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 as well. There is a very specific 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 keeping your balance. (Try standing on one leg on top of your bed and you'll see what we mean.) You also want some cushion for the seated or lying down portion of your classes. Knees, hips, and sit bones are all much happier when properly cushioned from hard wood or poured 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 for them, like the 6mm Manduka PRO, which is thick but not too "squishy." Another option often seen in class if you want some extra cushion is to simply double up and layer two mats on top of each other.
Those that prefer a thinner mat usually 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 really want zero cushioning, go for one of these, however they are best used on top of carpeting or another mat in our opinion. We tested the 1.6mm Jade Voyager, but preferred the 2mm Gaiam Foldable, and gave it our Top Pick for Travel award. Finally, there are also thicker 1/2" (13mm) mats out there. You'll see these mats in many gyms for stretching or doing ab work on. While they offer great cushion for your back, they are challenging to do yoga on, and as such we did not include any 1/2" models in this review.
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, 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 which you then use on a wood floor, some poses will be painful if not impossible to do. 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.
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. You'll want something with good traction, comfort, and stability, but if you aren't even sure if this practice is for you then it makes sense to purchase a less expensive mat to begin with. Our Best Buy winner, the Prana E.C.O., costs only $48, and is still a high performing mat. The E.C.O., as well as the similar Hugger Mugger Earth Elements, have decent traction and are lightweight and easy to tote around. They aren't very stable, but if you are just beginning your practice you're probably not ready to start jumping all over the place anyway. Look first for a model that is comfortable and cushions your joints and bones, which may not be used to this type of exertion.
These classes are more rigorous than a Basic Class. They involve multiple Sun Salutations and vinyasas (half-Sun Salutations between each pose) and you are constantly moving on the mat. This style works best with a yoga mat with great traction, since the pose you'll hold most often (Downward Facing Dog) requires you to push in one direction with your hands and the other direction with your feet. If your mat is at all slippery then you'll be constantly readjusting your hands in this pose, which is annoying, and there's also the potential for your hands to slip and jar yourself. Since you'll be working so hard, your internal temperature will also heat up and cause your palms to sweat. This will further impede your traction, so look 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 Manduka eKO, the Jade Harmony Professional, and the Lululemon The Reversible Mat.
Restorative or Yin Classes
Restorative classes do not involve 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.
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 sop up the sweat, and you'll want to pick a mat that has a "closed-cell" construction, like the Prana E.C.O. or the Manduka PRO. This prevents too much 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 even require much traction on the mat, but if you practice a heated Vinyasa style, the opt for a model with great wet traction as well, like the Lululemon The Reversible 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 Third Eye Chakra. The Aurorae Synergy and Kulae Elite Hot Hybrid are microfiber towels bonded over a PER (Polymer Environmental Resin) bottom. The whole thing goes in the wash after class and comes out smelling fresh each time, saving you the hassle of trying to rinse off your mat in the shower, and/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 as least toxic as possible, or by using only "natural" materials in their products, or even planting a tree for every mat that they make. While we think this is a great thing, consumers should be aware of the marketing trend called "greenwashing," whereby a product is marketed for its eco properties when it might not actually be very "green." While we can't deeply investigate every manufacturer's materials and processes, we will discuss what the different mats we tested are made of and how they are marketed.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
The original and still 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 been 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. Clearly, these are not really 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 that the production of their PVC mats is toxic emission free, as well as phthalate free, and Gaiam states that their mat is made without the "six most harmful phthalates." Manduka also justifies making and selling PVC mats (and you buying them) as 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'll let you decide whether that's an accurate statement or not, but will say that 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 long alternative to PVC has been rubber mats. These mats are made from rubber harvested from the Pará rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Thin slices are made through the bark of the tree, and a milky latex runs out and is collected in buckets. This liquid is then refined into rubber. While some rubber mats are classified 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. While this is a renewable resource (a rubber tree can be "harvested" for up to 30 years), when pristine rainforest is cut down to make way for a mono-culture 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.)
Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE)
TPEs are materials that have both "plastic" and "elastic" properties. At their core, they are polyester, polyurethane or polystyrene compounds that can be injection molded, and they are used 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, etc., if you know where to send your old mat. The Prana E.C.O. TPE mat is supposed to be recyclable, but that's not going to happen if you put it out with your comingled glass and paper boxes. While Manduka has a method of recycling their TPE mat (not reviewed here), Hugger Mugger and Prana have no information on their websites on how to actually make this happen.
Polymer Environmental Resin (PER)
PER is actually 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 scientists 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 renewable resource that is biodegradable, 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 be used for producing food. In addition, the dying process involves a high water use and even "natural dyes" use toxic mordants. Unfortunately, cotton mats just don't provide the same benefits of 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 just have to wade through the hype to figure out what that actually is.
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 there are few options that deliver both. If you compare our scoring chart, most mats that received a high score for Portability did not score well for Comfort & Stability, and vice versa. The reason is this. Heavier mats are more stable, and usually thicker and therefore more comfortable. Lighter mats are easier to tote around, and 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. Having 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 nice support during Savasana, but they also protect your joints and bones during many other poses as well. The one mat that offered the same level of good comfort and portability was the Jade Harmony Professional. It's slightly lighter and thinner than a full 5mm mat, therefore more portable, but still provides good comfort and stability.
We gave these different metrics equal weighting in our scoring, but realistically, Portability is important only if you take public transportation, walk or bike to your studio. For those of us (and probably the majority of yogis) who either drive to our studios or practice at home, carrying that 6 or 7 pound mat from our car to class isn't that big of a deal breaker. 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 week-long expedition instead of a 90 minute class! Saving a pound or three on your mat in this instance helps lighten the load, particularly if you go with the Kulae Elite Hot Hybrid, which weighs a little over 2 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 afterwards. While it's probably not high on your maintenance list, a little care for your mat goes a long way. A quick wipe with 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, hosing it off in the shower or backyard, and Jade Yoga says their Harmony mats can go in a front-loader on gentle. For cleaning agents, mild soaps and/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 as they have a "closed-cell" structure — but they can still get "funky" if not taken care of properly, particularly if used for hot yoga where they are regularly drenched in sweat. If you roll your mat up straight after class and leave it like that in a closet until the next time you use it without a rinse or wipe down, it will soon become a stinky distraction. Manduka recommends only wiping down their PRO series mats, and never spraying it with a hose or in the shower, or soaking it the tub or washing machine. We've done all of the above with other PVC mats in the past, but you definitely want to follow each manufacturer's instructions. The best cleaning option with these mats is to use a water or mild soap spray, or a 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 mixed in. These mats can be dried 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 (it can be hard to get them to lay completely flat even) 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 simply 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 afterwards. We've washed the Kulae Elite Hot Hybrid and Aurorae Synergy model dozens and dozens of times and they are still looking (and smelling) great.
A final note on caring for your yoga mat: be careful how you store it, particularly if you have pets. Our cats have clawed up more than one old mat when we forgot to put it away.