Friday, February 13, 2009
It does not matter whether you are a yoga newbie or have been doing yoga so long you've memorized your instructor's routine, asana-by-asana - sooner or later you'll be in the market for a new yoga mat. I used to think every yoga mat was created equally until I bought a jute yoga mat and discovered that it didn't smell like chemicals. Of course, it fell apart within two months...
That's when I decided to write an article about the different types of yoga mats out there, how to choose one that's best for you, and how to choose one that isn't terrible for the environment either.
The Standard Cheap Yoga Mat
Many people get a cheapo mat the first time. This is fine, especially if you're not sure whether you are going to be a yoga fanatic yet. You can usually find these from between $5 and $10 at any mega-store like Target or Kmart.
There are several problems with a standard yoga mat. First, they are often very thin and do not provide much cushioning. Most importantly, however, they stink like chemicals and are made using a very environmentally hazardous process. Furthermore, the chemicals used may be bad for your health. They are made using phthalates, which turn hard plastics into soft plastics. Studies on rodents involving large amounts of phthalates have shown damage to the liver, the kidneys, the lungs and the developing testes.
I know a lot of people who use standard yoga mats and they're not dead or dying (that I know of). Just don't leave them in the trunk of your car because they tend to release a chemical smell when they get hot.
Jute and Cork Yoga Mats
Jute and cork yoga mats are an affordable, eco-friendly alternative to the standard yoga mat, but they have some drawbacks of their own. Cork and jute mats both come from very porous plants. As the material absorbs your sweat during yoga classes, it becomes A: a bit stinky and B: a little weak. While it is not going to fall apart in your hands like wet paper, don't expect one of these to last a long time if you do yoga more than once a month.
Rubber Yoga Mats
Rubber yoga mats are my favorite. They are durable, affordable and - best of all - they are made from rubber, which is a fairly sustainable material that comes from the rubber tree. Just make sure that you are buying a "natural" rubber mat because the material can be produced synthetically as well - although synthetic rubber isn't nearly as bad for the environment and your health as phthalates.
Natural rubber yoga mats should be avoided if you are allergic to latex. Instead, try one of the phthalate-free, latex free mats from this page http://www.gaiam.com/retail/product/95-1041_OLIV . They are a little more expensive, but if you are allergic to latex, don't want to work out on chemicals, and need something that isn't going to fall apart on you - this type of mat is definitely the way to go.
Using a Pilates Mat for Yoga
Pilates mats are much thicker than yoga mats. This is required because you are spending more time on the floor, often with pressure points like hips, knees, shoulders and elbows supporting some or all of your weight. It is also very important for cushioning to keep your spine from getting injured when doing rolls while lying on your back. Can you use a pilates mat for yoga? Sure, but they are more expensive, bulkier, and you will need to make sure they have a non-slip surface. Yoga mats do tend to be "stickier" which is needed when doing most asanas. But if you do yoga and pilates, try buying just the pilates mat and see if you like it for yoga as well. I do not, however, advise using a yoga mat for pilates, as it can cause injury.
Places to find yoga mats online:
http://www.gaiam.com/yoga/ - Gaiam Yoga Products are well known for their quality and for including many eco-conscious options like jute and rubber. The can be a little pricey, but if you look for items on sale there are deals to be found.
http://www.ecomall.com/biz/fitness.htm - Eco Mall's yoga and fitness section has a huge list of online resources, most of which have a "green" outlook on business.
http://www.firstpagefitness.com/directory/ - First Page Fitness has a directory of businesses in the fitness industry, many of which sell yoga mats online.
http://www.target.com - Target has a lot of inexpensive yoga products, including a few different types of standard yoga and pilates mats. If your goal is to just buy something cheap to get started with, I'd advise skipping all of the expensive shops and just going to Target.
Using the Class Yoga Mats
I strongly discourage using the communal yoga mats found in most fitness centers and studios. These are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria. You can buy yoga mat wipes if you must use a communal mat. Most of these wipes are just expensively packaged alcohol pads, so you can save a lot of money by getting a box of wipes from Walgreens.
Going Without a Yoga Mat
People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years without modern mats. The reason why most people these days use a yoga mat is because they wear socks, which cause their feet to slip during poses. Even if they do their yoga routine without socks (which can be very unhygienic in most fitness centers and yoga studios) today's yoga routine typically takes place on a tile or hard-wood floor, which becomes slippery as the feet sweat. Thus, a sticky yoga mat provides the necessary foundation on which to perform the asanas. However, if you regularly practice in an environment that does not have a slippery surface - such as outdoors or on carpet - there really is no need for a yoga mat at all. I have also found that a pair of yoga socks like these - http://www.gaiam.com/retail/product/95-9196_MSTR - works just as well as a mat without all of the hassle and a fraction of the cost.
Whether you go with a standard mat, a Pilates mat, socks, or one of the many "green" options available these days, there is a yoga mat made just for you! I hope the above information helps you decide.