Runners have many options when it comes to running shoes (minimalist, barefoot, trail, street, pronation correctors, etc.), as do yogis with their mats. The number of mats and different types now available is staggering, and can lead to confusion. We hope to cut through the hype to give you the essential information you need, and to help you buy your next yoga mat, no matter what style you practice. Our goal is to cover the best options for your practice, go over the different materials used, weigh in on the importance of portability vs. comfort & stability, and to give you tips for keeping it clean.
The thickness of your mat is a key consideration; this is where specifically designated "yoga" mats get separated from other types of mats used in gyms for ab work or Pilates classes. Yoga mats are typically between 3 and 5mm thick (or 1/8 to 3/16 inches), with some thinner 1-2mm "travel mat" options thrown in the mix. There is a particular reason for this thickness; in most styles of yoga, except for Restorative or Yin classes, a large portion of the class is spent in standing postures. When standing on a yoga mat, you need some cushioning for your joints, but too much cushion is detrimental to your balance; try standing on one leg on top of your bed, and you'll see what we mean. You also want cushioning for the seated and lying down portions of your class.
When on the ground, your entire body is much happier when properly cushioned from hardwood or cement floors. Mats of 4-5mm are by far the most popular thickness used, as this strikes the perfect balance for most people. Some people require or prefer extra cushioning, and there are a few yoga-specific thicker mats out there, like the 6mm Manduka PRO, which is thick but not too "squishy." If you are looking for additional cushion, you can layer two mats on top of each other or fold your mat over during poses on your knees. Most yoga studios also offer blankets that you can use under your knees if you decide to opt for a thin mat.
Those that prefer a thinner mat can opt for a 3mm version, but most brands manufacture a 1-2mm travel mat that rolls up tightly and/or folds up to fit in your suitcase or duffel bag. If you want zero cushioning, go for one of these. These mats also tend to be less expensive than thick ones because there is not as much material at play. Therefore, if you are looking to save money and still have something high-quality, this may be a good option. When we tested the Lululemon Travel Mat, we found using a blanket during practice worked, and we loved the quality, which is why it won our Best Buy Award.
Thicker mats such as the Clever Yoga Better Grip (which is 6.5 mm) are similar to the mats you see in many gyms for stretching or doing ab work. While they offer great cushion for your back, they are challenging to do yoga on, and often do not last very long.
More than anything, the style of yoga that you practice most often will help you determine what you need in a mat. With the different kinds of yoga classes expanding and specializing, so too are the mats on the market. While that doesn't mean that you can't use the same yoga mat for many different styles, we think you'll be happier if you pick one that suits your practice and body type. For example, if you don't have a lot of "natural" cushioning and purchase a thin yoga mat and use on a wood floor, some poses may be painful.
Conversely, if you purchase an extra-thick mat but have a practice that involves frequently balancing on one leg, you'll have a harder time in those poses. Here are some recommendations for which mats go with which styles. However, if you do like a variety of yoga, you'll be able to find something that lands in the middle.
Basic Classes (Level 1)
If you are new to yoga or prefer a calmer and gentler practice, you don't need to go all-in with a $100 yoga mat, but you will want something with good traction, comfort, and stability. If you aren't even sure if this practice is for you, then it makes sense to purchase a less expensive mat, or to rent a mat from the studio. Our Best Buy winner, the Lululemon Travel Mat, offers great traction for the price. Even though it does not have much cushion, it's easy to add more by folding it over or grabbing a blanket. The extra traction makes for safe practice, especially if you are a beginner. Look first for a model that offers a good amount of traction, and if you are willing to spend the extra money, something that offers some cushion is important as well. A mat that offers the best of both without breaking the bank is Lululemon The Mat, which is a thicker version of Lululemon Travel Mat.
These classes are more rigorous than a basic class. Usually, involving multiple Sun Salutations and vinyasas, you are constantly moving on the mat. This style works best with a yoga mat that has great traction, as the pose that you'll hold most often is Downward Facing Dog, which requires you to push in opposite directions with your hands and feet. If your mat is slippery, you'll constantly be readjusting your hands, which certainly isn't ideal. There's also potential for your hands to slip, and you may hurt yourself. Since you'll be working hard, your internal temperature will also heat up and cause your palms to sweat, potentially impeding your traction; we recommend looking for a mat with great dry and wet traction. The models that we tested that work best for these classes are our Editors' Choice winner, the Yoloha Native Cork, the Guru Grid, and the Lululemon The Reversible Mat.
Restorative or Yin Classes
Restorative classes do not involve the active engagement of your muscles. Instead, they use the force of gravity along with time to bring about deep releases in your muscles and fascia (connective tissue). These classes take place primarily in seated postures or even lying on the ground — it's affectionately referred to as "nap yoga" — so for this style you'll want a plush and comfortable yoga mat that is at least 5mm thick, or even thicker, like the 6mm Manduka PRO, our Top Pick for Comfort. But again, most studios (especially Yin studios) offer blankets to provide extra cushion. If you practice mixed styles of yoga, we suggest prioritizing traction over thickness.
Bikram, Moksha, TruFusion, Hot 103, the list goes on. If you practice any of these styles (or something similar), then you are going to sweat sweat sweat during your class. Most people use a towel on top of their yoga mat to soak up the sweat. You'll want to pick a mat that has a "closed-cell" construction, like the Yoloha Native Cork or the Guru Grid. Closed-cell construction prevents sweat from absorbing into the mat, which then stays there and can make your mat "funky" no matter how often you clean it. Some of these yoga styles don't require much traction, but if you practice a heated Vinyasa style, then opt for a model with great wet traction as well, like the Lululemon The Reversible Mat or the Lululemon Travel Mat.
Using a towel on top of your yoga mat gives you the option to use the mat by itself for different styles of classes. But if you are a die-hard Hot Yogi, then there are some great towel/mat hybrids out there that will blow your mind. The Aurorae Synergy and Mika Mat are microfiber towels bonded over a PER (Polymer Environmental Resin) bottom. The whole thing goes in the wash as you see fit and comes out smelling fresh each time, saving you the hassle of trying to rinse off your mat in the shower or having to put your face on a stinky mat.
Of all the different industries out there, many yoga mat manufacturers seem dedicated to providing a "green" product, whether it's by ensuring that the manufacturing process is least toxic, by using only "natural" materials in their products, or even planting a tree for every mat that they make. While these are exceptional practices, you should be aware of the marketing trend called "greenwashing", when a product is marketed for its eco properties when it might not be very "green". While we cannot deeply investigate every manufacturer's materials and processes, we discuss different materials used and how they're marketed. In the end, buying once should be the primary goal as not to waste material.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
The original and most common type of material used in yoga mats is PVC. It's a hydrocarbon product, aka, plastic, and when turned into a yoga mat, the production usually involves the addition of phthalates to keep the plastic malleable and supple. PVC is a known carcinogen and is impossible to recycle because it contains too many toxins. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters and have banned from children's toys. Phthalates "off-gas" from the materials they are in, particularly when heated and can be inhaled in dust particles or absorbed through the skin. These are not the kind of materials you want to be lying and sweating on.
We tested both the PVC Manduka PRO and PVC Gaiam Premium Sticky mats in this review. Manduka proudly states the production of their PVC mats is toxic emission-free, as well as phthalate-free. Gaiam says that their mat does not have the "six most harmful phthalates". Manduka justifies making and selling PVC mats because their longevity makes them more "eco-friendly" than a rubber or TPE mat that ends up in a landfill after a year or two. We will say the more we learn about the negative side of PVC, the less we want to use one. Note that for people with latex allergies, a PVC mat may be their best option due to the presence of natural latex found in rubber mats, explained below.
A great alternative to PVC has been rubber mats. These mats come from rubber harvested from the Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Thin slices are cut from the bark of the tree, create a milky latex that runs out and collected in buckets. After, this liquid is refined into rubber. While some rubber mats are marketed as 99% latex-free, this might not be enough for someone with a sensitivity to latex, and they should avoid rubber mats. Rubber harvesting occurs in tropical and sub-tropical climates in Southeast Asia and Brazil; this is a renewable resource as a rubber tree can be "harvested" for up to 30 years. However, when the pristine rainforest is cut down to make way for a monoculture of rubber trees, it has profound effects on the ecosystem. For this reason, manufacturers like Prana and Manduka have committed to using only non-Amazonian rubber in their rubber mats, like the Prana Revolution and Manduka eKO. (Though they don't elaborate on why Malaysian rubber plantations are not as disruptive as Amazonian ones.) Be wary of the companies that do not disclose where their recycled material comes from.
Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE)
TPEs are materials that have both "plastic" and "elastic" properties. They are polyester, polyurethane, or polystyrene compounds that can be injection molded, and are in a wide range of products, from snowmobile tracks to medical catheters. TPE mats can be completely recycled and remade into new mats or flip flops if you know where to send your old mat. The Prana E.C.O. TPE mat is meant to be recyclable, but that's not going to happen if you simply put it out with your commingled glass and paper boxes. Manduka has a method of recycling their TPE mat (not reviewed here), but Hugger Mugger, Clever Yoga Better Grip, and Prana have no information on their websites on how to make this happen.
Polymer Environmental Resin (PER)
PER is made from PVC but without the phthalates and harmful toxins and emissions required to turn PVC into a yoga mat. It is also recyclable and releases less toxic emissions than PVC if incinerated. It does seem a little strange that they make this "environmentally-friendly" product from something that is not so "green," but we'll take the scientist's word on this one. Both of the hybrid towel/mats in this review, the Aurorae Synergy and the Kulae Elite Hot Hybrid, have a PER bottom.
After reading about all the above options, cotton rugs are looking more and more appealing! Cotton is a biodegradable and renewable resource, and the organic variety does not contain any harmful chemicals or contribute much to water pollution. However, cotton and particularly conventional cotton does have an environmental impact. Such as high water use, water pollution from insecticides and defoliants, and using land that could otherwise use for producing food. Also, the dying process involves high water use, and even "natural dyes" use toxic mordants. Unfortunately, cotton mats don't provide the same benefits as sticky mats, such as traction and comfort, and aren't likely to replace them any time soon.
Yoga mat manufacturers know that their customers tend to be "eco-conscious" and want to purchase environmentally friendly products. Sometimes you have to wade through the hype to figure out what is what.
Cork mats are a relatively new fad that has taken off in the past year. They are an exceptional, sustainable option in which cork is a self-cleaning agent, which ensures ease of caring for your new purchase. Cork is a biodegradable material and is easy to dispose of when the time comes. There are plenty of cork mats out there, but our favorite is the Yoloha Native Cork because it is very durable. Other companies, such as Giam's cork mat, only use flakes of cork that easily come off if your practice is too rigorous.
Portability vs Comfort & Stability
One of the big trade-offs in purchasing a yoga mat is whether you choose one that is portable, or comfortable and stable. Unfortunately, few options deliver both. Most mats that received a high score for portability did not score well in comfort & stability, and vice versa, as heavier mats are more stable and usually thicker and, therefore, more comfortable. Lighter mats are easier to tote around. While some might be comfortable to lie on, like the Prana E.C.O., they tend to move on you while doing postures like jumping from Downward Facing Dog to standing.
Practicing on a stable yoga mat is important from a safety perspective; we wouldn't want our mat shifting underneath us while trying to pike up into headstand. Comfortable mats not only give you excellent support during Savasana, but they also protect your joints and bones during many other poses. The one mat that offered the same level of good comfort and portability was the Jade Harmony. It's slightly lighter and thinner than a full 5mm mat, therefore more portable, but still provides good comfort and stability. The Yoloha Native Cork is also lightweight and comfortable; while you do pay a pretty penny for it, it's worth the price tag if you have a regular practice and are looking for something high quality.
For those of us who drive to our studio or practice at home, carrying a six or seven-pound mat from our car to class isn't a dealbreaker. You'll also want to consider the weight of your mat if you practice Hot Yoga and take a towel, shower towel, change of clothes, and toiletries to your studio. Sometimes our yoga bag feels like we are going on a month-long expedition instead of a 90-minute class! Saving a pound or three on your mat helps lighten the load; if you're hoping to do so, the Aurorae Synergy weighs a little over two pounds and replaces your mat and towel.
Caring for Your Mat
With people's busy schedules and hectic lives, some of us barely have time to make it to a yoga class, let alone take the time to deep clean our mats afterward. While it's probably not high on your maintenance list, a little care for your mat goes a long way. A quick wipe with a damp cloth after every class is a good start, and here are some other tips and recommendations based on the type of mat you buy.
Rubber - Since these mats have an "open-cell" structure, they occasionally need a deeper cleaning than a simple wipe down with water. These types absorb the sweat and oils from your body, so the frequency of deep cleans depends on how much you use it and how much you sweat. With a regular three day a week practice, performing a monthly deep clean should keep it in good shape. Deep clean options include soaking it in a bathtub or hosing it off in the shower or backyard. The Jade Yoga Harmony and Mika Mat can go in a front-loader on gentle. For cleaning agents, mild soaps or vinegar are good options. Manduka recommends using vinegar with their rubber mats, as it penetrates the rubber and restores moisture to the inside, which should prolong its lifespan. Rubber mats should be hung or laid flat to dry but never in direct sunlight, as this causes the rubber to break down.
PVC and TPE - These mats don't need as often a deep clean as a rubber one due to their "closed-cell" structure. However, this type of mat can still get "funky fresh" if not taken care of properly, particularly if used for hot yoga, where it regularly gets drenched in sweat. If you roll your mat up straight after class and leave in a closet until the next time you use it without a rinse or wipe down, it will soon become a stinky distraction. Lululemon recommends only wiping down their PRO series mats, and never spraying it with a hose or in the shower, or soaking it in the tub or washing machine. The best cleaning option with these mats is to use water or mild soap spray, or water and essential oil blend to "freshen" it up a bit. Manduka makes a Mat Renew Spray that has a gentle cleaning agent with some essential oil options. These mats can dry in the sun, but be careful how you hang them, particularly the TPE mats. They tend to take on the shape of how they are stored, and it can be hard to get them to lay completely flat. And if they are dried hanging over a bar, you might be left with a permanent crease or fold down the middle.
Hybrids - We can't thank whoever came up with this idea enough! A towel/mat hybrid that you throw in the wash each time? No more struggling with a mat in the shower or tub? It's genius! Just remember to set your washer on gentle (and a front loader without an agitator will make the mat last longer) and hang it up to dry afterward. We've washed the Mika Mat and Aurorae Synergy model dozens and dozens of times and they are still looking (and smelling) great.