A brief history of the yoga mat.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the modern yoga experience is the enduring image of a limber yogi stretched intricately across a colorful cushioned mat. This tool aids the modern practice in many ways but was not always an integral part of the asanas. The history of yoga mats can be traced to the earliest yoga practices, dating back thousands of years when wealthier practitioners used tiger or deer skins, and the less wealthy practiced on kusha grass or bare ground. When yoga gained popularity in the west, yogis began using a combination of cotton and rubber mats to cushion wooden floors. Beginning in 1982, carpet underlay was used in Germany which then ushered in the era of sticky mats. Modern yoga mats have come to symbolize the sport while helping to provide a supportive, non-slip, personal space to practice an asana.
The yoga mat in modern practice is designed primarily for its non-stick qualities rather cushioning. Mat texture is used to enhance grip. Selection of a mat can be a challenge for aspirational yogis trying to determine the effects of a mat on their practice. For many standing poses, mats can be unnecessary and are often inferior to wood floors in terms of communicating with the body. For inversions and poses utilizing sitting bones a mat can certainly aid in comfort and protection against slippage. However, too much padding can cause instability in a given asana and this should be considered when selecting a mat. Blankets are used in yoga practices for cushioning and support, thus the role of the mat itself should be centered on grip.
A key issue surrounding the use of yoga mats is the composition of the mat material. One of the cardinal virtues of yoga is Ahimsa, meaning ‘to not injure.’ Adhering to this karmic principal one should use an environmentally friendly mat. Early mats and even some modern mats contain materials that have the potential to ‘off-gas’ nasty chemicals. The yoga mat industry has evolved to produce a range of mats using ‘eco-conscious’ materials including jute, a vegetable fiber strung into strong, coarse threads then woven into a mat. Other eco mats consist of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) free of latex and heavy metals, and inks that are free of phthalates and other environmentally harmful substances. Modern mats are available in a variety of materials, colors, designs, sizes, and thicknesses to suit a range of tastes.
Yoga mats can serve many purposes including grip, sweat absorption, and creation of a personal sacred space. There are retailers offering a wide range of products in the marketplace, ranging from basic to extravagant with an equally wide price range. While not technically essential to the practice of yoga, the modern yoga mat has come symbolize the yogi that is a on path to full consciousness, both in asana practice and personal style.