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The Origin of the Yoga Mat
You’ve been going to classes for a while now and you’re ready to buy a yoga mat of your very own – but where to begin? Open up any yoga magazine or catalog and you will be inundated by the range of choices – not only of colors, but also types of materials, thicknesses, and, now, even artistic designs for the aesthetic yogi. So how to choose among all this abundance and variation?
First, it is useful to know a tiny bit about the history of the ubiquitous yoga mat. By now the humble mat has taken on symbolic or even iconic meaning in the yoga world; but before the explosion of yoga’s popularity in the West, yoga was not practiced on a mat. In fact, mats only began to be used at the time when yoga was introduced to the Western world, largely because most middle class or affluent people in the 1960’s and ’70’s had carpets (shag of course!) covering most of their floors. Mats were necessary to prevent students’ feet from slipping on rugs while practicing standing poses. When BKS Iyengar ordered a thin green material which came in rolls from Germany, and was originally manufactured for use as a carpet underlay, little did he know the revolution he was starting!
When you want to buy your own mat, consider this history, and then ask yourself what you intend to use your mat for. If you have a nice wood floor to practice on at home or at your favorite studio, then you do not need your mat for practicing standing poses, unless your feet become quite slippery during your practice. You may want a mat at times, if you are practicing some variations of standing poses which cause the feet to slip, but the firmness and evenness of the wood floor are ideal for communicating with the small bones and tendons of the feet and ankles, and encouraging them to learn to be steady.
So do you need a mat at all? If you are practicing inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, elbow balance) the mat is quite helpful to provide a bit of padding for the skull in sirsasana (headstand) and to help keep the elbows closer together in sarvangasana (shoulder stand). But again, too much padding causes instability, so the mat should be thin.
When new students purchase a mat, they are often unaware of the effects of the mat on their practice. Many choose a mat that is thick and “cushy” because they want the added comfort for their sitting bones in seated postures. This is a reasonable desire, and in fact we often do place blankets under the buttocks and sitting bones for seated poses (although the main purpose of this is to aid in releasing the spine from tight hamstrings, rather than provide the comfort of padding). But herein lies the best clue to the mat-seekers dilemma: if it is extra padding you seek, get a blanket rather than a mat. Use the mat primarily to prevent slipping, rather than padding.
Another “new” issue with mats nowadays is the type of material they are made from. Of course a yoga student would want to cause less harm to the world (practicing ahimsa, non-violence, is the first of the Yamas) and thus use a mat which is environmentally friendly. But I have seen mats which purport to be easy on the environment, yet they have a terrible smell. Consider asking about the “off-gassing” of your mat when you purchase online or through a catalog, as you will certainly be putting your nose very close to the mat many times and attempting to “breathe deeply”.
There is also the choice of texture – many of today’s commonly-purchased mats (they get left at our studio frequently) are in fact not especially “sticky”. These are often about a quarter of an inch thick and their surface is almost smooth – not the best for stopping slippage. There are also some mats now that offer an “earth-like” texture; but again, you will you be able to learn to balance better with an even surface underfoot.
Since the mat’s weight can also be a significant factor for many people, consider whether you intend to carry your mat around with you, or whether it will be a “stay at home” mat. You do not want to be slinging a heavy mat around wherever you go, on your bike or on your back.
The best route may be to go to a store that sells several types of mats and check them out with your own hands, feet, eyes and nose. This is the best way to get a good idea of what different mats actually feel like, and how well the one you choose will serve your purposes. You can also always contact the friendly people at online yoga-supplies retailers like Huggermugger, Gaiam, or Yogapro, and ask them to describe their mats to you and discuss the considerations I’ve mentioned here.
At Yoga Center Santa Cruz, we purchase mats that are very thin and sticky (except at the very beginning, they have to get “used” a few times), only off-gas for a few days, and last many months with lots of use. They are also relatively inexpensive, which is why we can affordably sell them to our students. They are even machine washable, which is a great added benefit.