yoga accessories explained: props and beyond

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Whether you’re a beginner practitioner or a long-time yogi, you may find it hard to keep up with the many and varied yoga accessories and props that continue to be released to the market on a regular basis. As I explained in the first part of this Yoga accessories EXPLAINED series, the growing popularity of yoga not only has resulted in its worldwide spreading, but it has also established a solid foundation for the ancient practice to evolve into a multi-billion industry. Today, a practice for which one of its most basic tenets required austerity has grown into a potentially luxurious hobby, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

But what is it that you actually need to practice yoga? And what is it that is truly useful, and can help you enhance and deepen your practice safely and effectively?

My personal opinion, as you may have inferred from my prior blog post, is that less is more. In this blog post, I will share a few basic props that can help you deepen your practice, and a couple more which, though not essential, you may find fun to explore.

The very basics

Blocks, straps, and blankets are the most basic props that you will likely find at any studio, and also at any store selling yoga accessories. They’re available worldwide and can also be easily substituted with items that you already have at home, such as a thick book for the block, a long scarf, tie, or even a belt for the strap, and a regular blanket. Of course, if you are going to be using them regularly, you may want to invest in actual dedicated yoga props.

Blocks are available in different materials. The most popular may be foam, due to its light weight and affordability, and this will likely be the material that you’ll see at most yoga studios. However, blocks can also be made of cork (pictured above) and even wood (which is more costly, and also heavier). In my personal practice, I prefer cork yoga blocks not only because they’re more eco-friendly than foam, but because I feel they’re more sturdy and stable, especially if I want to use them under my hands for arm balances, or between my shoulder blades for passive backbends. With so many different blocks available in the market, you can feel free to experiment with different things according to your budget until you find your favorite!

Blocks are very versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes such as bringing the ground closer to you, promoting correct alignment, adding height for arm balances, supporting passive backbends, and generally adding a supportive surface to a pose when needed.

Straps are typically made of hemp or cotton with a variety of cinches (plastic, metal, or quick release.) They also tend to come in different sizes, though you can expect the standard size to be somewhere around 170 cm or 6 feet. (Some brands offer longer straps that may come in handy if you’re very tall.) Same as with the blocks, you don’t really need to pay an arm and a leg to benefit from the use of a strap in your practice - if you’re crafty you can even make one yourself!

Set of two large  Cork Yoga Blocks from Kurma Yoga ,  Natural Fitness Hemp Yoga Strap , and locally sourced handmade blanket from Figuig, Morocco.

Set of two large Cork Yoga Blocks from Kurma Yoga, Natural Fitness Hemp Yoga Strap, and locally sourced handmade blanket from Figuig, Morocco.

Straps are generally used as a way to add length to your limbs, allowing you to safely enter the correct alignment for poses that would otherwise be inaccessible to you if you’re still working on your flexibility. Think for example of a pose like utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand to big toe pose): if you’re unable to grab your toes and extend the leg, you have two ways to approach the pose. You can either bend the knee and still work on your balance, until you have the flexibility. Or you can make up for the lacking flexibility by “lengthening” your arm using a strap around your foot, which will allow you to continue to work both on the balance and the flexibility part of the pose, striving to straighten the knee safely within the correct alignment. Other uses of a strap include assisting advanced techniques such as flipping the grip (full shoulder rotation), providing the necessary resistance to build muscle memory by looping them around the upper arm in arm balances and planks, and keeping the body/limbs in place in passive/restorative yoga poses.

Blankets are another often underrated but very basic yoga prop that you can easily substitute with any blanket you have at home. They can be used to provide extra cushioning for the joints when the mat is not enough (think kneeling poses such as camel or low lunges, for example.) They can also be used under the shoulders during shoulderstand, rolled up under the heels in poses like malasana (garland pose), rolled up or folded under the back for a gentle heart opening experience, or to add height and support in poses like child pose (placing it between the thighs and calves) in Yin or Restorative types of yoga. Let’s also not forget that we can use it to cover ourselves up for a cozy savasana too!

And… this is it! Surprised? You really don’t need much else to maintain a healthy, effective, and sensible yoga practice, but just for fun, let’s take a look at…

Some non-essentials that you may find useful as well!

The Pranamat ECO is an acupressure massage mat intended to relieve minor muscle aches and pains. These types of mats also claim to improve physical well-being, increase skin elasticity, boost energy, and induce relaxation, promoting better sleep. You can read more about the benefits of the Pranamat in their own blog here. Personally, while I don’t think an acupressure mat is an essential must-have, I do enjoy having one, and like to incorporate it at the end of my yoga practice, to enjoy an extra relaxing savasana. I have also found it useful when recovering from a middle back injury that had lasted for months and got noticeable better once I started using the mat consistently. If you’re considering giving it a go, you can enjoy a 10% discount to any of their products and sets by following the link provided above, or by entering the code CHANDRINI10 at checkout.

Yoga bolsters can be defined as a type of cushions or pillows used to support and cushion the body in different poses, most commonly in Yin Yoga or in Restorative Yoga practices. They can be cylindrical (like the one in the picture) or rectangular, and they’re relatively firm. If you don’t regularly practice Yin or Restorative yoga, and especially if you’re quite flexible, you may never feel the need for a prop like this. But if you practice any of these two types of yoga, experience a lack of flexibility, or like to hold poses for a long time, a bolster may come in handy. They can be easily substituted at home with pillows or firmer cushions, so whether you actually need a dedicated bolster will depend on your actual practice and needs.

Malas (like the Coral Snake Mala from Mukhas Collection) are prayer beads used in meditation, in the same way in which you would use a rosary or a tasbeeh. Malas typically consist of 108 beads plus a bigger bead called the guru bead. Though they’re becoming increasingly popular as fashionable necklaces, traditionally malas are considered sacred items used for spiritual purposes. You may wear it to remind yourself of your spiritual intention, and hold it in your hands during meditation for extra focus, or to count mantra repetitions in the practice of japa. I personally own a variety of malas from different brands, but feel a special connection to the ones from Mukhas Collection, which have an exceptionally authentic feel. Both their beautiful rudraksha and fragrant sandalwood are sourced from sustainable plantations. I personally own more than one of their pieces (and so do my kids!) and, though they may not be essential for a yoga practice, I enjoy keeping them close to my skin as they help calm my mind and keep me focused on my journey. You can enjoy a 10% off discount to any of their products with code MINTYOGINI10 at checkout.

Yoga wheels are narrow and wide cylinders made of plastic, wood, or a variety of materials, that can be used to enhance flexibility, offer a more challenging practice, or assist in a variety of asanas. Personally, however, the only way I use my wheel is rolling on top of it for a while to warm-up and open my back before I start my daily practice. When it comes to assisting poses, I find that most “wheel-assisted” suggestions can generally be done with blocks or other home items, making this a fun prop to play with, but not an absolute must-have.

I hope this article has helped shed some light on the fascinating world of yoga props. Please share your opinions on yoga props and ask any questions in the comments - I would love to hear more about what props other people find useful, and how you make the most out of them.

If you’re a brand and would like me to review your product, please feel free to reach out via this contact form.

yoga accessories explained: the yoga mat

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As yoga continues to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry, and the number of new yoga-related products marketed as essential to a healthy and fulfilling practice never ceases to increase, it’s no wonder that some of the most frequently asked questions from yoga beginners revolve around accessories. With hundreds of mat brands to choose from, many people find themselves at a loss when trying to pick one, and things only get more complicated when they start to consider props, accessories, and even clothing (which I will leave for a different post.) At times, the vast variety of available products can even be off-putting and intimidating. In this blog post, the first part of my “Yoga accessories: EXPLAINED” series, I would like to explore the decision making process when choosing a yoga mat, including examples and reviews of the mats that I’ve actually tried and own.

What do I actually need to start a yoga practice? How much should I invest?

This is a question I received countless times, and the answer never changes: all you need is your body, and the intention to start a practice and stick to it. If you already have this, then a mat may turn out to be helpful as well.

While I understand that this answer may seem too simple, and it may not be what some people expect to hear, I believe that this is as real as it gets. You don’t really need anything to practice yoga: no special clothing, no special accessories, no huge investment. All you need is your body, your breath, and your mind, and you’re good to go.

It’s important to remember that yoga mats, ubiquitous as they are, are quite a recent invention dating back to the late 1960s. Before that, yogis in India would use woven cotton rugs and, even before that, they would sit on animal skin or grass. (If you are interested in knowing more about the history of the yoga mat, check out this video by Liforme.) This goes to say that, while you will find using a mat for your asana practice very helpful, you definitely don’t need to make an investment beyond what you can afford to be able to enjoy yoga.

The yoga mat: what you need to know

The role of the yoga mat in your practice is to provide a stable surface that combines cushion properties (to protect the joints) with enough grip and traction so that you don’t slip all over the place. You may find that the qualities that you look for in a mat can be slightly different depending on the type of yoga that you practice, but generally here’s what I look for in a yoga mat:

  • Density: By density, I mean mats that are cushiony yet not excessively soft. A soft mat that sinks when you step or place your hands on it might be comfortable if you need a lot of cushioning for your joints in sitting or kneeling poses, but won’t be able to support your balance in standing postures. In fact, it may make balancing quite tricky, especially in one-legged poses.
  • Grip: There’s nothing quite as distracting as a mat that your hands and feet slip on when you’re trying to hold a pose. And it’s not only distracting; lack of grip can affect your alignment negatively, because you will find your body trying to compensate the slipperiness by changing form. When buying a mat in person, I like to recommend to try do a couple of downward-facing dogs on it to check for grip. However, in a world where buying a yoga mat is usually something we do online, sometimes we just have to take a friend’s (or a review’s) word for it. Do your research to find the best mat for you!
  • Traction: Same as the above, but this refers to a mat slipping around on the floor. This has happened to me with lightweight mats on smooth surfaces. Because of this, I prefer mats with a bottom side made of rubbery material that adheres to the floor, or heavy mats. I don’t really mind carrying a heavy mat around if I find it trusty enough to not move around when I jump back and forth during my sun salutations.

A good mat is a mat that feels like home when you step on it

My favorite mats are the Manduka PRO and the Liforme.

(Manduka PRO Oceana [limited edition color] , and Liforme Yoga Mat in Pink)

(Manduka PRO Oceana [limited edition color] , and Liforme Yoga Mat in Pink)

I use both mats interchangeably, though these days I like to keep my Manduka at my studio and the Liforme at home. In my personal experience, I prefer the cushioning and solid feeling of the Manduka (6 mm thick)  versus the Liforme, which is a bit thinner (4.2 mm).

Both mats are larger than your average standard yoga mat, with the Manduka PRO (Standard) measuring 180 cm x 66cm and the Liforme 185 cm x 68 cm.

The Manduka PRO is made of PVC, but what sets it apart from other PVC mats, according to the company, is that it’s “manufactured through a process that ensures no toxic emissions are released into the atmosphere. The Manduka Pro is certified safe for human contact by OEKO-TEX, and environmental certification agency in Europe for the textile industry.” It also comes with a lifetime guarantee that promises that these mats should not wear from regular use.

The Liforme, on the other hand, claims to be more eco-friendly, as it’s made of natural rubber and eco-polyurethane that, according to the company, “is completely biodegradable within approximately one to five years in normal landfill conditions.” As far as I know, it doesn’t come with any type of guarantee and I can’t speak for what it’s expected lifespan is, as I’ve had mine for less than a year now.

These two mats are on the higher price point. The Manduka PRO ranges in price between $80 to $155 USD, and the Liforme costs $149.95 USD. This can feel like quite the splurge if you’re just starting and are not quite yet committed to your yoga practice. I definitely understand your concern - it took me months of putting the Manduka PRO in my cart and then closing the laptop before I finally completed the purchase in the summer of 2016!

If you’re just starting and are looking for a more affordable mat before you decide to upgrade to the mat of your dreams, I’ve got you covered!

Affordable yoga mats ideal to start your practice

If you’re just starting your yoga practice and not ready to invest in an expensive yoga mat, no worries! There are many reasonably performing affordable yoga mats to choose from, depending on what you need. Below you’ll find some mats that I own, use or have used, and keep in my studio for my students to borrow.

Keep in mind that even if you’re not ready to make a huge investment, you still want to get a mat that performs well enough that you can forget about it and focus on your practice. A mat that makes you feel uncomfortable, distracts you, or prevents you from enjoying your practice is never worth it, no matter how affordable.

Disclaimer: all these four mats have been gifted to me by the companies, either as prizes for winning a challenge, PR, or as part of our working agreement when I’ve received sponsorship for creating and running Instagram yoga challenges. This doesn’t affect my opinion in the slightest - it’s important to me to provide honest reviews to help you choose a mat that really performs to the expected standards.

From top to bottom:

  • Standard PVC Yoga Mat from Locamed (available for purchase in Morocco for 195 MAD / approx. $20 USD) Dimensions: 170 x 60 x 0.6 cm. If you’re based in Morocco and struggling to get your hands on yoga material (which I know can be an epic struggle) this might be for you. This is the type of classic standard PVC yoga mat that can be easily found around the globe, and it provides sufficient cushion and enough grip for a yoga beginner. I find it especially comfortable for more meditative and static practices such as Yin Yoga (sometimes I use this over the Liforme!) and even Hatha Yoga. You may also find it works decently for gentler Vinyasa flows. I wouldn’t recommend it for Ashtanga practice, however, as it can get a bit slippery throughout the practice.
  • Eco-friendly Deluxe Yoga Mat from Gurugrid ($38 USD) Dimensions: 183 x 61 x 0.6 cm. In my opinion, this is one of the best affordable yoga mats that I’ve tried, and I was pleasantly surprised when I first received it. I’ve used it for my personal practice and for teaching both Hatha and Hatha/Vinyasa Flow, and I was always amazed at its grip. It very rarely gets slippery. If I was to find something I dislike about it, it’s probably the fact that it’s a bit softer than I’d like. However this is because I’m picky and used to the solid surface of my Manduka Pro. Though a mere aesthetic detail, it’s also noteworthy that the printed pattern comes off with heavy use. I’ve had my mat for about a year and a half now, and most of the print in the center and the places where you would normally place your hands or feet has come off.
  • AVANZA Yoga Mat in Seafoam Navy from Equilibrium Perfect Balance (€39.95) Dimensions: 185 x 60 x 0.45 cm. If you’re doubting between the mat below (INITIA) or this one, I definitely recommend this one more. Though I personally don’t find this mat to offer enough cushion for the joints, I find it’s texture nice enough for a Yin, Hatha, or slow flow practice. The grip and traction are okay-ish.
  • INITIA Yoga Mat in Tangerine Yellow from Equilibrium Perfect Balance (Originally €24.95 EUR, currently on sale for €16.49 EUR) Dimensions: 190 x 60 x 0.5 cm. Out of the four, this is probably the mat I would recommend the less. I personally find that even a standard PVC mat such as the top one in the picture performs better than this mat, which I found very slippery to the point that I could never concentrate on what I was doing when using it. It’s texture feels hard rather than dense, and it tends to roll up on itself and to shift around on the floor while you’re practicing if it’s on a smooth surface. If you’re looking to buy an Equilibrium mat, go for the AVANZA without a doubt.

Yoga mat Q&A from Instagram

While I was writing this blog post, I asked my followers on Instagram whether they had any specific questions on yoga mats. Here you’ll find some of their questions and my answers.

What about material? Better natural ones, like cotton, or plastic ones?

As yogis, it’s only natural that we’d like our mats to be as eco-conscious and environmentally friendly as possible. Nowadays, there are many brands working towards creating their mats in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to try a non-plastic yoga mat, as even my favorites are made either of PVC or some type of polyurethane. For the same reason, I can’t speak for the performance of non-plastic yoga mats. But if you’re looking for an alternative, cork yoga mats seem to be very popular right now. Juru Yoga, a brand whose blog I’ve collaborated with in the past, offers a selection of cork yoga mats which they describe as featuring amazing grip for even the sweatiest practice (and they ship worldwide!)

What makes some mats more slippery than others? What kind of mat is best for someone with SUPER sweaty palms and feet?

In my opinion, both material and texture can make a huge difference in how slippery a mat is. Keep in mind that this is my personal opinion, but I find that the smooth texture and material of the Liforme is one of the best for sweaty palms and feet. The Manduka PRO’s texture is also amazingly grippy, but I find it a little less adhesive than the Liforme. However, different mats work differently for different people. I’ve read reviews saying the Liforme or the Manduka are slippery, too, so I can’t claim that they’ll work for you 100%. If you can try the mats before buying, or if you have a friend who already owns one, I recommend borrowing and trying it for yourself. Some people also like to place yoga towels on top of their mat to increase grip and keep the mat clean from sweat, but I have personally never managed to make towels to work for me.

Are regular mats enough for practice, or are the fancy ones with alignment markings a better option?

You definitely don’t need the alignment markings. People have been practicing without alignment markings for ages just fine. They are aesthetically pleasing, and can help a bit in the very beginning, but ideally I don’t think you should get used to relying on these markings for your practice. Instead, you should be learning to align your body based on more reliable cues that you are able to use even when you're on a different mat (or on no mat at all!). And when desperately in need of a line, the edge of the mat works just fine. So in my opinion, no, you don’t need fancy alignment markings.

What do you use to clean your mat, and how often should we wash them?

I clean my mat with Manduka’s Mat Wash (I own both the Citrus and the Gingergrass one), which is made with organic essential oils, and which I find to be enough for my purposes. This spray can be used both for daily cleaning after your practice, and also for a deeper cleaning once in a while.

 

As for washing frequency, some people recommend to wash your mat after every practice. Personally, because I don’t usually get excessively sweaty on my mat, I don’t find this to be necessary in my case. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to clean your mat at least once a week if you practice regularly, and to do a deep cleaning once a month.

 

I hope that this blog post can help you choose the best yoga mat for you, or at least give you an idea of what you should be looking for when evaluating your mat’s performance.

Share your favorite yoga mat and any questions in the comments below!