The ancient yogis certainly didn’t practice with mats. They’re very much a 20th-century development. Honestly, I really like them. Our yoga mats can be a way of holding our practice space in our minds, and the obligations of our lives so often make it difficult to maintain space in our schedules and our homes for our practice. To me, it’s a way of prioritizing. When we practice, we often begin by inquiring of our mind and body what it is that we need from the practice today, and by setting aside our other concerns. Being physically on my mat allows me to more easily set aside my other obligations and check in to my practice. The mat is a first Sutra thing for me: Now is the time for the practice of yoga. (Forgive me–Sanskrit is not my strong suit. But as I recall, this is the basic idea.)
So, you’re looking for a yoga mat. It’s been my experience that generally speaking, you get what you pay for in this sector. Walmart, Target, and most sporting goods stores carry basic yoga mats for around $15. If there’s a yoga boutique in your neighborhood, they would likely have a better selection of different types of mats, but of course the biggest selection will be online.
The problem with looking online, of course, is that you can’t touch or try the mats and see what they’re like.
What does a mat do, anyway?
In addition to the psychological things mentioned above, yoga mats do two things–cushion you against the floor, and provide a sticky, non-slip surface for your practice. Thinner mats generally offer less cushioning and are lighter and more portable. Mats marketed as “travel” are generally light, thin, and pretty sticky, which can be nice for hotel rooms, for example.
In your evaluation of what sort of mat to buy, you should keep in mind a few questions:
-How hard is the surface you practice on? Does your space have a particularly hard floor? Maybe you’d like to look for something with relatively more cushion.
-Will you want the mat for travel?
-Do you spend much time on your knees or your hands during your practice? You may want a mat with relatively more cushion.
-Do you often sweat during your practice, or is your practice often vigorous, in a vinyasa/Power/Ashtanga style? Maybe stickiness is something you’d like to look for.
-Are you taller than about 5’9″, or do you have especially long legs? You may want a longer-than-standard mat. Likewise, if you’re buying a mat for a child or shorter person, they may prefer a shorter-than-standard mat.
What is standard?
Yoga mats are usually 68″ or 71″ long and 26″ wide. There are many longer and shorter mats available, but I’ve never seen a narrow mat. Some manufacturers also make square and round mats, which can be very cool in a home practice or private lesson, but are not customary for group classes. You’d be a major space hog if you showed up to a popular class with a giant mat.
As for thickness, 3mm is standard. 1/4″ is slightly thicker than 3mm, and often marketed as “extra thick,” though other common thicknesses are 5mm and 3/8″, up to 5/8″. I think a 5/8″ thick mat would be too squishy for very active yoga–I don’t think it would be comfortable for wrists in plank or hands and knees. If your knees would prefer some extra cushioning, I’d recommend a 5mm/3/8″ mat. Remember, you can always fold your mat over to add support for your knees.
Thickness, Stickiness, and Price
Also, if you’re able to spend about $50 or more, you can look at the more dense mats on the market, which are not thicker, but pack much more support into the thickness they have. They may also be heavier. Read the reviews and see what others say about the mats.
With regard to stickiness, if you buy a mat for ~$25 or less, don’t worry if it seems more slippery than you hoped the first few times you use it. Wipe it with a vinegar solution a time or two and wait. It will get stickier after a few uses.
If you’re willing to pay around $50 or more for a mat, you can spring for some of the ones that are designed to be especially grippy.
As a teacher, it was worth my while to cough up (or ask Santa) for a relative Cadillac of a yoga mat. I like a mat with a lot of cushion and not a lot of thickness, but my biggest concern is grip. I really hate sliding around in my down dog. So a few years ago, I got a Manduka Pro. I also have a “lite” mat of theirs that I fold up and shove in my backpack for my classes. The Pro is heavy.
My other favorite brand for grip is Jade. Many mat brands, including (especially?) Jade, pride themselves on being eco-friendly. Just something to keep in mind, to the extent it’s a priority for you.
A Final Word
If you’re new to yoga and are exploring the studios and teachers in your neighborhood, I definitely recommend buying a relatively cheap yoga mat and using that until you’ve gotten a little settled into your practice. Then you might know what your priorities are with regard to thickness, cushion, grip, weight, and price.
What do you think? Do you have different priorities about your mats? Let me know in the comments!