For aspiring yogis, the search for the right yoga mat is a big part of starting out. What material works best and does that change depending on the type of yoga? How important are props if you are doing most of your exercises at home?
While the answers vary according to personal preference, there are some key features to keep in mind. We ask four yoga teachers to share their insights and recommendations for making the best choice.
The features to consider when looking for a yoga mat
Thickness should be one of the first things to look out for, as it affects the impact of the poses on your joints. Brands offer measurements from 1.5 millimetres to a little more than 6mm. Some go all the way up to 8mm.
"Usually beginners prefer a thicker mat as kneeling on the floor can be uncomfortable," says Danielle Bailey, who has been teaching yoga for 12 years and is currently a lead instructor at Yoga House in Dubai. Her background is rooted in hatha and power yoga, along with meditation.
Although thicker mats offer extra cushioning, there is a trade-off. Thinner mats better allow for the “feeling of connecting with the Earth and grounding through the soles of the feet,” Bailey explains.
"Thicker does not always mean better," Nilaya House and karma yoga teacher Dionne James adds. "It's highly advisable to use a thicker mat for sensitive joints, but on the flip side, the thicker the mat, the harder to balance".
Specialising in vinyasa flow and restorative yoga, James has been teaching for 14 years and recently joined as a new instructor at Shimis in Al Quoz.
So think about where you practice the most – hardwood floors, in carpeted rooms, outdoors on the grass or a sandy beach. If you’re on a harder surface, you can go up a few millimetres in thickness.
How thick a mat is also affects portability and weight. For those who struggle with storage space, thin mats are easier to fold or roll up and squeeze into small spaces. They are also better for yogis on the go.
The type of mat that prevents slippage
Preventing slippage is also important if you find yourself prone to sliding off the mat during poses. So texture, typically determined by material, is the next thing to think about. "You might want to look for an anti-slip mat with a good grip. On many occasions I have had students comment that their hands slip during asanas such as downward-facing dog," Bailey says.
"Material and texture need to be very absorbent for sweat and for a good grip," says Sally Rached, who teaches in the UAE and Lebanon and has been practising for seven years. Better grip also allows you to focus on steadying yourself or going deeper into your poses.
Yoga mats are typically made of rubber, cotton or PVC, also known as vinyl. Among these, PVC mats tend to be the most slippery when new and require frequent use to wear them down. Rubber mats, or those with a blend of rubber and cotton, grant you more grip from the start, though they may be stiffer to practise on.
Some mats have a top layer of polyurethane, which gives them a shinier finish while providing a dry-wicking surface that keeps the mat moistureless.
Matching the mat with the yoga practice
Before settling on your mat, it's worth considering the specific type of yoga practice you intend to use it for. Hot yoga may call for mats that offer more grip. In this case, James suggests the use of yoga towels.
“Most mats should cross over to all styles, with the exception of hot yoga, as the sweat makes regular mats extra-slippery,” James says.
Absorbency of the mat’s material is also important; those made of rubber or a cotton blend tend to soak up sweat faster. PVC mats tend to be stickier and may not feel comfortable to the touch.
Rached says that yin yoga, which is slower and involves holding poses for longer, is best matched with thicker mats. She says this will increase comfort and lead to better protection of the joints.
For those who are still exploring various of types of yoga, Bailey suggests looking at alignment mats – which have markings or guide lines on top as part of the design – to help with positioning the body correctly.
Are props worth the extra cost?
Then there are props to consider. These can help with alignment (blocks), easing into difficult poses (bolsters) and deepening stretches (straps).
“I would always recommend props to beginners. Blocks are used as an extension of your arm if the student cannot reach as far due to less flexibility. In time, the props can be taken away,” James says. “Bolsters offer an entirely different way of practising. Everyone, seasoned practitioner or newbie, should invest in one.”
Jevily Florida Painagan, who teaches at Dryp and Inspire Yoga in Dubai, agrees. "They're extremely important, and they eventually go a long way with daily yoga routines," she says. Painagan's classes range from traditional vinyasa and hatha yoga to more contemporary fitness-focused styles such as yoga barre and aerial yoga. She also teachers warm yin yoga.
“For some classes, such as yin yoga or more restorative classes, bolsters and blocks are needed. Bolsters can also be used during sleep. They’re worth the extra cost – my bolster is the one I first bought when I started my yoga journey eight years ago,” she adds.
For those on a budget, Bailey offers some alternatives. “One can improvise with objects found at home to assist the asana, such as a thick book to replace a block and cushions as bolsters. A dressing gown belt can also be used as a strap,” she suggests.
One last thing to consider
So what is the most important thing when buying a mat? “That they are eco-friendly," says Bailey. "Yoga is not only about how you treat your body, but also about how you treat others, the environment and all beings.”
Rached adds: “Yogis care for the planet and sustainability, so we need to make sure that the mat we are buying is cruelty-free, natural and 100 per cent biodegradable.”
In this area, material defines much of what constitutes an eco-friendly mat. PVC mats are the most harmful to the environment, not only because of how they are manufactured, which involves the release of toxic chemical compounds, but also because they are non-biodegradable.
Various brands have adopted environmentally conscious measures, including recycling materials, plastic-free packaging and the use of carbon-neutral factories.