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© James Dylan Russell 2017

A few thoughts on yoga mats

Whilst this post may not lead you directly towards samadhi or enlightenment, it may however save you a few quid when you come to purchase a new mat.

As a yoga teacher, I go through quite a lot of yoga mats. When using a mat to teach on as well as regular practice, it soon gets quite bit of wear and tear. Over the last 10 years, I’ve experimented with a range of products, from ultra cheap mats from TKMax right through to the luxurious so called ‘professional’ mats at the top end of the market. On the basis of this experience, I thought I may be able to help other folks navigate their way through the myriad choices on the market today. Before I do that, perhaps a bit of history on the yoga mat may help.

The first reference to using a prop on the ground as a basis for yoga practice can be found in the Bhagavad Gita in which an ‘asana’ is described, not as a posture, but as a small wooden, stool on which the yogi sits to meditate. The Gita advises that the stool be erected in a clean place and covered with a special kind of grass, and the hide of a deer or a tiger. (BG 6:11) The idea is that the yogi is protected from the dampness of the earth and also from various insects, snakes and small animals that may disturb his bliss.

Subsequent texts, don’t offer much more information. The illustrations from the Jogapradipka depict yogis practising a variety of asanas on animal hides. Yogis would also use a wool or cotton rug/blanket, or practice on the ground.

In ‘Yoga Makaranda’, the great yoga master Krishnamacharya states:

“(The floor) is then covered in Darbha grass and over the grass is spread a white woolen blanket. In case a woolen blanket is not available then a white cotton cloth will do.”

Tightly woven cotton rugs were also endorsed by Pattabji Jois and are still the preferred choice of many ashtanga vinyasa practitioners.

The ubiquitous ‘sticky’ yoga mat didn’t appear on the scene until the 1980s. Angela Farmer, whilst teaching in Germany in 1982 had the bright idea of cutting a piece of carpet underlay to the size of a towel. When she got back to London she showed her Father who went on to become the first retailer of ‘sticky mats.’

These days, there are a huge number of yoga mats to choose from, ranging in price from £3.99 to over a hundred pounds. Most mats are made from PVC or the ‘Eco’ mats are made from natural rubber and jute.

When I first started practising yoga about 12 years ago, hardly anyone had a yoga mat. At the centre I used to go there were a bunch of rolled up Afghan style rugs in the corner which we used to borrow. Buying a yoga mat didn’t seem that important. In fact, I practised yoga regularly at home and in class quite happily for about two years without setting foot on a yoga mat.

Then, when I started to take yoga a bit more seriously and enrolled on a BWY foundation course, I thought I should invest £14 in a Warrior yoga mat from yoga mad. It was a good move. As a new practitioner there is something about buying a mat that sets an intention, a commitment to practice.

I still have that mat today, and after several trips to India, and years of daily practice and teaching, its still alive and working. Which is more than can be said for some of its more expensive replacements.

The cheapest mats on the market can be found in shops like Argos for about £3 - £5. Although its a pretty amazing sign of the times that you can buy a yoga mat in a mainstream high street shop, these mats are not particularly good quality. I’ve had students come to class and with their new Argos mat and been unable to use it due to lack of support or grip.

For about £7 - £12 you can buy a mat in TKMaxx. These tend to be made by companies like ‘Gaiam’ and are a bit better quality: although still lacking in much support or grip. They’ll do the job, but are not ideal.

For about £12 - £18 you can get a “Warrior mat’ from companies like “Yoga mad’ These are great mats, very grippy, 4mm thick, so enough support, can be used both sides and, as I said earlier, go on for years, and years, and years.

When I graduated as a teacher I decided to invest in a new mat. I went for the eco option. There are a range of ‘eco friendly’ mats on the market made from sustainable natural rubbers that are also recyclable. I opted for an eco mat with jute mix. It cost me £35. It looked great. If felt great, it even smelt good! The jute felt really natural and was very grippy. However it was a little thin, very heavy and, disappointingly, only one-sided.

It lasted less than 7 months! The jute started to wear away, its threads snapping. It started to shed little pieces of red rubber where ever I went. In less than a year, it became relegated to a back up mat in a store cupboard. I went back to using the trusty old warrior mat.

Then a few years later, I managed to convince myself once more that i needed a better mat. I was fooled by the slick advertising: extra support and improved grip would surely enhance my asanas: also made from natural, sustainable rubber and non toxic glues so environmentally friendly. I opted for the Rolls Royce of yoga mats: 'Manduka' and went for their ‘eko’ mat with a price tag of £75. I remember telling my partner Alice, who is also a yoga teacher, and her nodding sagely and saying: “Jimi Hendrix learnt to play the guitar on a plank of wood.” Hmm. Not the response I’d hoped for, but she had a point. I reminded myself that Jimi Hendrix soon ditched his plank of wood once he could afford a Fender Stratocaster instead.

I was very excited the day my Manduka arrived. It was so heavy the postman could barely carry it to the door. It was a lovely mat, there is no doubt. Really thick for support, and so grippy that at the end of savasana I felt like I would need to be surgically removed from it.

It was without doubt the best mat I’d ever used. And its true, in postures such as Urdva Danurasana, the extra grip helped, the support was just right. I needed a trailer to carry it, but thats what you get I told myself, when you buy such quality.

This mat lasted less than a year. In fact, after just 6 months the top layer of rubber started bobbling up as the glue inside lost its hold. I was really disappointed. I complained to Manduka, expecting them to replace it. However, after a lengthy exchange of emails they offered me a discount on my next Manduka mat. I tried to politely explain that i didn’t want to buy another Manduka mat and that i was under the impression that for £75 I was buying a “mat for life.’ It would have been nice for them to at least acknowledge that the product they’d sold me was defective.

I went back to using a warrior mat. Then recently I purchased a non-branded, Oeko-Tex (free from harmful substances) mat from Ruth White Yoga. Its no frills, no big name, but grippy, lots of support and long enough for jumping in and out of vinyasas.

I use a warrior mat to teach on because its light and easy to carry to class.

The thing that i have learnt from this is that, yes Alice is right (as usual!) Jimi Hendrix learnt guitar using a plank of wood. Ancient yogis didn’t have expensive yoga mats. They didn’t have money. They used what natural resources they could find. There are a range of products out there. Don’t be fooled into thinking that any of them will significantly change the way you practice or help you on your journey towards enlightenment. If you want to develop your asanas, you need to practice. Practice every day and it doesn’t matter whats under your feet, as long as it feels safe.

Generally, I’d advise you to look for something grippy, at least 4mm thick and made by a company that specializes in yoga equipment.

Its great to be able to buy an expensive eco mat, however: its a waste of time if the mat needs replacing after just one year. It is surely more beneficial to the environment to buy a PVC based mat that lasts 12 years than have to keep replacing rubber mats, clocking up manufacturing and shipping carbon-footprint.

In my opinion, the mid range mats like the warrior mat are about the best on the market in terms of value for money. They are great mats with lots of grip and support. If you’re someone who likes extra support they also sell double thickness varieties.

Why not save yourself £50 and put it towards going on a workshop or a yoga course. This will certainly benefit your practice a lot more than a piece of rubber.

Namaste

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