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I have leveled up my yoga practice during the COVID-19 lockdown, so much so that I am seriously thinking about doing yoga teacher training and getting certified. And spending a good amount of time lying on my mat, breathing into it, has led me to wonder whether my mat is really good for me.
Has your yoga mat ever given off a chemical smell when it arrived, or after it was in the sun for too long? That is toxic off-gassing from PVC-polyvinyl chloride, which is used in the majority of yoga mats. PVC is a petroleum-based material that makes your mat spongy, grippy, and easy to clean. But PVC is also one of the most toxic types of plastic to human health and the environment.
PVC is harmful throughout its entire life cycle, from production, to use, to end of life. To make the mats soft and flexible, manufacturers add plasticizers like phthalates. Phthalates are well-known hormone disruptors and have been linked to birth defects, asthma, neurodevelopmental issues in newborns, fertility problems, obesity, and cancer. Your body can absorb toxins from your PVC yoga through inhalation and skin contact.
You can’t recycle PVC either, and the material can contaminate the air and soil when it ends up in a landfill or incinerator.
So the moral of the story is: if you practice yoga to keep yourself healthy, steer away from PVC as much as possible. So what other options do we have? Here is what to look for when picking a sustainable yoga mat:
Safe, Non-Toxic Materials
When a company tells you that their products are free from XX toxins (think BPA, phthalate, heavy metals, etc), always ask what they use instead. Many yoga mats labeled as eco-friendly may be misleading, especially those “non-toxic PVC” mats.
For example, some yoga mats are made from PER, or “polymer environmental resin,” a material that the manufacturer claims is phthalate-free, biodegradable, and produced in an “environmental-friendly” manner. However, PER is still PVC, just replacing phthalates with other plasticizers. While the absence of phthalates does seem to make PER less toxic, we don’t know about the safety of the other plasticizers used, and the basic chemical (vinyl chloride) used to make PVC is still a carcinogen. In the absence of third-party certification, we cannot trust manufacturer or brand claims.
Another “PVC-free” material is TPE (thermoplastic elastomers), a rubber-like material that can be recycled. It is a nebulous term that could refer to a range of blended synthetic materials, whose compositions are trade secrets. So we don’t know if any of them is safe, much less whether the type used in a specific yoga mat is.
What about yoga mats made from natural materials? The most commonly used is natural rubber. Natural rubber is tapped from rubber trees, where farmers cut into the bark to collect the fluid. Then manufacturers mix the fluid with vulcanizing agents (chemical additives) to make rubber. Although natural rubber is not chemical-free, it is better than synthetic rubber, a catch-all term that potentially comes with all the problems outlined above.
Unfortunately, I am allergic to rubber and latex, and some people also don’t like the natural odor. So, my top choice would be hypoallergenic natural materials like cotton, grass, or jute fiber.
Does the yoga brand have a take-back or recycling system for your old mat when you’re done with it? This is important because there is no responsible place to donate or recycle a used yoga mat that we are aware of, so it’s best if the company has a plan for how to deal with their old mats.
Of course, the most sustainable yoga mat would not make my practice enjoyable if it does not have enough support or slips around easily. I have pretty sensitive knees and wrists, so a good yoga mat for me should provide the right amount of cushion. A bonus factor would be lightweight and foldability so that I can keep up with my practice on the go!
Alden, Abigail, Megan, and I tested some acclaimed sustainable yoga mats — here is our experience:
Weight: ~5 lbs
Thickness: 5 mm
JadeYoga is the first brand in the US that makes yoga mats with natural rubber. When harvested sustainably, natural rubber is a renewable material that can decompose at the end of life.
Harmony is one of Jade Yoga’s most popular mats made from natural rubber, with many users raving about its grip and comfort. Alden had one for five years and had been very happy with the mat before she (sadly) lost it. She rated it as the grippiest mat she ever used: her feet and hands never slipped. It is also super supportive and cushy, with a firm bounce. The mat doesn’t shed little bits either, even after her cat used it as a scratchpad. The downside, though, is that it is very heavy, so it may not be best suited for travel. You will also want to avoid leaving it under direct sunlight for extended periods of time because it will biodegrade!
Jade claims that their yoga mat contains no heavy metals, ozone-depleting substances, PVC, TPE, phthalates, formaldehyde, or glues. However, some third-party testing shows that the mat might have undisclosed additives. A german organization found nitrosamines from Jade Harmony yoga mat, a carcinogenic chemical used in rubber production. This brings to my original point that it is difficult to know what is used to replace the most notorious toxins.
Weight: 2.2 lbs
Thickness: 1.5 mm
Manduka has been recommended by many of my yogi friends as the go-to sustainable yoga mat brand. The eKo line of yoga mats is made from sustainably harvested natural rubber and processed without toxic phthalates (a foaming agent to soften the rubber). The eKo superlite travel mat is 99% latex-free and made with no PVC, toxic plasticizers, or harmful dyes. In addition, Manduka is also working on zero waste through its LiveOn program. If you live in the US, Manduka will take back your old mats from any brand (with free shipping), and send them to The Renewal Workshop for recycling into home insulation, running tracks, etc.
Alden has an eKo Superlite that traveled in her carry-on for 14 months and is still with her today! It is very thin, foldable, and lightweight. The mat also has a great grip and lasts a long time even with high use and changing temperatures and terrain. However, because it is so thin, it is not supportive or cushy at all. It might hurt to do certain moves where you are on your back or knees, like back rolls or pigeon prep. Therefore, it is more suitable for a carpeted floor or the outdoors. Still, it’s worth it when you’re traveling to keep up with your workout regime. Alden said she would have worked out way less if she hadn’t had it!
Thickness: 4 mm
This mat is made from a thin layer of natural cork on top of a natural rubber backing—both are biodegradable and renewable materials. Cork is made from the bark of cork oak trees, mostly grown in Portugal. When managed sustainably (every eight to nine years), the harvesting won’t harm the oak trees, and they can live up to more than 200 years! In fact, a cork oak tree stripped of its bark can absorb more CO2 in the regeneration process, so it actually helps combat climate change.
Cork is naturally antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal, which means it requires minimal maintenance and won’t give off a bad smell. Alden tried this mat on an outdoor brick patio for yoga and HIIT workouts for two months. Alden had an okay experience with this mat: it is not the worst, but also not the best mat she ever had. She likes its support and comfort, and the markings on the mat she got help her with alignment and posture. Although Urbivore claimed that the cork mat improves grip when wet, Alden experienced a bit slippery when she is sweaty. The other downside is that it tends to hold the curve from being rolled up, and since you can only use one side, you can’t flip it over if it gets dirty.
Weight: 2 lb
Thickness: 6 mm
Pharamond Life has received a lot of social media attention recently, to the point that this Pro Yoga mat is almost sold out. Megan has had this yoga mat for a while now, and has likes and dislikes about it. It is a super lightweight (2 lb) yet very cushioned mat, achieving the perfect balance between comfort and portability. This yoga mat has a textured non-slip surface and an anti-skid underlayer, making it very grippy. The alignment system also helps to correct your poses. But Megan found that the mat is not as durable as advertised. Hers got a scratch on the surface within a month of having it. It also bends out of shape easily and takes a few minutes to unroll completely flat when laid out.
Pharamond claims that this mat is made from eco-friendly TPE. It is PVC- free, recyclable, and biodegradable. However, as I mentioned earlier, TPE is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of materials, many of which have not been proven safe. I couldn’t find specific information on Pharamond’s website about what exactly is in their mat or any certifications about its biodegradability/recyclability, so I would be cautious with it until more information is available.
Weight: ~5 lbs
Suga recycles wetsuits into yoga mats, hence the name combining “ surf” and “yoga”. So far, Suga has diverted 12,500 wetsuits from the landfill. Now only are the mats made from recycled material, but they are also recyclable. When you are done with your old mat, you can send it back to Suga to make new ones.
Abigail tested the mat but was not super impressed. It is not bad, but also not the most amazing mat she had. The good thing is that the mat is very supportive and has got the right amount of cushiness and firmness. It also seems to be pretty durable so far. The gender-neutral design is also a plus. However, she is disappointed with the grip. Also, the regular Suga mat is pretty heavy, so it is better for home practice. What worries me is that Ecology Center, a non-profit lab tested the chemical composition of a range of yoga mats, and detected phthalates in it, which is not surprising given it is made from recycled materials.
Weight: ~2.8 lb
Thickness: 3-4 mm
If you are like me, sensitive to many chemicals (including vulcanizer for rubber), and want to make absolutely sure there is nothing suspicious in your mat, I suggest looking into what yogis use before the invention of plastic. I searched for options made in the mecca of yoga, India, and found many good options, including this grass fiber mat from Abhinehkrafts.
It is made from Darbha, a tropical grass considered sacred in Vedic scriptures and which is purported to have purifying properties. As I unroll the mat, the calming, grassy smell just plunges me right into zen mode, making it the ultimate meditation mat. I also did a significant amount of yoga on it — it doesn’t slip at all and provides decent support. It is not as cushy and bouncy as a normal PVC mat though, so if you have sensitive spine, knee, or wrists, I suggest using it on a carpeted floor or adding extra padding. The grass fiber is more delicate than plastic, so I wouldn’t recommend doing high-impact HIIT workouts on this mat. It is best suited for restorative practices like yin yoga.
Weight: 1.7 lb
This cotton yoga mat has also become a favorite. It is made from 100% organic cotton and is handwoven by artisans in India. I especially like its earthy smell and beautiful texture. It is longer and wider than normal mats, which makes my practice more comfortable. I also love the fact that it is super lightweight, foldable, and machine-washable. The mat comes with some cotton wrapping strap and an organic cotton carrying bag, which makes it a perfect travel companion!
Although it does not have as much cushion as a 5 mm PVC mat, my knees (usually very sensitive) have been doing alright in cat/cow pose or other kneeling positions. The only downside is that it can get slippery on hard surfaces, so it is more suitable for carpeted floors or a grassy or sandy area. If you are practicing hot yoga, or postures that require a lot of grips, you might want to consider getting a version with a rubber coating in the back for anti-skid purposes.