There's a yoga mat for every lifestyle
Yoga mats are an essential for all but the most hard-core yogis. Thick or thin, heavy or light, they provide a slip-resistant surface for all styles of yoga. They also provide a bit of cushioning between your limbs and unforgiving studio floors or uneven outdoor terrain, depending on where you like to practice.
Experienced yogis say it can take some time to figure out what kind of yoga mat works best for you. Beginners may want to start with a simple, no-frills mat if they aren't sure how often or how long they'll practice yoga. Typically, less expensive mats are a bit thinner and less durable, and they usually aren't sticky enough for an intense hot yoga session, but reviewers say they're just fine for basic classes.
Once you have a better sense of what kind of yoga you like and how often you'll practice, it might be time to step up to a better mat. Experts recommend thicker mats for anyone who needs a bit more cushioning or enjoys practices such as Yin or restorative yoga that move more slowly between each pose. A thinner mat might be a better choice for more advanced moves that require a lot of stability and a solid connection with the ground, as in an Ashtanga or hybrid yoga-cardio class. Ultimately, however, thickness comes down to personal preference: The best mat for you is the one that lets you focus on yoga, not whether your hands are slipping or your elbows are aching.
Travel mats balance performance and portability
A major perk of yoga is that you can continue your practice wherever you go. Little special equipment is required -- except, of course, a good mat. Some regular yoga mats can be bulky and heavy, but travel mats are more streamlined so it's easy to take them on the go.
Travel yoga mats usually weigh a few pounds at most, and they typically roll up more tightly than bigger mats. Certain travel mats are even foldable so you can stash them in a suitcase more easily. Typically, these mats are on the thinner side -- something to consider if you generally enjoy a thicker mat. Some also have a smaller surface area.
Sticky mats and absorbent towels are a must for hot yoga
Increasingly popular hot yoga classes are held in rooms that may be as hot as 100 degrees, so buckets of sweat are a foregone conclusion. Experts say you'll need a very sticky mat to keep from sliding around during these sessions. Mats with the best grip are usually made of natural rubber and have an open-cell surface. This means they absorb your sweat instead of repelling it, leaving less moisture to make the mat slippery.
If you have a mat that isn't very sticky or simply want extra traction, a yoga towel can be a valuable addition to your practice. Yoga towels can be laid on top of your yoga mat to spare it from absorbing sweat, and they also provide a little more comfort and cushioning. These towels are designed not to slip around, even during vigorous practice, and they can be tossed in the washer and dryer for easy cleaning.
How we chose the best yoga mats
There are several quality expert reviews and roundups of the best yoga mats. For our picks, we emphasized reviews that involved comparative first-hand testing by professional yoga instructors. These included helpful guides from OutdoorGearLab.com, TheSweetHome.com, and Reviews.com. Of course, we also examined owners' reviews at Amazon.com and Gaiam.com to see how the mats stood up to day-to-day use. With all sources, we paid particular attention to the mats' versatility, durability, ease of cleaning, and portability.
The best yoga mats
You may see experienced yogis practicing without a mat, but for most students, mats are a must. A good yoga mat makes it easier to hold poses without sliding and takes pressure off your joints. Note that all mats may not stand up to the rigors and sweat of hot yoga, so if you want a mat or towel specifically for hot yoga, see our discussion of mats and towels for hot yoga elsewhere in this report.
Experienced yogis say it's hard to beat the Manduka PRO (Est. $100) for durability and comfort. The PRO is touted as a great choice for nearly all styles of yoga, but it's a particular standout for advanced students who need extra support while they're attempting tough moves. Note that if you're a hot yoga student, it might not be the best choice -- experts with OutdoorGearLab.com were "disappointed with the lack of traction" even after treating the mat with a combination of sea salt and water.
The PRO is made of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. PVC has a bad rap in some of the yoga community because of environmental concerns that it isn't recyclable and can release a variety of risky chemicals. To blunt this criticism, Manduka uses an emissions-free manufacturing process. The mat is also certified safe for human contact by OEKO-TEX, an environmental certification agency in Europe for the textile industry. The mat receives high praise for durability, with reviewers saying the PRO will last for years. Manduka backs the mat with a lifetime guarantee.
The PRO is 1/4 inch thick, which is on the heftier side for a yoga mat. Reviewers say this extra thickness makes for a very comfortable and stable surface, regardless of where they're practicing. The extra cushioning comes with one major drawback: The mat weighs 7 pounds, which is quite heavy if you plan to carry your mat regularly. The regular PRO is 26 inches wide and 71 inches long, but for about $30 more you can buy an 85-inch version. There are about a dozen colors, including the venerable black version.
If you simply can't envision schlepping a 7-pound yoga mat, Manduka offers another well-reviewed option that's easier to tote: the Manduka PROLite (Est. $75). Reviewers say it's a good pick for most practices because it's durable, supportive and doesn't bunch up. Again, experts caution that there are much better, stickier mats out there for hot yoga.
Reviewers praise the Manduka PROLite's longevity and lack of odor. The mat's closed-cell surface is also easy to keep clean because it because it doesn't absorb sweat or other moisture. Like the PRO, the PROLite is made of PVC. Manduka backs the PROlite with a lifetime guarantee.
The PROlite is just 3/16 inch thick, but experts with OutdoorGearLab.com say it still feels substantial enough for yoga sessions on uneven outdoor terrain. Though the mat is much lighter than the PRO, it's still 4 pounds. That's middle of the road for a yoga mat, so, while it's not impossible to travel with, there are still lighter options if you'll be on the go. The PROlite is 24 inches wide and 71 inches long. For about $14 more, you can buy a 79-inch version. There are about a dozen colors, including vibrant shades of purple, orange, and green.
If you're practicing yoga only occasionally or simply want a more inexpensive option, the Gaiam Print Yoga Mat (Est. $22) offers a good blend of performance and value in a more portable package, reviewers say. Though the mat is simply too slick for hot yoga or any other sweaty practice, it gets solid marks for dry traction. Because it's so light, it may curl at the edges or bunch up, reviewers warn.
The Gaiam is made from PVC, so it's not the most eco-friendly option. And while Manduka has gone to some lengths to ameliorate concerns over PVCs, the same can't be said for Gaiam with this mat. While PVC can be more durable than natural rubber, reviewers say this mat is prone to peeling and tearing after heavy use. They also report a strong chemical smell that can linger for quite some time. On the upside, unlike natural rubber mats, this one is very easy to clean because it doesn't absorb moisture. This Gaiam mat is 3mm; it's also available in a 5mm size as the Gaiam Print Premium (Est. $30). At 24 inches wide and 68 inches long, the mat is a bit smaller than pricier options. As long as you don't need the extra room, this can be a plus since it makes the mat more portable. The thinner mat is just under 2 pounds, and the thicker one is only slightly heavier, making both easy to carry when you're on the go. If you're picky about aesthetics, the mat is available in nearly three dozen patterns, including florals, mandalas, and nature prints.
Travel mats are easier to take on the go
If you've ever dreamed of performing your downward dogs on a tropical beach, a travel mat might be just the ticket. These mats are typically lighter and thinner than the average mat, making them easier to squeeze into luggage of toss in a tote bag.
If you're serious about keeping up with yoga in far-flung places, the Jade Travel Yoga Mat (Est. $22) could be the best blend of performance and portability. While it's heavier than some other travel options, reviewers say its easy-to-grip surface makes it ideal for any kind of yoga, including hot yoga.
Jade is noted in the yoga community for eco-friendly products, and the Jade Travel Mat is no exception. It's made of sustainably harvested, biodegradable natural rubber -- there are no PVCs or other synthetic materials. Jade also plants a tree for every mat it sells. However, as with any natural rubber mat, there is a strong odor, especially at first. Reviewers note that the sticky open-cell surface can attract lint or other debris and stain easily, and warn that the mat shouldn't be stored in direct sunlight.
The Jade Travel Mat is 1/8 inch thick, which reviewers say provides enough support without making the mat too bulky. It can be rolled or folded for easier transport in luggage. However, it weighs 3½ pounds, which some complain is still too heavy for a travel mat. The mat is 24 inches wide and comes in two lengths: 68 and 74 inches. The extra length will run you about $5 more. There are five color choices: black, midnight blue, olive, purple and teal.