Why choosing your Yoga mat is more important than you think ...
Selecting your Yoga mat is an important purchase. It is likely when beginning Yoga that you might not give it the due consideration that you soon discover it needs once you are a seasoned Yogi. In this blog post I will share with some of the factors you might want to keep in mind, so that you can select your mat feeling confident you have made the right choice.
But it's just an exercise mat, isn't it?
When first beginning Yoga it may seem like any old mat will do and that its main function is for you to exercise on. However, as your practice develops and you unearth the wonderful surprise that yoga is just as much a 'work-in' as it is a work-out, you'll come to see your mat as a symbol of much more than just the place you move your body.
Your Yoga mat will of course be the place where you stretch tight muscles and relieve tensions, as well as the place where you work up a sweat and strengthen forgotten muscles. It will also be the place where you breathe and release the stresses of the day, it may be the place where you first learn to let go fully, it might be the place where emotions you have kept in for too long are given permission to flow and it could be the place where a small but significant shift happens within and you are able to find true peace. Choosing your mat then, becomes a little more than just a choice about function. However, let's first start with the basics.
So this is really important. Cheaper mats tend to be made out of PVC, which has the up side of having a bit more give and those that are on the thicker side give some good level of cushioning. However, PVC is not at all environmentally friendly. It is considered by some to be highly toxic and will take a long time to break down in a landfill - not great and in a sense not very 'Yogic'. All this being said, if you already have a PVC one (and its likely that you do since they are the most affordable and easy to get hold of) I am not suggesting you go and get a more eco-friendly one just because. It is probably far better instead to use it until it is threadbare. However, if you are looking to invest in a new mat and you have got a little more money to spend then there are some lovely much more sustainable options out there. You might like to opt for a rubber based mat, which are super grippy and nicely cushioned. I use one myself at home and I love it. Rubber mats are really durable, so expect it to last a long time. The only downside to this kind of mat is that they are heavier than other materials. Another option would be a cork based mat. These mats have very low environmental impact (when made sustainably) and tends to be warmer than other materials. It is worth noting though that these mats are also a bit heavier than the PVC kind and are also firmer. Other natural materials include Jute and even cotton based ones. Personally I have no experience of using any of these, so let me know if you do!
Okay, so your dilemma might be that your knees prefer some extra comfort when in kneeling postures. I get that. However, I would strongly not recommend getting the really thick pilates style mats for yoga because these mats make it SO much more difficult to balance when in standing poses and make it cumbersome when trying to move in and out of poses. Give yourself a break and get a mat fit for purpose! These thicker mats are also a nightmare to roll up! I have tried a lot of mats now and I find the optimal thickness is around the 4mm mark. Cheaper mats tend to be more towards the 3mm mark. If knees are an issue, you can always buy cushioned knee pads, or chop a small section off of an old mat that you can use across you mat for those moments when you need them. A folded blanket also works just as well, without the need to buy more stuff!
3. To slip or not to slip?
I shall get straight to the point with this one. Go for a mat that feels good and grippy enough for you. Often grippy mats are labelled as 'sticky mats'. When you are in your Down Dog, you want as much grip as you can get. So far I have found rubber based mats to be the grippiest, but I hear great grip credentials for cork mats too. A good quality PVC mat will also have a good level of non slip. The other bonus about having a grippy mat is that it will not slip and slide around the floor whilst you are moving in and out of pose. So in essence, make your life easier by getting a grippy, sticky mat - that way you can focus on the postures themselves rather than worrying that you are going to fall on your face! The other aspect of this, is texture. If you are sensitive to every little lump and bump then the cheaper PVC sticky mats tend to have lots of little raised bumps that might irritate you when in Savasana. Mats made of natural materials, such as Jute also tend to be on the rougher side compared to other mats on the market. If you want high grip and a smooth surface there are some higher quality PVC mats available that won't break the bank, or rubber based mats which are superb.
4. Alignment markings...
Some mats now come with alignment markings which I find can be useful as a rough guide as to where to place hands and feet, etc. A word of caution though - everybody's body has different proportions, so if you do get a mat with them on don't necessarily stick to them rigidly. A good approach with mat markings is to use the markings as a reference guide and an aid to discover more about your body, its proportions, habits, quirks and nuances. Once you have 'gotten to know' your mat and its markings through plenty of practice you'll know just how those markings can be of use to you.
Perhaps it is just me, but certain colours and patterns really jar me and the thought of hanging in a down dog gazing at a bright red mat, or one with heavy patterning sends me dizzy! It may seem a trivial thing, but you want your mat to be something that you actively enjoy rolling out and getting on. So my advice is to choose the colour and style that you are most drawn to and that is going to facilitate you in getting into your 'Yoga zone'.
One final word on your yoga mat... It is important to look after it and clean it regularly. Harsh cleaners can start to damage your mat and can leave a nasty 'chemically' smell. I now opt to make my own mat cleaner spray. If you would like to do the same, all you need to do is to mix 1 part white vinegar with 4 parts distilled water into a spray bottle. I also like to add a few drops of essential oils such as peppermint, lavender, tea tree or lemon (or a mixture of some of these!). Once you have your mixture simply spritz your mat, wipe with a soft cloth and leave to air. the next time you use it it will be smelly gorgeous and you will be free to practice feeling blissful!
So I reckon that is all I have to say about Yoga mats. Choose your mat with joy! Love it, look after it and it shall always be there for you when you need to roll it out, move breathe and reconnect.