Functional and colorful, yoga mats have become the new fashion accessory when working out. You can often see them slung around the shoulders of people as diverse as stay-at-home moms and business executives. However, the older the mat, the more likely it is to contain harmful polyvinyl chlorides. Innovators, prompted by environmental awareness, have released more eco-friendly versions of the old mats made of natural rubber or hemp. But there are other surfaces beyond the yoga mat, that will do in a pinch.
If you've just purchased a yoga DVD and can't wait to try it out, but haven't bought your yoga mat yet; you're probably looking around your home wondering if just any, old surface will do. That depends. A thick exercise mat or rug will suffice for seated, supine or prone yoga positions; but not so much for standing or balancing poses. Your feet might slide on the rug when you take your feet apart for Warrior II pose; or trying to balance on one foot on an exercise mat might send you toppling over. Use your bare wood floor for standing postures; not only for the firm, flat surface, but when your feet and hands get a little sweaty from your workout, they stick to the floor better.
For yogis of old, there was no such quandary. The question of whether you need to use a yoga mat would never have arisen. A packed earth floor was the only equipment necessary. Yoga classes have once again taken to the great outdoors as teachers seek new and exciting venues in which to teach their students. It's not unusual to witness a group in downward dog on the beach, in the park or on the side of a mountain. Digging your hands and feet into the sand and earth may be all the support you need as you practice without a yoga mat, but if you're leery of any hidden dangers, wear a pair of swimming shoes and use yoga blocks to protect your hands.
Aficionados of the kundalini style of yoga will have noticed the participants using sheepskin rugs instead of yoga mats. Instructors of this discipline advise using natural materials like cotton, silk, wool or sheepskin, which creates an electro-magnetic barrier from the ground. Yoga purists who strive to live by the tenets of the eightfold path of yoga -- one of which is the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward self or any living thing -- might have a problem with using sheepskin. It's a personal choice.
Yoga students who practice hot yoga, such as Bikram, are well aware of the necessity of towels placed over a yoga mat. Performing intricate poses in 104-degree temperatures requires a non-slip surface. But for those yoga enthusiasts who want to eschew a traditional mat altogether, Gaiam, a long-time purveyor of yoga products, offers a reversible travel yoga mat made of a blend of natural rubber and microfiber. Towels are efficient for absorbing the sweat, but take into account the slip factor to avoid injury.
During the filming of a video for her yoga teacher mother, Jamie Getzwiller noticed the students were slipping on the Navajo rugs they were using in lieu of yoga mats. She came up with the idea for Yoga Paws, which are fingerless, toeless gloves for the hands and feet made of non-slip material. They're the ultimate portable yoga accessory for people who want to be able to practice yoga anywhere without lugging around a mat. Yoga Paws are available on Getzwiller's website and at many retail stores in the United States and abroad.