Everybody’s journey to becoming a committed yoga practitioner is different. Whether you were attracted to the practice’s spiritual aspect or simply enjoy pushing your body to its limits, there’s no right or wrong way to approach yoga (though there are definitely right and wrong ways to do asanas, and please exercise the utmost care with complicated poses). In any case, when the time comes that you jump from occasional practitioner to full-fledged yogi or yogini, it’s time to look for a good mat.
What makes a good mat? We think it can be boiled down to three basic elements: cushioning, grip, and durability. Of course, all of these will be affected by the material the mat is made of. For instance, did you know that a considerable amount of cheap mats (and some high-end ones too) are made out of PVC?
This can be problematic in many ways, but let’s just look at one for now: disposal. If you’re consistently buying cheap PVC mats that wear out after a few months, these are likely ending up in landfills or being incinerated, both of which have nefarious environmental consequences. PVC doesn’t biodegrade, so it’s either sitting in the earth virtually forever or releasing toxic chemicals into the air if you live in an area that burns their trash. With 36 million Americans practicing yoga, the ecological consequences are worrying. Further, these inexpensive mats usually won’t provide adequate cushioning, or help you maintain your balance. The material your new mat is made of can make a huge difference in your practice and your safety.
Another issue with PVC has to do with the chemical composition of the material itself. Short for PolyVinyl Chloride, it’s used in a lot of different applications, from household products to construction. To make yoga mats or other objects that need to be bendy, it needs to be treated with plasticizers, the most common of which used to be phthalates, which have been proven to be toxic, and leach out in hot temperatures. Other plasticizers are also used to make PVC less rigid. Indeed, a recent chemical analysis of 10 different yoga mats by the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan found that a similar material, PER (Polymer Environmental Resin), was essentially PVC with a different plasticizer.
There are other fairly common yoga mat materials that can have iffy environmental consequences as well. TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomers), is made from mixtures of plastics and rubbers. However, each manufacturer will have its own mix and usually won’t disclose the exact composition, so it can be hard to know just what is going into your mat (and how ecologically friendly or not it actually is). PU (Polyurethane) is petroleum-based, so it can’t be considered renewable either.
On the eco-friendly, bio-degradable end of the spectrum, rubber mats are also prevalent in the industry, thanks to the material’s strength, resistance, and flexibility. They also offer great grip and are really good for people that sweat a lot or who practice in high humidity or heat. However, make sure that you’re purchasing a mat made from natural rubber — synthetic rubber is not the same thing at all and is a lot harder to repurpose.
Cork is an alternative material that is gaining more traction and offers excellent grip under both wet and dry circumstances. It biodegrades easily, can be recycled without any problems, and is obtained without damaging the tree from which it’s harvested. Jute is also highly renewable and a great source of economic development for the communities in Bangladesh and India that grow it. Finally, there are also a growing number of companies manufacturing mats out of alternative materials, such as recycled wetsuits or bamboo.
Wherever you are on your yoga journey, and whichever mat you choose, we hope you take the time to learn a bit more about what your new mat is made of. Namaste.