Finding the Perfect Yoga Mat
New to yoga? Or have you been practicing for a few months and are now ready to invest in a mat that you can call you own. You do a search online or in your local yoga shop and you see a whole selection of mats, some are different materials and surfaces, all priced differently and you are wondering that if you spend more money you'll get a better mat, than if you spend less. Before you check your credit card balance, let's just start off by saying that just like there is no "perfect" yoga pose, there is truly no perfect yoga mat. Each yogi and individual who practices is different and these disparities can range in a number of ways.
Few examples are your height - you may need a longer mat, or your stance. Some people are extremely light on their feet, while others place all their weight down, sometimes on the forefoot and other times on the heel. Your wrists can be another factor - they may be delicate thus compromising your ability to get into a wheel pose or a handstand, thus more cushioning may be required. Below I have gathered a list of features to look for, as a rule of thumb, when finding based on your own criteria - the perfect yoga mat.
Most of the mats you encounter at your local studio are made of a rubber material designed to grip the floor properly, and most likely, will be purchased keeping environmental and health concerns in mind. When shopping for your mat, however, you prefer a different material - perhaps cotton or for that matter llama fiber! It is advisable in any case that your mat is purchased with the knowledge that its production did not result in harmful toxins being sent into the atmosphere, and that you are not breathing in toxic poisons while in your downward facing dog.
Remember, your yoga mat is your partner and as in a relationship, you do not want to be with toxic people, the same goes for you and your mat. Keep in mind as well, that you will be standing on your mat for extended periods of time with your bare feet (and yes in yoga your feet should always be bare), and you do not want any type of foreign poison entering your through your soles.
Type of material aside, environmental, chemical free, soft, hard, the first and foremost priority is that your mat stays in place while you engage in your warrior 2 or downward facing dog. If your mat slides to and fro, it can potentially turn a peaceful relaxing practice into a stressful one. If you prefer to go with a more organic material, let's say cotton, you can always opt for some silicone adhesive around the edges, but in general it is most advisable, especially for beginners, to go with a non-slip, preferably a natural rubber material. Always remember the more often you clean your mat, the longer it will maintain its non-skid quality - which goes double if you are a Bikram enthusiast who sweats a lot!
Once you've decided on the material and made certain that it will stay in its place, you want to examine its thickness. While a thicker mat may feel more comfortable to lie on or to do wheel poses, it is important to keep in mind that your foot has certain sensors which enable it to ground more firmly when planted on the earth. Too much cushioning can throw your sensors off-balance, causing the heels of your foot to dip below your forefoot, and potentially place more stress on your lower back when doing standing asana for a long period of time or even hand balance poses such as crow. Your mat is designed to keep you grounded and connected to the earth rather the opposite - creating a barrier. If choosing a thicker mat, always test it to make sure you are well grounded and balanced. Keep in mind as well as to how big a footprint it will create in your bag whether by itself or accompanied by several other items (see next point).
While I am not suggesting telling the salesperson that you want to run across the street to the nearest bodega to weigh your mat, or that you stand on your bathroom scale with your mat, your lifestyle correlates very much to the heaviness or better stated, the density of your mat. Is your favorite yoga studio just seconds down the block from your home, or are you constantly on the go, with your mat being accompanied by several other items in your bag such as your 15" MacBook Pro, work clothes, and heels. Rolled up, how compact would it need to be to best utilize the space in your bag?
This may seem like a trivial point at first, but considering that your mat is like your llama - your loyal companion maintaining your equilibrium throughout your practice, you need to go with a color or pattern that will keep you in an uplifted state. Do you like earth tones? Go with a brownish color. Do certain colors put you in a negative mood? Steer clear. Maybe you like a fun pattern or a theme. If you have a certain attachment to your dog, cat or llama, by all means print it on your mat. Remember to make sure that the inks that are used are safe for your skin, and not to print your life partner or other individuals in your life as it could come across as creepy to the subject in mind as well as other observers!
Remember, just like there is no perfect pose, the same thing goes when choosing your mat which ultimately is like choosing your life partner. Treat it with love and as your constant loyal companion - your mat is after all, your partner in practice. Keep it clean and maintain it well, and your gratitude toward it will be returned with an enlightening and uplifting practice.