See my latest post for an update on this quest.
For some time I’ve been looking for the perfect yoga mat, but have not yet found it. Over time and with daily usage the mat becomes a kind of sacred place so it’s important that you find one that really fits your needs and values. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
My ideal mat would fit all 3 of my usage situations:
- daily in-home practice,
- weekly use in my yoga class (drive to class plus a 5‑minute walk each way to the parked car), and
- monthly travel by plane to remote locations for usage in a hotel room.
My ideal mat would also be “green”: zero-waste in manufacture and easily bio-degradable when eventually disposed of via landfill.
In hopes that this will help other yoga practitioners choose wisely, here are some things to think about.
Shopping Is Difficult
Shopping for yoga mats is challenging because you rarely have the opportunity for side-by-side, hands-on comparisons in either studio or retail environments. This is a paradox, because a mat should be experienced before purchase. Most studios stock a single brand and type of mat; most recreational stores offer limited selections, and the same is true for yoga specialty stores. At least where I shop, it’s rare to see more than a single brand per store.
So that leaves you with the online shopping option, relying upon abstractions: comparing vendors’ claims, customer testimonials, and the consumer reviews you read on blogs, Amazon, etc. This is a real issue because, in an ideal world, you’d do the equivalent of “test drives” before committing to a particular mat. And even worse, if you buy and later discard a mat that doesn’t suit your needs, you may be adding to landfill waste unless you buy your next mat from a company that offers recycling.
Vendors make shopping difficult because there’s no standardization of terminology used to describe product features, especially when it comes to mat thickness or density. The very same vendor that uses inches to describe the mat’s width and length may use millimeters to characterize its thickness. And there’s no way to describe the mat’s density, resilience (spring, bounce, firmness, etc.) or cushioning qualities. That’s why you really want to experience the mat first before buying it.
The online product images are quite limited, so you’re left relying upon your imagination. As a result of this, I’ve now bought several mats (more on that later) in my quest for the perfect mat.
Thinking Through Your Needs
There is no single ideal mat that will fit everyone’s requirements, at any price.
Some of us are tall, others short; some weigh more than others; and some of us perspire a lot through our hands and feet. This means that the definition of “the perfect mat” is specific to the person, and his or her usage occasions – how, where and how often the mat will be used. So think about what you need and why, and don’t take other consumer comments on blind faith without thinking about how well they apply to your unique situation.
Here are some key functional considerations, before you get into the values-based choices of how eco-friendly the mat is, or how much you like its color:
- Density and resilience, cushioning
- Anti-slip characteristics: stickiness, texture, performance when wet with sweat, etc.
- Flexibility (i.e., how well it rolls up or folds for carrying or storage purposes)
The challenge for people shopping for mats online is that most of these attributes are best explored by experiencing them hands-on, rather than reading product reviews or vendor descriptions.
Size matters. If you’re tall, you’ll want a longer mat. If you have long arms, you’ll probably want a wider mat. Classic mats are 24 inches wide — a bit narrow for people with long arms and legs. If like me you’re 5’8” or taller, the typical 68-inch mat will be too cramped. The widest mat I know of (but haven’t tried) is 30 inches.
A bigger mat is going to be less flexible, and may “fight back” as you try to stuff it into your carrying sack. A denser mat will also be less flexible – better suited for in-home use or situations when it doesn’t have to be packed up, rolled or folded, and stowed very often.
Comfortable mats, in general, weigh more than those optimized for portability or travel.
Bigger mats (longer or extra-wide) will outweigh the classic 24-by-68-inch models. At present the mats that are considered to be the top-of-the-line models are also the heaviest, tipping the scales somewhere in the 8‑to-10 pound range. You’re not too likely to find yoginis lugging these big mats to and from class every day.
Because there’s no ideal mat that’s both comfortable for daily use and easy to carry, yoga mat manufacturers tend to market a “pro” style mat as well as one optimized for travel (often called “lite”). So this suggests there’s a real trade-off between weight and comfort.
The mat I use everyday at home weighs 8 pounds; the one I carry to and from class weighs between 4 and 5 pounds. My class mat is too big to fit into a suitcase without fold marks that last a while. To put this in perspective, my 15-inch MacBook Pro weighs less than the mat I bring each week to class.
Because comfort and a larger size matter to me, the mats I use most often aren’t suitable for airplane travel or being carried in a suitcase.
Comfort matters, especially if you have bony knees or issues with wrists, shoulders or ankles. (Boomers, beware!)
Characteristics related to the thickness of the mat, its density, or stiffness versus resilience are important trade-offs for poses in which sensitive joints or knees must bear your weight. (The Mexican wool folded blanket is the traditional solution for needed cushioning in these weight-bearing poses.)
Some people prefer softer cushioning, while traditionalists tend not to like mats that have a lot of “give” to them. And if you weigh more than a ballet dancer or a woman who wears size 6 clothes, a thin mat may not provide enough cushioning. Your fingers may push all the way through to the hard surface beneath.
I don’t advise putting a mat on a carpeted floor unless you have no other alternative (such as a hotel room). There’s too much instability when a carpet is involved, and it will make your balance poses more challenging.
My everyday mat is quite dense and 1/4‑inch thick, with minimal cushioning for someone like me with a non-dancer’s frame. I’m almost satisfied with its comfort, but even so, I layer a cheapie mat beneath it for extra cushioning. Because I’m working in a room with a hardwood floor, the stability is fine.
If you sweat a lot during asanas, you will want a mat with good anti-slip qualities. You may even want to layer an anti-skid towel on top of your mat (my solution for in-studio practice), or a highly absorbent towel that you use periodically to dry your hands and feet. Some people prefer the anti-skid towel for hygienic reasons, especially if they use mats owned by the studio and shared among multiple students.
The problem with the towel-on-the-mat approach is that vigorous or vinyasa-style asanas will cause the the towel to wrinkle, and that can interfere with comfort or concentration. The better solution is a mat with enough traction-control qualities to avoid the need of a towel layer.
Another big factor to consider is the need for portability: how often will you carry your mat between home and studio, or to remote destinations? How will you travel, on foot or by bike, car, train or plane? Must it fit in a backpack or messenger bag because you ride to class by bike?
The portability issue is less challenging if you drive to class and simply need to carry your mat between home and studio. It’s trickier for people who have to travel by plane for business or vacation situations.
This is the usage factor where I’m least satisfied. As a consultant, I’m on the road at least once a month, and my current travel mat is very disappointing. It’s too small, it’s not comfortable, it doesn’t lie flat, and it smells. It’s only virtue is that it folds easily into a suitcase and protects me from the grungy carpeted floors you find in most hotel rooms.
Unfortunately, current airline baggage policies make it too expensive to carry a mat anywhere other than folded up inside your suitcase. I’ve tried several mats while traveling but am far from satisfied with the options that work within airline baggage constraints. Given today’s extra baggage fees, you could buy a new mat with the price you’d have to pay to check one as extra luggage on a roundtrip flight. ($25 times 2.)
The rule of thumb seems to be that eco-friendly mats will be less durable than synthetic mats. That’s because eco-friendly mats are often made of natural rubber or hemp; because they’re designed to be bio-degradeable, they have shorter useful lives. A rubber mat will be sensitive to sunlight, so you won’t want to leave it out in a room that gets a lot of sunshine. Sunshine will discolor it, and then shorten its life.
A factor that’s probably related to durability and cushioning is how well the mat performs during jump poses or or poses where you’re pushing in opposite directions, like warrior poses. Some mats will deform and then spring back, as I discovered with a Prana E.C.O. Sticky mat I bought recently from EMS. It’s very comfortable and nicely cushioned, but it deforms during vigorous poses. Definitely not a mat I’d want to use everyday.
My Manduka PRO is probably one of the most durable mats on the market (backed by a lifetime guarantee). I’ve been using it for almost 2 years, and it’s not uncommon to read consumer reviews from people who’ve owned and used one happily for a decade.
In my quest to find the perfect mat, here’s what I’ve tried and what I’ve experienced:
- Manduka Black PRO Mat – my everyday in-home mat, and my favorite for situations that don’t require travel
- Manduka PROLite – my class mat, transported to the studio each week in a carrying sack and stored flat (half the weight of its big brother)
- Manduka eKO – purchased in hopes that it would work well for class and travel situations (more on this later)
- Lululemon rubber travel mat – packs up easily, but not comfortable and wrinkles easily on hotel carpets; the texture is uncomfortable when shifting foot positions; smelly; degrading from frequent folding; owned less than a year
- Prana E.C.O. Sticky Mat – used in a vacation setting; OK for periodic use, nicely cushioned, good anti-slip qualities, but deforms too easily during vigorous asanas; better suited for petite yoginis
- Wai Lana Yogi Mat – my starter mat; very slippery, deformation issues; works poorly on a carpet; now used as an under layer on a hardwood floor
- Yogitoes Skidless Premium Mat Towel – used in class every week on top of my Manduka PROLite (to absorb sweat from vigorous practice sessions in a warm, but not hot, room). This is essential because my studio mat is way too slippery without it.
What I’ve learned is that the mat that satisfies me for daily home practice (the Manduka Black PRO Mat) is completely unsuited for travel by plane, and impractical for weekly studio use. Because I have to walk several blocks from the parked car to and from the studio, it’s too large and heavy to carry between home and studio. It does not roll up into a small package. Hence my multi-mat approach.
The Black PRO Mat has developed great karma and now feels sacred. I look forward to reconnecting with it every day.
The Manduka eKO has proven to be disappointing. Even after several months airing in a good-size room, the rubber smell is still quite strong. Compared to the more neutral Black PRO Mat, its surface temperature ranges from cool to cold, even on warm days. (I’d prefer not to notice the temperature of the mat.) The cushioning is nice, but not sufficient; I’m too aware of my fingers sinking through the cushion to the hardwood floor beneath. Despite the manufacturer’s claims about its anti-slip qualities, when my hands are sweaty, I slip. This has been disconcerting on some handstand prep poses… As a result I don’t use it as often as it probably deserves.
And yes, as others have written, I do notice a “white bloom” that develops on the Black PRO Mat whenever I use it, a residue of dead skin cells, I guess. I clean it several times a week with Vermont Organic Soap, and that keeps the bloom at bay. What I’ve found more surprising is that the textured surface is wearing away in the heavy-use spots: the places where my hands and feet are positioned for downward facing dog or mountain pose… So far, except on super hot days or during a very vigorous practice, I haven’t had too much trouble with slippage. On hot days I keep a towel nearby to wipe off the sweat.
I use the Yogitoes Skidless towel on my mat in class because I have to – too much sweat-induced slippage otherwise – but I prefer to do without it while practicing at home. I don’t like the way it wrinkles, and it doesn’t have quite enough traction until my hands and feet warm up and start to sweat. But I do appreciate the fact that I can throw it in the washing machine after class and wash the sweat away…
I’m definitely not satisfied with my travel-by-plane experience so far. Nothing positive to say.
It feels awkward writing this blog post, given the essential conflict between yoga principles and consumerism. But the mat is important. Used daily, it becomes sacred space so it’s an important decision for the serious practitioner.
Shopping for a yoga mat is challenging and there are many trade-offs involved, so I hope that sharing my experience and perspectives will help other yoga practitioners avoid my mistakes.
Disclosure: I have no relationship with any yoga products developer or manufacturer, and have never even spoken with anyone from such a company.