If you’re new to yoga or thinking of giving it a try, the thought of what you’ll need to get started can feel a little overwhelming.
What should you wear?
What should you bring to class?
Should you have a towel?
But most importantly, will you need a mat or are there yoga mat alternatives?
With so many different mat options to choose from, the confusion surrounding which one to go with can often leave you asking, “do I really even need one?”
It’s important to start from the beginning and find out more about what a yoga mat can do for your practice. What are the benefits of using a mat, and what are the pros of not using one?
Whether you’ll need or want to use a mat while you practice depends on several factors, so let’s jump right in to find out more.
When and from Where Did the Yoga Mat Originate?
For thousands of years, practitioners in India went with no mat at all. They would often sit on the grass or even animal skins for a softer surface. As the years passed, yogis started using woven rugs for their practice.
As yoga—and more challenging poses—became increasingly popular in the western world, people found they needed a more supportive surface on which to practice.
Rubber yoga mats were formed in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that yoga mats similar to what we see today were created in London.
Yoga mats have truly never stopped evolving. As time passes, new materials are being used and more options are becoming readily available.
Though PVC was once a popular material used for yoga mats, its costliness to our environment has caused it to phase out quite a bit. While concern for our environment grows, ecologically friendly options are sprouting up left and right.
What Is the Purpose of a Yoga Mat?
A yoga mat provides a surface that’s supportive and often has a good amount of grip, making the practice more accessible overall. Mats can also have many different thicknesses, depending on what you prefer.
For gentle practices or meditation where you’re often seated or on your back, many people prefer a mat with a little more thickness. Some even prefer a mat that’s somewhat soft and squishy, providing more padding for the knees.
For more advanced practices that require lots of movement, many practitioners typically prefer a medium-thick mat that’s also sturdy and supportive.
Spongier mats can make it a little harder to balance, while thin mats may cause pain to your hands or knees. Some thinner mats might also move around a little more while you move, which is distracting and difficult to deal with, particularly in fast-paced classes.
A happy medium is definitely preferred by most—something that’s heavy enough to stay in place, thick enough to feel comfortable underneath you, but also strong enough to feel as though you’re standing directly on the earth.
The grip or stickiness of a yoga mat is probably the most important factor when it comes to its purpose.
Advanced practitioners who typically take heated yoga classes or power classes seek mats that grip well underneath their hands and feet. The last thing a yoga practitioner wants—and probably the most distracting thing while practicing—is slipping while you’re in any posture.
Slipping out of Downward Facing Dog or Warrior 2 while sweat pools underneath you is not a fun experience!
If you slip and slide on your mat, your practice will be much more challenging.
Ultimately, yoga mats are meant to make it easier and more accessible to practice. They are not meant to be troublesome or distracting. Qualities like comfort, grip, sweat absorbency, and support are all important to look for in a yoga mat.
What Types of Mats Are There?
There are so many different types of yoga mats available—it’s a little overwhelming!
The type you decide on, if any, should be based entirely on your own personal preference. Ask yourself what will work best for the way you like to practice.
The most commonly seen yoga mats are the lightweight, sticky mats you’ll often come across in stores like Target and Walmart.
While these can work well in slow-moving classes, they can sometimes shift around during fast-paced practices. The thin, lightweight material makes it easier for the mat to roll up if you drag your foot or hand across it, which can be incredibly distracting while practicing.
Natural rubber mats are a bit more heavy duty and are usually recommended if you’re practicing often, going to fast-paced classes, or are usually practicing in a heated room. These are durable, thick enough to provide comfort and strong enough to properly support you.
High-quality, natural rubber mats will absorb your sweat as you practice and will be sticky enough to hold up even in the sweatiest conditions!
Bamboo yoga mats are another option. Bamboo is ecologically friendly and it provides a sturdy surface on which to practice. If you enjoy practicing outdoors—whether in your backyard or on the sand at the beach—bamboo can be a good option.
It will maintain a flat surface as you practice, while other yoga mats would sink into the sand or grass underneath your hands and feet.
If you are practicing outside but would still like the comfort of a rubber mat, consider laying the bamboo mat underneath an even surface.
Cork mats are also becoming increasingly popular. Unlike some other mats on the market, cork is biodegradable.
These mats are also antimicrobial—a huge benefit for a product used underneath hands, bare feet and sweaty skin. Many people also say that the sweatier the cork mat gets, the more of a grip it has—perfect for staying slip-free in heated or power classes!
How Necessary Is It to Use a Yoga Mat?
While it’s not completely necessary to practice yoga with a mat, having one can make it much easier. Seated meditations and gentle practices really don’t require a mat at all, but a class that involves lots of movement will be more accessible if you have one.
Yoga Mat Alternatives: What Can I Use Instead of a Yoga Mat?
There are many different surfaces on which you can practice yoga comfortably, though again, it really depends on your own personal preference.
If you love spending time outdoors, I think that soft grass is a great option. Many people love waking early and practicing in their backyard with the earth beneath them.
It’s also been shown that spending at least 10 minutes a day with your bare feet on the earth is great for your health and can actually help fight disease!
Do you live near the beach?
Slightly wet sand is another option for practicing outdoors!
Practicing on the sand can get a little messy and can be somewhat difficult, but the closer you are to the water, the easier it will be.
Similarly to running or working out on the beach, practicing yoga on the beach can be more challenging than on a flat surface. The soft sand requires the use of different muscle groups to stay steady and balanced.
Whether you’re in the grass or at the beach, you can always feel free to use a blanket or towel to practice on if that feels better for you. While you won’t have the cushion or support from an actual yoga mat, the earth beneath you can provide enough of that!
Can I Practice Yoga on the Floor?
Practicing yoga directly on the floor is definitely possible. With hardwood floors, it’s important to consider how much time you’ll be on the ground during your practice.
If you’re going through the warrior series or standing poses, hardwoods can be easier for your balance. If you’re doing more of a gentle practice, however, it can be a little rough on your knees or underneath your seat.
Carpeted surfaces are typically more comfortable—particularly if you’ll be spending time seated or on your knees. Depending on how thick your carpet is it could make balancing a little trickier.
Does your yoga practice consist mainly of gentle movements or meditation? If so, you might use a blanket or a small meditation pillow for your practice.
Can I Practice Yoga on My Bed?
Practicing yoga on your bed can be one of the best experiences! There’s nothing like slowly waking in the morning and starting with some gentle movements to get the body moving.
Taking a little bit of time for some seated forward folds or side stretches in the comfort of your bed is one of the most enjoyable ways to start your day.
While it isn’t recommended to do any sort of standing postures while on the bed (no one wants to fall off!), slow, seated movements are great.
Spending anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes practicing yoga in bed each morning can make a huge difference in the way you feel physically and mentally all day long.
Practicing on your bed at night is also a great option.
Why not do both?
It feels amazing to work out the physical kinks from the day before settling into bed for the night. This is also an awesome idea for people who struggle to fall asleep or feel as though they’re never truly rested after waking up in the morning.
Yoga has been shown to not only make falling asleep easier but also to improve the quality of sleep after you drift off.
Taking time each evening to soften through the muscles, let go of the worries and stresses of the day and reconnect with your breath can make an incredible difference to your sleep quality.
What Are the Perks of Practicing Without a Mat?
There’s something so natural about practicing yoga without a mat. It’s the way the practice was originally done in India thousands of years ago, and to reconnect with that organic style seems to bring the practice back to its natural state.
The freedom that comes with being able to move outside of the confines of a rectangular space can feel incredibly liberating.
Practicing on a woven rug or blanket in your home instead of a mat can be comforting. You still have the feel of a safe space on which to practice, but it’s one that feels soothing and inviting.
In addition to the mental and physical release of moving without a mat, practicing without a mat causes the muscles to work much harder. Imagine having to work hard not only through challenging postures, but also to have the added challenge of keeping yourself from slipping while moving through a sequence.
Downward Facing Dog, for instance, can be one of the most difficult postures to hold when there’s not enough grip underneath your hands and feet. They automatically want to slide away from each other.
The muscles throughout the core, arms and legs work so much harder to maintain that isometric work to keep your body in the posture while the hands and feet want to slide apart.
Transitioning through different postures is also a challenge without the stickiness of a mat. For a sequence that involves lots of movement, you’ll experience an entirely different workout without a mat.
So… Should I Practice Without a Mat?
Essentially, the purpose of a yoga mat is to make your practice more accessible. The stickiness and support it provides are the main reasons many yogis rely on their mats.
If your practice involves lots of seated meditation and gentle movements, you might find that yoga mat alternatives like a blanket, rug or meditation pillow is more suited to your needs.
Perhaps you want the added muscular challenge and liberation of practicing without a mat altogether.
However, you may feel that the support from a mat is something you need in order to get your practice started or something you want to make the practice slightly more accessible.
The choice really does depend on your personal preference and what will compliment your practice best. Luckily, you can always give different options a try and decide what works best for you!