Settling on the Right Yoga

You need a solid, supporting surface to exercise on, and for that reason, we recommend that you use a yoga mat for your safety. Mats give you padding, comfort, and protection, especially for your knees and spine. However, it isn't necessary to have a yoga mat when you do yoga-with-weights exercises. You can exercise on a solid, non-slippery, close-weave type of carpet or clean, dry floor.

If you're taking a yoga-with-weights class in a gym, we recommend bringing your own mat for hygiene purposes. Most gyms offer yoga mats, but they can get very sweaty. Rolling around in your own sweat is much more agreeable and hygienic than rolling around in a stranger's sweat. (The "Washing your yoga mat" sidebar provides instructions for cleaning a yoga mat.)

When you shop for a yoga mat, look for one that stretches a little and gives you good support. Like Goldilocks's porridge, the mat shouldn't be too thick or too thin. Mats range from a fraction of an inch to an inch deep, but depth isn't the real issue — cushioning is. The idea is to get some relief from the hard floor, and although comfort is fine, a spongy mat can be a nuisance because it doesn't give you a solid base to work on. For your purposes, a quarter- to half-inch-thick mat is best because it offers comfort and stability; if you're uncomfortable sitting on the floor or on your knees, get a mat that's on the thick side. Also, the mat should be as long as you are tall plus about 6 inches; in other words, if you're 5'6", find a 6-foot yoga mat.

Washing your yoga mat

You need to wash your yoga mat from time to time. You'll know when it needs washing because your nose will tell you as much. You can buy special soap for washing yoga mats at natural food stores and yoga studios. You can also buy it on the Internet (the appendix lists companies that sell yoga products). Be on the lookout for soaps that make your mat sticky or slippery; we've had good luck with the "Yoga Mat Spray Wash" made by Vermont Soap Works.

To wash your mat, fill the bathtub halfway with water, add a few drops of cleaner (as recommended), swirl the water around to distribute the cleaner, and submerge your mat for a minute. Then apply a sponge or washcloth to each side of the mat. Next, drain the water from the tub and rinse your mat thoroughly with fresh water. Air-dry the mat, but not in direct sunlight; never put a yoga mat in the dryer because it loses its shape. Mats usually take 24 hours to dry thoroughly. Make sure your mat is completely — and we mean completely — dry before rolling it up; otherwise, it will mildew and acquire a terrible smell.

Don't select a foam mat; they're too thick and too short for yoga-with-weights exercises. Foam mats are made for aerobic exercising.

In the yoga community, some ecology-minded practitioners object to using synthetic materials. You can now buy natural rubber mats and mats made from hemp. These mats are considered more "earth friendly." Look for a dense, sturdy mat without a slippery surface (see the appendix in this book for information about obtaining these mats).

Due to the popularity of yoga, every Tom, Dick, and Harriet has gotten into the yoga-mat business, and some manufacturers don't really know what they're doing. People in our yoga classes often complain about the yoga mats they've purchased because the mats wear down quickly, slide across the floor during exercises, and get slippery from sweat. We recommend mats made by Airex, Tapas, and Prana; you can buy these mats at sporting goods stores, and the appendix explains where you can find them on the Internet.

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