In the modern yoga community, there’s a lot of fuss about the importance of finding the right mat.
There are a ridiculous number of options out there to suit every style and need–from those who want to make sure they stick to their mat no matter how much they sweat to those who want to make sure their mat is able to naturally decompose in 10 years.
For the beginner who loves starting new things because it means they get to buy new stuff, this can be an exciting prospect!
Still, it’s probably best not to get carried away before you even get started. (And end up with that $100 Aikido gi in the back of the closet–because you just knew you would be practicing for at least the next 10 years.)
For others, the options can be outright overwhelming and the cost may become a major deterrent.
There’s no need to let either of those happen! Whatever yoga mat questions you might have, I’ve got the answers.
Please Note: I’ve listed several alternatives to purchasing a yoga mat, as well as some options if you do decide to purchase. Just so you know, none of these are affiliate links (I get absolutely nothing from you clicking through to purchase these items). These are just suggestions intended to help you get started–there are many more options for purchasing.
Q: For starters, do you really need a yoga mat?
A: No way, José. I’ve practiced yoga on many different surfaces, including my modern sticky mat, carpet, tile, hardwood floors, laminate flooring, grass, and even on top of smooth rock. People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years, and they accomplished it just fine without a rubber sticky mat. However, written and oral yoga tradition does suggest that the ancient yogis did use some sort of “mat,” most likely a woven rug of grass or an animal skin (such as deer or sheep).
Q: What are the benefits of using some sort of yoga mat?
A: There are definitely benefits to practicing on a mat rather than bare floor, carpet, or earth.
- First and foremost, a mat provides padding, support, and a barrier from the elements. For many people, pressing their palms, knees, elbows, and vertebrae onto the bare ground or floor can be painful. Having additional support enables them to more comfortably perform the pose. Furthermore, it can be especially helpful when practicing on a less-than-clean surface, such as a hotel room carpet. (I don’t know why, but I’m honestly more comfortable practicing yoga barefoot in the dirt than barefoot in a hotel room.)
- Second, a mat can act as a means of absorption if one starts sweating during their practice, as well as a means slipping prevention. (This is definitely the case for “hot yoga” classes, where the room is heated to 80+ degrees.) Some people will insist they can’t maintain a downward facing dog pose without a sticky mat. Honestly, for many beginners this is true; however, once you learn proper form and alignment, you can easily practice this pose on many surfaces, even carpet and tile, without the need for a sticky mat.
- Finally, a mat can serve the purpose of transforming any space into a “sacred” one. It becomes a clearly defined area for your practice (which can be especially important when practicing at a studio or with a group of people). As you spend more and more time on your mat, it can begin to feel like a welcoming friend. Stepping onto it can help begin your transition into an altered space.
Q: What are the drawbacks or downsides to using a mat?
A: Many “experts” will have you believe that it’s always better to practice yoga on a mat, but there can be some drawbacks as well.
- For starters, always using a mat can get you into the mindset that you can’t practice yoga without a mat, which simply isn’t true. (As crazy as it might sound, some of my favorite yoga classes were the ones I led barefoot in a cow-pie-covered grass field in the Himalayan foothills of India.)
- Second, depending on the type of mat you use, where you practice, and the type of yoga you most often practice, mats can get pretty nasty. Over time, a yoga mat of any type can begin to collect dust mites, parasites, bacteria, and good-old-fashioned dirt. Of course, this can be remedied by frequent cleaning. (There are many ready-made yoga mat cleaners out there, or you can make your own from a solution of vinegar, water, and essential oils.)
- Interestingly, modern sticky mats are typically used to prevent slipping; however, when they get wet after a person starts to sweat, they actually get more slippery.
- Furthermore, many sticky mats (mostly the cheaper ones) are made from petroleum-based materials, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not only harmful for the environment, but also for your you (physical contact allows the chemicals to absorb through your skin).
- Using cotton or animal skin mats bring their own challenges, such as difficulty in cleaning. While cotton mats can be either hand or machine-washed, the cotton fibers tend to break down relatively quickly with repeated use and washing. As for deer, cow, or sheep skin rugs, the surface can be steam cleaned, but a deeper cleaning will probably require a special surface. (Really worth the pain? Plus–and this is just my opinion–I’m not sure how zen I could feel practicing yoga on a dead animal.)
Q: What are the alternatives to using a yoga mat?
A: Before we even go down the long road of different types of yoga mats, let’s talk about their alternatives.
- Practicing on whatever you happen to be standing on is usually a viable option, whether it’s tile, wood, carpet, laminate, grass, concrete, dirt, sand, or smooth stone. For safety and comfort’s sake, I would avoid practicing on any jagged, sharp, uneven, or incredibly slippery surfaces.
- You can also practice on a towel, rug, or blanket if it’s placed on a non-slip surface. The type of yoga you practice will dictate what surface works best, or vice versa. For instance, it’s easy to practice static yoga poses on nearly any of these surfaces. A flowing vinyasa practice, however, is probably better suited for grass, carpet, or the well-trusted yoga mat.
- There are also wearable alternatives to the yoga mat, such as Yoga Paws or Toesox. I’ve never tried these, so I can’t speak to how well they work. I suppose the benefits are the ability to still have grip with more flexibility of movement and ease of travel.
Q: What are the different types of yoga mats?
A: We’ve already talked about a couple of different types of mats, but this is where we’ll really dig into the details, including how much they cost and where you can find one.
The Sticky Mat
These are by far the most commonly used mats among yoga practitioners. As the name implies, they offer a decent amount of grip or “stick.” Made of PVC, latex, plastic, or a combination, these mats are typically thin (1/8 inch), but can come as thick as 1/2 inch. While thicker mats offer more cushion and comfort, they can also make standing and balancing poses more difficult. On the opposite end of the spectrum, they also make super thin (1/16 inch) sticky mats labeled as “travel mats” because they can be rolled or folded much smaller.
On the plus side, standard sticky mats tend to last long time (a decade or a more). On the downside, they’re made and coated with chemicals that can be especially harmful during the first few months of use (you’ll notice a pretty strong smell as the materials off-gas). These mats come in a variety of textures, colors, and patterns to suit your particular style. As far as pricing goes, they start from about $8 and go up to $120 or more.
The “Eco-Friendly” Sticky Mat
These mats are typically made from natural tree rubber or recycled rubber. Similar to regular sticky mats, they are grippy and range in thickness from 1/16 inch to 1/2 inch. A major benefit to purchasing one of these mats is they’re less harmful to the environment and to you.
On the downside, some of these mats (such as Jade mats) have an “open cell” construction, making them sticky and spongy, but more susceptible to fungi and bacteria growth. When it comes to price, the high range is comparable to regular mats; however, it’s pretty tough to find a cheap eco-friendly mat. They begin in the $40 range and go up to $120 or more.
The All-Natural Mat
These are more traditional yoga mats, closer to those used by the original yogis. They’re made from materials such as cotton, wool (felt), hemp, grass, or jute (vegetable plant). The majority of these type of mats are sustainably made, which is awesome. Many are handmade or woven on traditional looms in India.
These type of mats would need to be used on a non-slip surface or be accompanied by some sort of non-slip mat (which somewhat defeats the purpose). Most also offer less cushion than more common sticky mats. Like the “eco-friendly” mats, the range in price from around $35 on up to $100 or more.
Q: What type of yoga mat do I use and/or recommend?
A: When I first started practicing yoga, I borrowed one of the free, cheapo vinyl yoga mats from the gym. (These are typically free or very cheap to borrow or rent at any yoga studio or gym.) When I decided to get more serious about yoga and began practicing at actual yoga studios, I decided to purchase my own mat.
I wanted something on the “eco-friendly” side of the house, but not something crazy expensive. I also wanted something with a bit more cushion (easier on my knees). For that reason, I decided to purchase the Kulae tpECOmat Plus. It’s 100% biodegradable, PVC and latex free, and four inches longer than a standard yoga mat, which I thought was pretty cool.
At the time, it came as part of a kit, with a mat bag, mat towel, cork block, water bottle, and a strap. (Unfortunately, they no longer offer the same kit.) Overall, I’ve been very happy with my purchase. My mat is still going strong after 6 years with very little wear-and-tear. The only complaint I have about the mat is its stretchiness, which causes me to have to make small adjustments in certain poses (overall not a big deal).
At times I’ve considered giving in to the latest “gotta have, best mat ever, endorsed by famous yoga teacher, and so on” yoga mat, but in the end, I’ve stuck with mine. There’s just no actual need to buy a new one, as mine works just fine. Plus, it’s strange, but it really has grown on me and become like an old friend. We’ve been through a lot together, and I look forward to many more years of yoga adventures with it.
Am I saying I recommend this mat over all others?
Not really. Aside from the cheapo vinyl mats, this is the only mat I’ve ever used, so it’s impossible for me to make a fair judgement. I have many friends who swear by their Manduka, Jade, and Lululemon mats. If I had the decision to make all over again, it’s highly likely I’d make the same one, based mostly on price. If I were going to splurge, I would probably go with a Manduka eKO mat. I think the Yogasana cotton mat looks pretty sweet and comfy as well.
Don’t spend too much time driving yourself nuts with choices, reviews, etc. Ultimately, you need to think about your practice, your needs, your budget, and what’s most important to you when it comes to the surface you practice on. If you’re just getting started, you can probably get away with just practicing on carpet or a rug with a sticky background. If, however, you see yourself regularly practicing yoga, it’s probably worth investing in a mat that best suits you and your needs.
What other questions do you have about yoga mats?
Ask your questions in the comment section below and I’ll be happy to answer them or at least point you in the right direction.