I've told a number of people I would post something about my thoughts, opinions, and experiences with yoga mats, yoga bags, yoga clothes, mat washes, etc. Here is the first of these posts... on the endless search for the perfect yoga mat.
It's either too slippery or too sticky, too firm or too mushy, too heavy or too flimsy, too smelly or too detrimental to the environment and the quest for the dream yoga mat is about finding a space that is completely your own, somewhere you can work and rest, and find your balance.
Here is a list of mats that I have tried:
Your average sticky mat: bought at Marshall's or Target or somewhere like that for $15-20; could also easily be found on eBay or Amazon. This mat will come in an array of colors and patterns and is generally made of PVC (which is not eco-friendly, it is not biodegradable and will sit in a landfill for years to come). It is common for this mat to initially be somewhat slippery (though not all are) if you are practicing a vigorous sweaty type of yoga; however, after cleaning the mat with a small amount of dish-soap, it should break down the chemical coating that results from the manufacturing process. The cushioning and support is somewhat limited, so if you have sensitive joints you'll want something thicker. They are very light and easy to transport. These mats might be sufficient if you are just getting started or not practicing yoga very often. However, the sticky mat is sure to break down and you will begin to find little pieces of the mat flake off.
Jade Yoga Mat: Found at the Jade Yoga website, or eBay or Amazon, and possibly some yoga studios such as Peconic River Yoga. Jade makes a number of different types of mats, but there are two different thicknesses that I can speak about ("Harmony"= 3/16" for about $70.00 and "Travel"=1/8" for about $45.00). I know a number of people who swear by the Harmony (thicker) mat for its incredible non-slip surface and cushioning. I tried the thinner "travel mat" because it is lighter and I move locations a lot and don't require a lot of cushioning. Like with the heavier mat, there were no problems slipping at all on this one either. They are made of natural rubber so they are eco-friendly. They are also of an "open-cell" construction, which means it is generally more porous than a "closed-cell" mat (take a good look at this mat compared to the average sticky mat, you'll see what I mean). This I think is what makes the traction so great. However, open-cell means is is going to hold onto a lot more. It will absorb moisture and bacteria more easily so it will be important to keep very clean and what ultimately put me off about this mat is that I found that it also attracted dust and lint and would cling onto any minor debris and sand that it was laid down on.
The Original Eco Yoga Mat: I ordered this off of the Barefoot Yoga Company website for about $78.00. This is a thick and dense mat at 4 mm in thickness and 4.5-6 pounds in weight. The mat is constructed of natural rubber and jute fiber (a grass, like hemp). It is eco-friendly and biodegradable. The jute gives it awesome slip-free traction, and although I've heard some people say the fiber can be a bit abrasive on bare skin, I never had problems with this. The natural rubber has a very strong rubber smell, which might bother some people, but didn't bother me much, it's quite "earthy." I liked this mat a lot. The only trouble I had with this mat is that it shed a lot. Little pieces of natural rubber continuously flaked off and ended up on my clothing.
Manduka Yoga Mats: Found at the Manduka website, eBay, Amazon, or some yoga studios such as Mindful Turtle. As with the Jade Yoga mats, Manduka makes a number of different model mats. I will focus on the Black Mat Pro (about $85.00-94.00), the Pro Lite (about $65.00-72.00) and the eKo SuperLite (about $36.00-39.00). Black Mat Pro and Pro Lite: a truly sophisticated mat model that has a lifetime guarantee stamped on it. So where it lacks in biodegradability, it makes up for in sustainability. This mat is incredibly durable. Its thickness does not interfere with balancing, though, not one of those thick mushy mats that will suck your foot in like quicksand and make it more difficult to balance. If anything, this mat helps balancing with its density. Both the Black Mat Pro and the Pro Lite will be slippery when you first get them. You have to wash with dish soap or some other household cleaner, you can even scrub with a sea-salt or baking soda scrub (I will post my mat cleaner recipe) to rough it up a bit. After you break the mat in, it will not be slippery anymore. I also used the Manduka eQua towel over the mat when it was in its slippery period, which allowed me to use the mat and break it in without slipping around (more on this later). The differences between the Black Mat Pro and the Pro Lite are the colors options; weight; thickness; and width. The Black Mat generally comes in black (as you would expect), but occasionally Manduka will release a special edition (cranberry or sapphire or something like that). It is 7.0 pounds, an enormous 1/4" thick, and the standard 71" long, but 26" wide. The Pro Lite -- which comes in every color of the rainbow -- is 4.0 pounds, 3/16" thick, 71" long and the standard 24" wide.
eKo Mats (SuperLite): I have not tried the eKo Mat or the eKo Lite, but I have tried the eKo SuperLite (travel mat). This series of mats do not come with the same lifetime guarantee. While these are eco-friendly in that they are biodegradable, I have heard that the eKo Lite is not very durable and really isn't appropriate for every-day use. I'd say don't waste your money on this; if you want an every-day mat go with the Pro Lite. If you just must have something that is biodegradable, better off with Jade Travel. However, people seem to be pretty satisfied with the Manduka eKo Mat, which is comparable to the Jade Harmony in thickness and performance. I haven't tested this one out. I bought the eKo SuperLite for travel. I like to travel light and unless I am going somewhere specifically for a yoga retreat, I bring the SuperLite. It is flimsy and there is no support, but it gets the job done. It would not be appropriate for every-day use, but it is good if you want something to throw over a studio mat for sanitary purposes or something to lay down in a hotel room. It folds up to fit in your suitcase quite nicely.
With all of this being said, when it comes to slipping, shedding, breaking in, and cleanliness purposes, the yoga towels really are a nice addition. If you practice a more vigorous style of yoga or "hot yoga," a regular towel might do, but the yoga towels like the eQua towel made by Manduka, Thirsty yoga towel made by Gaiam, Skidless Yogi Toes towel, or the prAna yoga towel are moisture-wicking and/or extra absorbent, making them more effective as you sweat on them. They come in a full-length mat size and also in a hand-towel size as well. I have used Manduka's, and it helped enormously during the break-in period of my mat when it was still slippery. Now I lend it to people when I see them slipping, and everybody raves about how helpful it is.
There are dozens of other mats out there that I don't know enough about to speak for, but hopefully this can give you some things to think about, to look out for, and feel more prepared as you make an investment in a yoga mat. The mats made by prAna look interesting and promising, (E.C.O. Yoga Mat, Revolution Sticky Mat, Natural Yoga Mat, Nomad Travel Mat) as do many of the Hugger Mugger mats. Gaiam makes a ton of mats that come with whimsical and beautiful designs which seem to please enough people because I see them around a lot, but I am not ultimately sure about the functionality, permanence, or durability of these.