Best. Yoga Mat. Ever.

Best. Yoga Mat. Ever.

Ahimsa Asana Living Yoga Yamas

I bought my first yoga mat at a discount store. My main objective: find the cheapest one possible. It was a simple purple mat. There wasn’t anything special about it – except for the experiences I had on it.

Fast forward a few years into my practice, and buying a yoga mat was a much bigger production. Cost was still a factor, but there was a lot more things to consider. Grip, or stickiness, probably mattered most. After that, weight was a key issue. I wanted a mat that was solid and durable, but I didn’t want my shoulders to hurt from carrying it to and from the studio. But then of course, some of the lighter mats didn’t have enough cushioning. Purchasing a new mat had become a much more involved process.

Fast forward a few more years into my practice, and things are even more complicated! I find myself getting all philosophical about yoga mats.

Philosophy and mats – what?

The classical practice of yoga, as laid out by Patanjali in the yoga sutras, is an eight-limb practice. The postures, known in Sanskrit as asana, are one limb of the practice. The first limb, the very foundation of the practice, encompasses five practices that relate to how we engage with ourselves and the world around us. The first of those practices is the practice of ahimsa, or non-harming. In practicing ahimsa, we endeavour to restrain from harming ourselves, other people and animals, and our planet.

So, if a mat is harmful to the planet, is it appropriate to call it a yoga mat?

The problems with PVC

My first bargain mat was a simple purple mat made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and it will likely be on this planet longer than I am. If you aren’t familiar with PVC, here’s a brief introduction:

Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Workers in PVC manufacturing facilities and residents of surrounding communities are at risk from exposure to these chemicals which contaminate the water, soil and air around these facilities.

The manufacture and incineration of PVC also creates and releases dioxins, which cause a wide range of health effects including cancer, birth defects, diabetes, learning and developmental delays, endometriosis, and immune system abnormalities.


Here’s some more information on PVC from the David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green:

Polyvinyl chloride is known to off-gas hormone disrupting phthalates. Phthalates are used to soften plastics. A study by the Centre for Health, Environment and Justice found that these chemicals are released into the air inside our homes, contributing to indoor air pollution. PVC shower curtains can release as many as 108 volatile organic chemicals. Some of these chemicals are associated with developmental damage as well as damage to the liver and central nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems.


When we start to consider the harmful effects of PVC, it becomes clear that some yoga mats are not very yogic.

Explore less harmful mat options

The great news for yoga practitioners is that more and more mats are being made without PVC. Jade Yoga Mats, for example, are made with natural rubber and contain no PVC or other synthetic rubbers. Natural rubber is tapped from a tree, like maple syrup, and it is a sustainable, renewable resource. The company also plants a tree for every yoga mat they sell.

For me, a fantastic yoga mat supports my asana practice and my ahimsa practice. I don’t want the legacy of my practice to be plastic pollution. I practice yoga to support our collective health and well-being. A mat made with PVC is out of line with my intentions.

A mat that support my asana practice and our collective health and well-being – that is easily the best yoga mat ever.


Expand Your Practice with the Eight Limbs

Ahimsa Asana Living Yoga Niyamas Pranayama Svadhyaya Tapas

It is common to think of yoga as primarily about getting on a sticky mat and putting your body in different positions and shapes – like Downward Dog or Headstand – for the purpose of physical exercise, but classically, the poses (called asana in Sanskrit) are only one eighth of the practice of yoga!

In The Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali laid out an eight limb path of yoga, which is most simply a guide to living a joyful life. Here is an outline of the eight limbs of a classical yoga practice:

1) Yamas – Ethical practices or guidelines for engaging with the world. There are five yamas:

  • ahimsa (non-harming or dynamic peacefulness)
  • satya (truthfulness)
  • asteya (non-stealing)
  • bramacharya (wise use of energy)
  • aparigraha (non-grasping)

2) Niyamas – Internal disciplines or ways of engaging with yourself. There are also fiveniyamas:

  • saucha (purity)
  • santosha (contentment)
  • tapas (consistent commitment or discipline)
  • svadhyaya (self-study)
  • ishvara-pranidhana (surrender)

3) Asana – The postures. The practice of moving the body to awaken a deeper experience of awareness and to prepare the body for stillness.

4) Pranayama – Breath work. Prana can be translated as life energy and the suffix yama means to expand or draw out with control.

5) Pratyahara – A turning inward of the senses.

6) Dharana – Concentration. A practice of bringing one’s awareness back to a focus.

7) Dhyana – Meditative absorption. Being able to hold the concentrated focus of dhyana.

8) Samadhi – An experience of interconnectedness with all living things (often translated as enlightenment).

I like to think of these Sanskrit words as murals that are slowly painted with years and years of practice. As our exploration of the eight limbs continues and our understanding begins to deepen, our murals slowly begin to fill in, to expand, and to more actively guide our practice.

A recent study at the University of Southern Mississippi found that the impact of a holistic yoga practice (incorporating breath work, meditation, and spiritual and ethical teachings) to be considerably more beneficial for students than a practice just involving asana. While this post only offers a basic understanding of the eight limbs, I hope it exposes you to the possibility of deepening your practice in new and different ways.

Photo Credit: Sarah Jamieson

Post also available on YYoga’s Blog

Begin with Balasana

Asana Awareness

With a quick Internet search or visit to the yoga section of your local bookstore, you can easily put together a list of benefits associated with your favourite (or least favourite) yoga pose. For Balasana, Child’s Pose, that list would likely include things such as:

  • Calms the mind and body
  • Helps relieve stress and fatigue
  • Releases tension from the low back
  • Gently stretches the hips, thighs, and ankles

A list like the one above is a nice place to begin when learning to practice asana (yoga postures). It offers a general sense of what types of benefits may be possible in a pose, and it may provide motivation to explore new and different poses.

But as our practice of asana begins to deepen, this general list of associated benefits begins to fall away in light of our individual experiences in the pose. The reasons for practicing start to stem more from a reflection on personal experience. One yoga practitioner might find that Child’s Pose brings an amazing amount of ease to his breath, while another might report that it consistently helps with her headaches.

Learning to understand what a pose is about in your body, whether it be Child’s Pose, Warrior II or Shavasana, comes down to your commitment to experiencing it in your own body. As you move through your practice, how present are you with your own internal experience? Can you map the sensations the pose is bringing up in your body? Do you notice when you are holding unnecessary tension in your face – without being cued to it by the teacher?

How do poses affect you emotionally? Are there poses that calm you? Are there poses that empower you? If you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, what poses help to soothe you?

Yoga is an experimental practice. The postures are not intended to be used prescriptively, but rather as a place to start; as something to explore. With all the different practices we are offered through yoga, the invitation from the teacher is to try it – and then to tell her what you find.

The ease and introspective quality of Child’s Pose make it a beautiful posture to begin this process of deepening your relationship with a pose. I encourage you to find your way to your mat and take the time to find your own answer to this question:

Why do you practice Child’s Pose?


Photo Credit: Chris Yakimov
Text also published at