This is part of a month-long series on Wanderlust about how items and practices came into being.
Thin or thick, sticky or smooth, wide or long, rubber or deer skin—what’s your yoga mat preference?
While yoga was first performed without any mat or cushion, the practice has grown to include many props, with the yoga mat being the most standard. Beginning in India, yoga was practiced first on grass—a true connection to the elements. As non-stick surfaces and additional padding were needed for advanced postures, early yogis used deer and tiger skins as the foundation for their asana.
Down Dogs on Tiger Skins
Ahimsa, nonviolence, is a key tenet of yoga. Practicing on tiger skins may seem counterintuitive to this principle, but yogis in India stayed true to the practice of ahimsa by only using skins from tigers that had died of natural causes. Length, insulation, and non-slip surface are some of the key factors for why tiger skins were used as mats. These functions are still what modern-day yogis search for when purchasing a new mat.
Deer and tiger skins also represented key messages in Buddhism. A deer signifies a creature that is hard to control—similar to our minds as we meditate. Deer skins would often be shown or used as conduits of meditation as the yogi would try to control the mind. The deer was known to provide a neutral energy conducive to peace and tranquility. Tiger skins denoted the energetic and dynamic asana practice. The skin provided a barrier between the spiritual and physical body of energy and the earth. By grounding on a tiger skin mat, a yogi would retain all energetic powers as she practiced for hours.
While our mats today are rarely passed down from guru to guru as heirlooms and rights of passage as they were in the past, finding a mat to suit your needs is one of the most important parts of embarking on your asana practice.
Move to the Modern Mat
As yoga proliferated in the Western world and tiger skins weren’t a viable option for students, yogis had to find a comfortable way to practice. Towels or cotton cloths were often used. Then in 1967 Angela Farmer, an English yoga instructor then teaching in Germany, used a piece of foam carpet padding as a makeshift mat. Upon returning to London, she noticed the popularity of her prop among her students. Seeing opportunity, Angela’s father, Richard, found the German manufacturer behind the padding product and became the first retailer of “sticky” mats. By most accounts, practice mats really hit the floor in the early 1980s.
Then in 1990, Sara Chambers, the founder of Hugger Mugger (a yoga prop company), decided to make a more durable, sturdy mat. She worked with a U.S.-based company to create a nonskid product specifically designed for yoga. The rest is history, with the yoga industry booming to a $27 billion industry with accessories representing a large part of the market.
Find Your Mat
Today we have many choices as we set out to choose a mat. Price, size, and material dictate which mat is most suitable for each yogi.
Material: Long gone are the days of deer and tiger skin mats. Most mats are mass-produced and made with PVC or other plastic bases. For the environmentally conscious, make an effort to find a mat made from recycled rubber or bamboo.
Dimensions: Thick or thin, long or standard, yoga mats come in all shapes and sizes. Thin mats are easier for travel, but may not provide the necessary cushion or protection for all poses. Long mats accommodate taller yogis and carve out a little more space in packed classes.
Purpose: If you go to hot yoga, you’ll be in search of a sticky mat. Find the best match for you based on your needs. If you carry your mat to work daily, a lightweight one may suit you best. Similarly, if you have injuries or sore spots, make sure to have a thick enough mat to protect yourself.
With a multitude of options, don’t be afraid to test a few mats out—or maybe even custom design one to be yours and only yours. Yoga mats are not only functional, but can be fashionable as well, to use and carry around.
Cameron Cler is traveler at heart, obsessed with seeing the world and discovering ways to contribute to positive global change. As a registered yoga teacher, she balances her constant travel and work in the startup world by channeling her inner yogi and welcoming peace in chaotic moments. Her passion is cultivating creativity and inspiration while sharing travel stories, yoga classes, wellness tips, and smiles with her friends, family, and students.