Embarking on a new yoga adventure can often be a bewildering time. Not only do you have to decide which type of yoga you want to purchase but there’s also the consideration of what extra equipment you might need.
A mat is an integral part of the yoga practice, pretty much like a cue is to a pool player or a running shoes to a runner. Yoga needs very little equipment other than the occasional support aid like a bolst or blocks so a mat is going to be your only essential purchase.
Yoga mats vary in size, thickness, texture and materials with each having their own pros and cons for the various styles of yoga and different body types.
Yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. with a 2016 study by Yoga Journal reporting a tally of 36.7 million yoga practitioners, up by almost 50 percent from the 20.4 million yogis in 2012.
The study went on to find that a further 80 million Americans were likely to try yoga at some time in the year. When first starting out with yoga you may be quite happy to rent a mat from the many available at your local fitness center or wherever you take your class. But as you gain more experience you’re probably going to want your own mat with the advantage of being able to practice at home or even take it on your travels.
Yoga mats used to come in just PVC and a choice of two colors, purple or blue but now you can choose from a variety of materials and any color you desire. There’s no one size fits all yoga mat, the best mat for you can depend on what type of yoga you wish to practice, your type of body and how portable it needs to be among other factors. Asking an instructor or seeking advice from other yoga enthusiasts can often help recommend the best brand or even allow you to try their mats for size.
With so many different mats available and so many choices to make, let’s take a look at the many factors that can affect your choice. Choosing the material, thickness and texture of each mat is as important as a runner choosing his or her running shoes. Hopefully we can assist you with choosing a mat that’ll give you many years of enjoyable and trouble-free yoga practice.
Your Body Type Can Determine the Thickness
Most standard yoga mats come in one-eighth-inch thickness which offers the perfect combination of portability and thickness. A mat one-eighth inch thick will provide enough cushioning for your knees but still be light and thin enough to carry to the studio and back home again daily. For those who intend to travel a lot there are thinner and lighter mats available.
A travel yoga mat tends to be one-sixteenth inch thick and are easier to stow in a bag and much lighter to carry. You’ll often see people practicing yoga on the beach when abroad using a travel mat. As well as being more portable, a thinner mat will enable you to get a better feel of the floor. If you prefer the natural feel of the floor but just want a little added protection for your joints, a travel yoga mat could be the ideal choice.
At the other end of the scale thicker padded mats are available which are one-quarter inch thick and ideal for those with a more petite or slim figure, lacking natural cushioning in their bodies. People with sore joints may also benefit from the extra padding of a thicker mat but many instructors will warn people if your mat is too thick it can be difficult to maintain your balance and poses especially with the flowing movements of hatha yoga like sun salutations asanas. Also, the added weight of the mat can make it less portable and much tougher to squeeze into a standard yoga bag. The following Youtube video looks at the different thicknesses of yoga mats:
Height Matters When Choosing Your Mat
A standard yoga mat is usually about 68 inches long which should be okay for your average yogi with a height of 5 foot 6 inches or less. If you’re taller you can simply ask for a super stretched yoga mat or many come with the option of 72, 74 or even 84 inches length. A good test to check you have the right length is to perform a downward-facing dog pose on a standard mat and if your feet and hands are securely on the mat then the length is okay.
What Type of Yoga Do You Intend to Practice?
If you’re one of those 80 million starting out on your yoga journey then you may want to consider buying a cheaper mat just in case you decide yoga isn’t for you. Going for a basic mat to start off with can stop you from feeling too guilty if you decide to abandon your yoga practice but can also help you to choose a mat more suited to your needs if you continue. Different types of yoga require different things from a mat so until you find your groove a basic mat will be sufficient, and you can upgrade later.
Flowing types of yoga, power yoga or Vinyasa yoga with its complex movements, benefit from a textured mat with more friction so your arms and legs don’t slip. For restorative yoga or Yin yoga, you’ll primarily be in sitting position on the ground or performing slower and less intense movements so a soft and cushioned mat is more suitable. A foam or PVC mat will normally provide adequate support and comfort for those longer periods of time when you may be lying or sitting down.
If you intend to practice hot yoga or Bikram yoga in a room heated to at least 105 degrees you’ll need to invest in a mat specially designed for such classes. Mats that don’t absorb your sweat as much are available, meaning they keep clean for longer and tend to be more durable. Using a standard yoga mat in a hot yoga or Bikram class will result in shortening the life of the mat and even damage to the mat.
What Type of Material Is Best for a Yoga Mat?
After deciding which type of mat you’re going to choose, perhaps the most important factor central to your purchase is what fabric the mat is constructed from. Below are the most common options you’ll find when you start looking to choose the right yoga mat for you.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
We’re all familiar with PVC and probably have encountered it in our kitchens, the office or even at the gym. But PVC mats have a bad reputation among the yoga community and you should be weary as studies have shown PVC can be carcinogenic. PVC is one of the most commonly used materials to make cheaper types of yoga mats but is also very hard to recycle as well as being bad for your health.
Many yoga mats that are made of PVC have added phthalates, chemicals which make them more flexible, but have been linked to reproductive issues including shorter pregnancy times and premature breast development in girls. Basically if you care about your health or the environment, just say no to a PVC mat.
Natural rubber tends to be the preferred choice of most yoga enthusiasts with basic simple mats made from this material easily available. There are many inexpensive natural rubber mats that are a good idea if you’re just starting out in yoga.
Rubber is easy to clean, pretty lightweight and durable. As an added bonus, you’ll be doing your bit for the environment too as rubber breaks down more easily, if it should ever find its way to a landfill.
Padded mats are designed to be a lot softer and more comfortable than your standard yoga mat. Padded yoga mats are normally made of a foam inner part covered with an outer removable cloth covering. Unfortunately this means they can only be partially washed as you can wash the outer cloth layer but not the internal foam.
For restorative yoga types that involve a lot of sitting or lying on the floor they can provide more support than an average yoga mat. The trade off tends to be they don’t provide much grip. Padded yoga mats may also prevent the flow of movement between asanas in more flowing types of yoga, although new mat technology is working on mats that are thick cushioned but with a smoother surface for more flowing movement.
Yoga mats are available which are simply made of cotton and are among the most natural mats on the market. Cotton may absorb more sweat but it’s more easily washable than other mats and will have slightly more grip than a padded mat. A cotton yoga mat is also one of the lightest mats for traveling but will require more frequent washing.
Yoga mats made from bamboo or other natural plant extracts are favored by Bikram or hot yoga practice. Bamboo has the advantage of being lightweight and the natural fibers absorb sweat without becoming slippery. It may not offer the traction to the floor of PVC, but the surface won’t become as slippery and it’s more eco-friendly. Some hot yoga mats feature a microfiber toweling cover on the surface or sewn into the borders which means the harder you sweat the more you’ll grip, so negates the need to bring an extra towel as well as a mat into the studio.
Texture of the Mat
As well as the material your mat is made from, the texture can make a significant difference to your personal comfort. Mats are available in a variety of textures so ensure you consider the texture carefully before making your final choice.
Stickier mats or non stick mats are common and they tend to have a rougher surface which some people find irritates their skin but can be very useful if you practice yoga that involves more intense poses. Texture can be either manmade with a series of raised bumps or may come from the fabric itself, jute or bamboo mats have an organic roughness to them.
For a smoother mat, PVC used to be the favored material but many manufacturers are now making more eco-friendly mats that also have a smoother surface. Some of the eco-friendly mats may even surprise you with the amount of traction they have without the traditional sticky feel. You should always try to choose a non-slip mat that applies well to the ground regardless of whether you want a smooth or rougher top surface.
Caring for Your Yoga Mat
Many of the natural fabric mats can be laundered, although the thicker mats may have foam which can’t be machine washed. Rubber mats and PVC are easily wiped down and retain their traction or stickiness better when cleaned. A simple homemade spray can often deodorize the mat as well as cleaning it. The following Youtube video shows a few suggestions for how you can care for your mat and extend its lifespan.
What Color Do You Want?
Once you’ve decided what type of mat you want by thickness, material, texture, stickiness, eco-friendly factors and the price, all that’s left to decide is the color. Choose your favorite color or pattern as you’re going to be seeing a lot of this mat especially when in the downward dog pose!
Choosing the right yoga mat can add to your yoga experience and comfort. With the right choice and care a yoga mat should last for many happy years. Most people recommend choosing a couple of mats for different needs or an extra mat more suitable for travel. What could be better than doing those sun salutation poses under a palm tree on a tropical island?