Do I need a yoga mat? A guide for new practitioners
When you’re looking to start a home practice you might think that a yoga mat is essential. You may begin a Google search for “quality yoga mats”, “best yoga mats”, or “top yoga mat picks” and be bombarded with numerous results. Manduka mats, Jade yoga mats, some brand-named cork yoga mats, and much more fill your page.
You’re then left questioning if you should buy a thicker mat or a lightweight mat. Should it include all-natural materials or are synthetic materials inevitable? Perhaps your yoga instructor has suggested that you buy a mat with a good grip for sweatier practices. Do you need a yoga towel? Or what about a travel mat?
The process can quickly become overwhelming. You started out excited to purchase a standard yoga mat and ended up sobbing into your keyboard.
All this begs the question, “Do I really need a yoga mat?”
Answers will vary among yoga teachers. Personally, I use a Liforme original yoga mat because of its excellent grip, unique alignment markings, biodegradability, and lack of toxic chemicals. It is a high-quality mat I have frequently recommended to my students.
Liforme isn’t cheap, though. It’s an investment, and one I recommend when you have an established home practice – but that doesn’t have to mean a daily practice.
The good news is whether you’re just starting out or you have practiced for a long time, you never have to buy an expensive mat.
A Brief History of the Yoga Mat
First, let me contextualize the yoga mat a little. Why? Because I believe we can make the best decisions after understanding the context.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. Mats, however, have not. So, what did the first yogis use?
The Yoga Mat of the Ancient Yogi
Ancient yogis did few physical practices, because yoga was more meditational. They therefore would practice directly on the ground. Kusha grass may have been used for a little cushioning, but beyond that, it was the yogi, his bare feet, and the Earth.
These yogis also used animal skins (not hunted by the yogis themselves). Deer and tiger hide made great cushioning and provided a little insulation. The choice to use Kusha grass, deer, and tiger hide was not arbitrary. It was actually prescribed in Shvetashvatara Upanishad (one of the earliest yogic texts).
Seated in an easy posture, on a (deer or tiger) skin, placed on Kusha grass, worshipping Ganapati with fruits and sweetmeats, placing the right palm on the left, holding the throat and head in the same line, the lips closed and firm, facing the east or the north, the eyes fixed on the tip of the nose, avoiding too much food or fasting, the Nâdis should be purified, without which the practice will be fruitless.
Some sources suggest that these animals in particular had some significance. Deer are difficult to control, a signal to the yogi to try to control the fluctuations of the mind during meditation. Tigers represented energy and dynamism – something the yogi tried to maintain during asana practice.
What happened when yoga started to become more widespread?
As yoga began to gain popularity, the use of deer and tiger hide became less and less feasible. One of the first tenets of yoga is “do no harm”, so it’s easy to see why animal skins were replaced as an alternative with the spread of yoga.
These alternatives consisted of simple organic cotton sheets or blankets, something akin to what we now call the yoga towel, or even jute fiber mats. In the west, cotton blankets atop hardwood floors was the norm. However, as you can imagine, such a setup would lead to slipping and sliding. As a result, poses required a lot of strength to prevent this. That said, a cotton sheet is arguably a better choice – it lacks synthetic materials, is lightweight, and can be thrown in the washing machine or soaked in warm water to clean.
So, when did the sticky yoga mat emerge?
In the late 1960s, a German woman named Angela Farmer underwent surgery that prevented her from sweating from her hands and feet. Despite this, she studied yoga under one of modern yoga’s founding fathers, BKS Iyengar. Iyengar’s students practiced directly on hard surfaces, using only the props he allowed.
Farmer needed somehow to gain some traction between her hands and feet and the surface below. Her solution was a towel-sized piece of carpet underlay. Her father pitched the idea of the “yoga mat” to the manufacturers, and thus we have the first use of the modern-day yoga mat.
Yoga boomed in the 1990s, and hasn’t really stopped since. Subsequently, the carpet-underlay mat has been rehashed several times. For example, as yoga gained popularoty in the U.S, so did the yoga mat. Shipping vast quantities of Farmer’s mats overseas was expensive.
Enter Sara chambers – founder of the well-established brand “Hugger Mugger”. In the 1990s Hugger Mugger manufactured and sold the first purpose-made yoga mats that are now ubiquitous to yoga. Other companies then produced their own similar versions, all with varying sizes, materials, and costs.
In essence, the yoga mat is a modern western addition to an ancient eastern practice.
How eco-friendly was the early yoga mat?
The standard mats back then proudly boasted non-slip surfaces making it a great choice for sweaty flows (or those like me who are dripping sweat just by looking at their mat).
The problem, though, was these mats were made from harmful synthetic materials including polyvinyl chloride. This is a chemical that is a known endocrine disruptor and also is not sustainable at all as it is non-biodegradable.
A new yoga mat that gives off a potent chemical smell (a process known as off-gassing) may indeed be a PVC mat. These and the mildly better TPE yoga mats (TPE meaning “thermoplastic elastomer”) may be a cheaper option. But, as they are not produced in a sustainable manner, they can hardly be regarded as a high-quality yoga mat.
What about the yoga mat nowadays?
Now you are spoilt for choice. Several styles abound to meet your specific needs. Many brands boast non-toxic, eco-friendly mats with great grip, making them perfect for all yoga practices, including a hot yoga class.
You have a choice of a thick mat or cushy mat for joint pain, extra long mats for tall people, and even cork mats for those with latex allergies. (Mats with a natural rubber base are made from rubber trees, which contain natural latex).
Ironically, some top brands now sell jute mats, bringing us almost full circle.
Do I need a yoga mat?
The short answer? No. The best part? This is really up to you to decide. Now that you have some context, you can make a more informed decision.
First, it is necessary to understand that the yoga mat is these days synonymous with an exercise mat. Yoga, though, has not nor ever will be minimized to a form of exercise. Though its physical practice will improve our strength and flexibility over time, this is not the be-all and end-all of yoga. It is more of a happy side-effect.
Some considerations when pondering yoga mats
If you practice on a hard surface, then a machine-washable blanket providing extra cushioning for sore joints may suffice. This is how it was done for thousands of years.
If a mat is out of your budget right now, know that it’s TOTALLY OK to go without it. Suitable alternatives include cotton blankets or towels, or even directly on a low-pile carpet. Just know that you will be called upon to engage your muscles a little more to prevent sliding. This will over time build strength.
If one is within your budget and you really feel you’d benefit from one, then know that there is no such thing as a perfect yoga mat. Opt for one that is void of synthetic material with the knowledge that this might be the pricier option. Thicker mats or longer mats will be on the heavier side. Non-toxic rubber mats can get expensive. Cheaper options may include organic cotton mats, jute mats, or cork mats.
If you practice at a yoga studio check to see if they require mats. Some may, but most probably won’t. Keep in mind that thicker yoga mats will be heavier to lug back and forth to the studio.
My personal journey with yoga mats
When I first started practicing, I didn’t have a mat. I practiced on my hardwood floor in my living room. This was fine until I reached the humid Japanese summer months. I was sweating so much I kept sliding. Puddles were forming on the ground below, and I had not yet developed the strength to keep me from losing grip. I ended up holding my breath in almost every asana – quite the opposite of what one is supposed to do.
I transitioned to my carpeted bedroom. This seemed a little better at first, and actually was fantastic in winter as it gave me a little insulation and better grip. However, there were some painful moments when I did slide. Carpet burn on your paws is NOT ideal.
So, what was my first yoga mat like?
After about six months of practice, it was time for me to bite the bullet and purchase a mat. I was frustrated, injured, and not feeling these blissful benefits everyone was talking about. So, I ended up buying a PVC mat as it was the first one I saw in the store, and was also the only image I had in mind of a yoga mat. I wish I knew then what I know now, and had opted for a towel, or something a little friendlier than the bright green monstrosity I brought home with me.
The mat stank. For days! A good mat will not stink. My little apartment reeked of synthetic rubber. This mat also started to chip fairly quickly. I’d find little bright green squares dotted about my apartment like I’d emptied out a can of peas everywhere. It had disintegrated beyond use within half a year. Now, it is used in my partner’s garage for him to lie on when he is underneath a car pretending to know what he is doing. Before that, I used it as floor lining in my closet to prevent storage boxes from making scratches on the floor. Its overall value as a yoga mat was low. As a piece of household material, pretty versatile!
What yoga mat do I use now?
Now, I use a Liforme mat that has lasted me years of daily yoga practice. I recommend this mat to beginners who are completely new to the practice and who are concerned about injury, particularly in the summer months and winter months (dry hands on a dry floor means very little traction).
However, I do make sure to contextualize the yoga mat for them. No student should ever feel pressure to buy an expensive yoga mat. No ancient yogi would have.
As Andrea Rain puts it inthis article, “One of the most ubiquitous symbols of yoga’s commercialization is the mat, which many consider a necessity to prevent slipping, to mark territory in crowded classes or to create a ritual space. The most committed adherents can shell out more than $100 for a top-of-the-line mat.”
Whether you choose to buy a mat or not, proceed with caution.
No mat? Great! Be sure to try a few classes of varying intensity and to have towels and blankets at hand for cushioning and sweat-wiping. If it works for you, and you are not at risk of injury, then you, my friend, have the most budget-friendly option available whilst staying true to the roots of yoga.
Yes to a mat? Great! It needs to be non-toxic to prevent harm to you, your family (including pets), and the planet. For more information, read aboutthe 20 best non-toxic mats in 2023. Your “mat” could be a commercial purchase or an old towel. This is totally up to you.
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Hi, I'm Ellie Smith. I'm passionate about sharing how the practices and principles of yoga can enhance our public speaking presence. Whether you're a university student, new or returning professional, or simply want to boost your confidence behind the mic, I'm here to help guide you on your yoga journey so you can go from the pose to the podium with ease.