While it is possible to practice Yoga anywhere on almost any surface, having the right equipment can make it a lot more comfortable and safe. A quality, sturdy mat is helpful to get the most out of your practice. Yoga mats help cushion the joints when sitting or kneeling. They provide crucial traction for standing poses. And for many practitioners, the mat becomes a kind of life raft, an old friend that holds them through the transformation that occurs during months and years of Yoga.
Your optimal Yoga mat will be determined by your needs and goals. Here are some guidelines to help you pick the most appropriate mat for you.
Know Your Body
Before you can know what you will need from a mat, you need to consider your body. Are you tall and bony? Then you will want a longer and thicker mat. You may even want an extra long mat, 70 inches instead of the standard 62. Are you a short and soft-bodied person? You might prefer a shorter, lighter mat that will not be as heavy to move around.
Do you tend to sweat a lot when you practice? If so, you will want a mat with a surface that will not get slick and grotty when sweat gets on it. Another option is to use a Yoga towel between you and the mat. Are you disturbed by the smell of plastic? Then you will want a natural fiber mat instead of a standard petroleum-derived sticky mat.
Understand Your Practice
The next step is to think about the type of support you need the mat to provide. If you usually engage in hot and sweaty Vinyasa practices that involve mostly standing poses with quick transitions, you will want a mat with excellent traction and anti-microbial protection.
The thickness does not really matter if you are not on the ground much, though a soft, extra thick mat might be dangerous for your wrists if you practice Chaturanga Dandasana or arm balances frequently.
If, on the other hand, you practice mostly slow styles with a lot of mat work like Iyengar, Yin, or Restorative, traction is not as important as cushioning. A thicker, softer mat will probably feel better under your knees, hips, and spine.
Astangis tend to use a Yoga blanket, alone or with a mat, for both the increased absorption and ability to jump through more easily. Whatever thickness or length of mat you choose, find one that has been made with closed-cell construction. This means the individual cells of the mat are sealed, and will not create little pockets of bacteria. Mats made with closed cell construction tend to be less prone to shredding than open-cell mats, and therefore last longer.
Home or Away?
Another consideration is where you practice. If you mostly go to studios to take Yoga classes, you might want a lighter mat. This is especially true if you walk, bike, or take public transportation to class. In that case, a 1/4 inch thick mat might be best. Make sure you get a sturdy Yoga mat bag, or a backpack that has straps for attaching a mat at the bottom. A waterproof mat bag is helpful if you live in a tropical climate or a place with a long rainy season. Rolling out a soggy mat to try and practice on is no fun.
If you travel frequently and plan to take your mat with you, a super-thin travel mat is great for squeezing into your carry-on bag. Travel mats are as thin as 1/16 inch, and many can fold into a square for ease of transport.
If, on the other hand, you practice mostly at home, you may want a wider, thicker mat for more comfort and traction. The mat can even live in a designated area of your home that is your Yoga space.
Finally, consider the type of ecological footprint you want to make. Standard polyurethane plasticky mats are cheap and easy to come by, but they breed bacteria because of their open-cell construction. By the time the chemical stink wears off from their manufacturing process, they start to smell like old sweat.
More durable mats are available now that require a larger initial investment but can last much, much longer. Some companies offer mats that are guaranteed to last for life. Many of these mats are still derived from oil, but the fact that they are designed to last for decades redeems their dubious origins.
Some mats are made of renewable resources like rubber, jute, and organic cotton. Rubber mats tend to have an odor when they are first purchased, but this wears off quickly and they are durable mats with excellent traction. Jute and cotton are not as sticky, but suitable for less vigorous practices.
If possible, try out a few mats at your studio, or your friends mats, to see how they feel under your hands, knees, feet and hips. So much of using a Yoga mat is intuitive and personal. Or purchase your mat from a place that offers a satisfaction guarantee, so you can return it if you find it uninspiring.
Choosing a Yoga mat is like picking out a rowboat. You and the mat will be working together to get you where you want to go. It is important that the mat suits your needs without being cumbersome or distracting. And most importantly, it should make you enjoy your practice more.