A while back I mentioned that I felt it was good, if at all possible, for someone who does yoga to have a mat. Several conversations in class lately have brought to my mind that it might be helpful for me to give a little background, and purchasing and care tips for yoga mats.
First: I have no financial arrangement with any company, nor do I sell any mats or other equipment directly. Second: This is not a scientific review. It is just a few thoughts from my experience, which I hope might help when you are thinking about mat purchase.
Yoga mats as we use them are a relatively new thing. I never thought about it much until a much older teacher remarked about the proliferation of long 'yoga bags'. In the dawn of my practice I remember just practicing on the floor of my room, and I have a vague recollection of some sort of natural fiber on the floor of the place my mom took me as a child. I absolutely remember when I first started teaching yoga in gyms in some cases in gyms that were less fancy we were directly on the carpeted floor (sometimes people brought towels), and sometimes there were generic thick workout mats. Of course I also remember a very well known chain that was just starting to offer yoga insisting that we had to do it with our athletic shoes on …. so things have changed in lots of ways.
Sometimes in early practice yogis are pictured seated on cloth or an animal skin: most notably a tiger skin. Actually, I think that was used originally for the seated meditative practice. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna gives instruction for creating a soft surface for the practice, building layers from grass, animal skin, and cloth. And the practice he was describing regarded a seated practice, not jumping into handstands. One commentary I read suggested that the animal skin might have kept things like snakes and scorpions away, which is a sensible precaution if you are practicing outside in an area rife with life forms and you want to withdraw your senses and find a meditative state. This is why you sometimes see yoga towels with tiger stripes. In the pictures I have seen of indoor physical practice in the early 20th century I see floor cover sometimes, but just as often bare floor.
The modern yoga mat seems to trace back to Angela Farmer (some of my friends will remember the photo of the lady in eka pada viparita dandasana). The story is that while teaching in Germany in the 1980s she pulled the underlay off carpets to use. Then when she returned home to England her father started importing the material. The first mass market yoga mat company was Hugger Mugger in the 1990s. I do remember that.... I remember having a conversation with the manager at a club because we were going to buy a roll and cut it ourselves for mats, as a way to split the costs for all the teachers teaching in this service. It wasn't until the early 2000s that there was a movement toward eco conscious yoga mats.