A yoga mat might seem superfluous at first. After all, all you do is stand or lie on it -- things that you're quite capable on doing on the bare floor or with a regular exercise mat. But a good yoga mat cushions your spine and provides a sanitary barrier against dirt, splinters and anything else you might pick up from the floor or shared yoga mats -- including athlete's foot and plantar warts.
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A good yoga mat provides a stable, nonslip surface so you don't need to worry about slipping or falling. The mat also delineates the borders of your personal territory, in what might otherwise be a very crowded class with very little personal space available.
Many conventional yoga mats are made of PVC. According to Consumer Reports, PVC yoga mats can contain lead and cadmium. Some yoga mats also contain phthalates, which Kristi Wiedemann, science and policy analyst for Consumer Reports, notes have been linked to hormone disruption. If avoiding these factors is important to you, you might opt for an eco-friendly yoga mat made of plant fibers, toxin-free or biodegradable plastics and natural rubber latex.
Stickiness and Texture
PVC mats tend to be sticky and smooth. Mats made of less-sticky materials often have raised, tactile patterns to provide extra traction. How much stickiness, and what texture -- or lack thereof -- you prefer are both matters of personal preference. Many yoga studios are willing to loan you a mat for your first class. This gives you a chance to experience one kind of mat, then narrow down from there whether you'd prefer a different texture.
Even if your yoga mat is made of nifty, eco-friendly, recycled material, it won't do you any good if it's too short to cushion your body, or so large that you end up with a foot of empty space on it. Most yoga mats are either 68 or 72 inches long, but you can also purchase extra-short or extra-long models, as short as 5 feet or as long as 7 feet.
Yoga mats typically range from 1/16 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch thick. The thicker a mat is, the heavier it is and the harder to fold, but it also offers more cushioning. Thin mats, by comparison, are good if you're traveling or carrying the mat for long distances; they fold down small and light, but don't offer much cushioning. In the end, choosing yoga mat thickness is again a matter of personal preference, and you may want a thick mat for home and a thin one for travel.
A good yoga mat will resist the regular wear and tear of use, and stubbornly resist odors. But even the best yoga mat needs regular care to perform its best. Donna Raskin of Yoga Journal recommends rubbing your mat with a solution of 2 cups of water and four drops of dish soap, wiping it clean, rubbing it with a towel and then hanging it to air dry. Treat heavy soil by submerging the mat in a solution of warm water and a few drops of detergent. Squeeze out the excess water and hang the mat to dry.