busy mind. An introvert in a crowded metropolis, I craved the intimacy of community but also wanted some time alone to feel: all medicine I found in the back row. The back row was the solution. There I could securely soften into vulnerability.
The consistency of the back row choice grew out of a time of my life when so many things, from jobs to relationships, were in flux. There was a deeper rhythm to this selection. Placing my mat in the same spot each day was like practicing a set sequence. I could ask myself: what else had changed? It turned out, lots. From that corner, I slowly began to feel safer in yoga and in life. I watched myself grow.
We also build safety through having a choice. Of course, we only have control over our choices, not the choices of those around us. There were times the teacher asked us to “flip” our warriors so the back of the mat became the front and—surprise!—I was suddenly in the front. A cosmic joke? Then it became a lesson of non-attachment.
“I think feeling physically safe is dependent on feeling psychologically safe,” says Dr. Gail Parker, a yoga therapist. “I think it’s important to allow people to find the spot in the physical space where they feel most comfortable.”
Questions to Ask Yourself
What happens when we bring awareness to the space we chose to practice in the room? Your yoga mat placement can be part of your practice, another layer of mindfulness.
Do you like to be in the front, perhaps closer to the teacher’s voice and body for instruction, or willing to be the one glanced at by newer practitioners in the back of the room? How might you foster leadership in the room?
Do you like to be in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by others in their practice? What gives you support in the physical space?
Is there something about being in the back row that allows you a slice of privacy while being part of the group? Where else and how else might you foster privacy in the room?
What mat placement gives you a sense of daring or safety or both? Would you benefit from moving around to different spots? Or do you prefer the routine of the same place so that you can better feel what is different each day? How can you make where you place your mat a part of your practice, too? What is your choice telling you and, if you bring more awareness to it, what gives you the safety or challenge you need in that day’s practice?
Ask yourself, where in the room do you have access to the energy you require or desire? Would it benefit you to try another location and, with it, a new energy? Might you want to stand your usual mat choice on its head?
More and more, I take whatever random space is available. Sometimes I check in with my intuition and see what energy I need from that practice. What’s ultimately most important is that no matter where you place your mat, you’ve gotten onto it. There, you’re centered in your body, the location that matters most.
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, poet, and teacher. She is the founder of OM Schooled kids yoga teacher trainings and Mindful Writing Workshops.
This content was originally published here.