Once a niche product, yoga mats are becoming a big business. A 2008 study by Yoga Journal (the most recent statistics available) revealed that 16 million Americans practice yoga on a regular basis, and they spend nearly $6 billion a year on yoga classes and accessories like yoga mats. That number has undoubtedly grown over the last several years. As a result, yoga practitioners now have lots of choices when it comes to yoga mats. While many yoga studios offer yoga mats to borrow or rent, those who practice regularly prefer to have their own mats for sanitary and comfort reasons.
Mats fall into one of three categories: plastic, eco-friendly and yoga towels. Plastic yoga mats are usually the cheapest option, and you can find them in any big-box store for less than $20. However, even though they are sturdy and durable, plastic yoga mats are often made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Some health experts and yoga instructors warn against using PVC yoga mats, since this plastic contains a group of questionable chemicals called phthalates.
The use of phthalates has drawn recent scrutiny for possible health risks, such as reproductive health and developmental issues -- though, according to the National Institutes of Health, their impact on human health isn't fully known. There are also environmental concerns about PVC, since the manufacture of this plastic releases toxic compounds called dioxins into the atmosphere. Some manufacturers, including Manduka, certify that their PVC is made using an emissions-free process, but these premium yoga mats often cost $100 or more.
Consumers who prefer natural products should consider an eco-friendly yoga mat made from natural rubber, dried grass, organic cotton, jute (a fibrous plant) or biodegradable compounds like polymer environmental resin (PER) and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE). Yoga mats made with natural rubber or TPE can be purchased as closed-cell or open-cell. Open-cell mats are more porous, so they readily absorb sweat and body oils, which makes them less slippery but more difficult to clean.
Closed-cell mats, on the other hand, don't absorb sweat, so moisture stays on the mat's top layer, making it more slippery when wet but also more hygienic and easier to clean. While these yoga mats are better for the environment, reviews indicate that they are not as durable and can be more expensive than conventional PVC mats. Eco-friendly yoga mats can cost between $40 and $90.
Yoga towels are designed to be placed on top of an existing yoga mat to increase stability. These towels are too thin to use alone on a hard surface, and they often have silicone or rubber grips on the underside for better traction. Yoga towels are a great choice for heavy sweaters or practitioners of hot and Bikram styles of yoga. Bikram and hot yoga are both practiced in a room kept at temperatures ranging from 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not surprisingly, the practitioners sweat a lot, especially during the course of a typical 90-minute class. One drawback: While the best yoga towels are lauded for excellent stability when damp, several reviewers say they don't have the same traction when dry.
Few professional sources have tested yoga mats. ConsumerReports.org doesn't put any mats through its rigorous testing. Similar organizations, like Australia's Choice and Britain's Which? magazines, also don't cover yoga mats. The best source of yoga mat reviews comes from Women's Adventure magazine, which tests and rates five yoga mats in a recent review.
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal also conduct group tests, but their articles are rather outdated. We also found detailed and balanced yoga mat reviews on blogs such as Om Shanti: A Yoga Blog and Canada's BC Living. There is a good selection of owner yoga mat reviews at Amazon.com.