Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the first principle of yoga, so it may come as a shock to learn that the tiger skin was the yoga mat of choice for ancient yogis. It’s a little more reassuring when you discover that the skins they used were those of tigers who died naturally, but nonetheless, the use of a tiger skin as a yoga mat is probably not advisable for today’s Western yogi!
Aside from having deep roots in Hindu mythology, tiger skin yoga mats had all of the properties yogis needed in a mat. They were large enough for practical usage yet easily transportable when rolled up. When the yogi wanted to use his tiger skin for the practice of hatha yoga, it naturally unrolled flat without curling up on the ends. The fur provided insulation and just enough padding for protection without being spongy and the leathery skin side of the tiger skin mat provided a perfect non-slip surface. The yogi could get into and maintain even the most difficult yoga postures (asanas) without fear of his mat slipping out from under him.
All of these are ideal properties to look for in a yoga mat. When yoga first gained popularity in the West in the sixties, Western hatha yogis had to improvise. Mexican cotton rugs and even carpet underlays were used with various levels of success and failure. A growing market and Western ingenuity addressed all of the shortcomings of those early mats and today there is a large range of mats available, all of which work wonderfully.
Generally, yoga mats are a little less than 6 feet (1.8 m) long and about 2 feet (60 cm) wide – just long enough for the average person and just wide enough to provide protection when doing seated poses. Thicknesses vary, but usually they’re quite thin – as little as 1/8″ or 5 mm. The thickest, most luxurious feeling mats can be more than twice as thick without feeling too spongy.
When you’re shopping for a yoga mat, there are some key factors to look for. A mat that springs back quickly when pinched is likely to serve you well. If your finger leaves a depression, it’s a sure sign that your back will, too and that the mat will be next to useless in actual practice. If it’s passed your first test, then try unfurling it. Does it curl up badly and refuse to stick to the floor or can you get it to lie flat easily? While the sales staff may not approve of your doing a full yoga workout on the shop floor before you make your purchase, you can at least give the mat a good push with your hands to see how well it sticks to the floor. If you end up on your face when the mat slips across the floor, try another brand!
Just about anything you see in a store will be available online at sites like Amazon for a better price, and often have free shipping. The extensive reviews also give you the advantage of learning from the experience of others who have bought the product. Read them carefully.
Finally, spare a thought for the environment. Many yoga mats are also environmentally friendly or neutral. It may cost a little more, but a PVC-free yoga mat is as practical as any and is in tune with the principles of ahimsa. Take the time to choose your yoga mat carefully and you may find that it becomes as special to you as the tiger skin mats that were handed down from guru to disciple in ancient India were to them.