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Upon first exposure to the world of yoga, most of us are so distracted by human pretzels in neon leggings, trying to decide whether or not we’re ok with instructors touching us, the question of how many blocks is too many, and a gripping fear of drawing attention to ourselves that we fail to put too much thought into our choice of a yoga mat. We borrow the sticky PVC mats our studios offer us, lay a bath towel from home on top (for sanitary reasons), and think nothing more about it, apart from wondering how we’re supposed to clean the thing once we’re done.
It’s not long, however, before we realize that our choice of yoga mat has a lot to do with how we feel in our practice. Becoming distracted, losing our breath, and gripping our mats so hard that we drive claw marks into them is in no way conducive to dharana (focus and inner perceptual awareness), pranayama (consistency in breathing practices), or santosha (contentment), to name a few.
As an instructor, I see this issue every day. I often tell my students that outside factors such as what we’re wearing, what stresses our day held, or who’s practicing next to us, should never affect our practice. But when slips, wobbles, and close calls steal a practitioner’s attention, there’s no better quick fix than a quality mat.
With so many options out there, choosing the right yoga mat can seem an impossible task. To keep you on the right track, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Thickness: When you’re shopping for a couch, a bed, or even carpet, thicker and cushier is usually better. That’s not necessarily the case when it comes to yoga mats, however. Any experienced yogi knows that a tangible connection to the floor is vital to feeling grounded in any posture and especially in balances. While a somewhat thicker mat may seem appropriate for yin or restorative practices, a thinner one will offer you stability no matter what your preferred style of yoga, giving you the flexibility to take it from gentle flow to Ashtanga.
Grip and Texture: Whether or not you take classes in a heated space or tend to have sweaty palms, the grip and texture of your mat will affect the way you practice yoga. A sticky mat will always prevent smooth transitions, while soft ones will steal your grasp and control in any posture where your hands or feet touch the ground. A natural texture and a grip that holds up to moisture will keep you steady and your practice consistent whether it’s humid outside, you glisten or get drenched, you’re lying with your cheek to the mat, or you’re practicing a jump-through.
Eco-Friendliness: Regardless of your personal connection to the principle and tradition of ahisma (non-violence) in yoga, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to be good stewards of our environment. Mats made of PVC (vinyl) or other harmful materials do not deteriorate in landfills, are difficult to recycle, and can prove toxic to your body, exposing you to phthalates (“endocrine disruptors” used to make plastics pliable and linked to various diseases) every time you step onto your mat. Purchasing a mat made from sustainable, environmentally friendly materials not only protects our environment, but it protects you as well.
So yes, there’s a lot to consider when you’re buying a new yoga mat. Is it thin enough? Springy enough? Will it keep me stable? Is it durable? Can I stand looking at that color every time I get into a downward dog? Will my cat’s hair get stuck to it? Etc. Just remember, your yoga mat is an accessory to your practice and while it is an important one, it’s not everything. Find one that works for you (if only for the moment) and get back to your breath.
About the Author: Melissa Lynn is a writer, yogi, and coffee fanatic from Southern California. A former Division I athlete, Melissa earned her BA in History at Stanford University, worked as a paralegal in Washington, DC, and happily traded pencil skirts for spandex to become a full-time yoga instructor. She is an avid traveler and you can learn about her experiences abroad on her personal blog and website at TheTravelingAmericano.com