Forward Fold (Uttanasana) appears in many style of yoga, from sweaty Ashtanga to Yin and while it looks simple, could be contributing to back pain. Most people focus on getting their hands to the floor, and in the process forget that this pose is a hamstring stretch and compensate for the lack of flexibility in the hamstrings by curling over at the lower back. While doing this once in a while to stretch out the lower back wont hurt you, consistently doing this movement and looking for improvement by destabilising the lumbar spine will lead to lower back pain over time. Check out the three tips below to improve your forward fold without injury.
1. Legs up the wall (Viparita Karani)
slowly move hips closer to wall, keeping legs straight and spine in neutral. Keep pressing your tailbone into the floor, not letting the lower back flatten into the ground to keep the bend at the hip to target the hamstrings.
2. Bend your knees keep the focus on the belly touching the thighs. This naturally lengthens out the spine and puts the basis of the stretch in the hamstrings, not the lower back.
3. Warm up – starting your practice with sprint intervals or fast-paced sun salutations to warm up the muscles sufficiently will improve your forward bend.
Yoga mats can range in thickness from 2mm to 5mm or even thicker. If you have joint issues, a thicker mat will provide more cushioning than a standard mat. Thin yoga mats are often marketed as travel mats, as they are easier to fold or roll up and are lighter. As a trade-off for the increased portability, they do not provide much (if any) support but they are great for putting over your yoga studios rental mat.
Yoga mats these days come in a variety of textures, from smooth and slick to rough and grippy. As a general rule, more textured mats, like those made from open cell rubber(Jade mats) or jute and natural rubber (try We’ar), tend to have more grip, however I have found my lulu lemon mats (which are smooth) are the least slippery that I have tried so far. If you have a sweaty practice, you may like to try a mat with a microfiber topping to save on using a towel. The warmer and sweatier you get, the more grip the mat has. Microfiber mats can also be nice for those of us you like to practice yin yoga, as the softness can feel nicer with a slow practice. The yoga mats currently in stock at the My Yoga Escape facebook store have a Microfiber top. Your standard ‘sticky mat’ has some texture, but as the PVC can have a coating from the manufacturing process, this can be slippery until it’s worn off.
You can spend anywhere from as little at $6 for a standard PVC sticky mat to over $200 for premium brands such as Manduka. As a rule, the more technical or eco-friendly the mat, the higher the price point. This is due to the increased manufacturing costs, such as paying the factory workers a decent wage and choosing sustainable materials to manufacture from. If buying online, be aware of shipping costs. Yoga mats can be large and heavy (especially thicker mats) and this could be reflected in the shipping cost for the buyer.
This comes down to personal preference. PVC mats are not eco-friendly. They often emit a strong chemical odour when first unrolled (this usually does go away with use) and have been made from a process that produces a lot of waste. PVC also takes a long time to break down, even after the mat has been discarded. Many brands are choosing to use natural rubber (such as Yogi Peace Club and Jade Yoga) and are sourcing this rubber from a sustainable source. Other brands (like We’ar) incorporate natural fibers like just into their mats, for more texture and grip.
Size & Style
Obviously you want to pick a mat in a colour or pattern you like. There are mats available in almost every solid colour and pattern imaginable. One thing to take into consideration is the length of the mat. If you are particularly tall, you may want to go looking for a longer mat. There are also different shaped mats available nowadays, such as round or square. While these are great for your home yoga practice, please be considerate of others if you are thinking of bringing these along to your local class.
Wear & Tear
As a general rule, mats made from synthetic materials tend to last longer than those made of natural fibres. Natural fibers do have the benefit of being biodegradable and are better for the environment once the mat is no longer usable, as opposed to PVC mats which take decades to break down in landfill.
The past few years have seen a rise in the number of people debating what it means to practice ‘real’ yoga. The general gist of this debate is the rise of Instagram yoga and the promotion of asana practice, in particular advanced poses such as backbends, inversions and arm balances and the omission of other less photogenic aspects of yoga. Many of these ‘real’ yogis also find the fact that some people treat their asana practice as their workout ‘offensive’.
For those who have a basic awareness of yogic philosophy, you know that asana, or the physical poses that most of us practice in class or our home practice, is one of the eight limbs of yoga, as laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Meditation and pranayama (breath work) make up the other seven limbs (at a really basic, simplified level). Traditionally asana has been used to prepare the body for the stillness of meditation, to be able to sit comfortably for long periods of time. If we still use this concept for asana, it actually makes sense that our practices are predominately physical, due to the fact that our lifestyles are far more sedentary than in Patanjalis era. These days, when the average student walks into a yoga class after a day at work, they have spent on average 2 hours commuting to and from work, sitting badly in their car, spent 8 + hours hunched over a computer at work and are set to spend another hour hunched over the stove cooking and cleaning for their families and will spend any leftover time (if they have it!) sitting slumped in a poorly designed armchair in front of the TV. The last thing these students really need is to come straight into a sitting position without undoing the kinks and muscular imbalances that contribute to poor posture. By using the traditional concept of asana, these students would actually require more asana practice than previous generations. As long as meditation and pranayama is not neglected, increasing asana practice does not make your practice any less ‘real’.
Part of the responsibility of the assumption that yoga is just stretching and a physical work out must be shouldered by the yoga community themselves. For as long there is little regulation of the industry, in particular the running of teacher trainings, there will be teachers out there who have not had sufficient training in yoga philosophy, meditation and pranayama to adequately pass this knowledge onto the students. The general public only know about yoga according to what is put out there by industry experts, so they cannot be blamed for ‘not knowing’ about other parts of yoga that they have not been exposed to.
Thickness: 5mm. Provides a nice cushion on hard surfaces.
Stickiness/Texture: This mat has the same upper as The Unmat. The underside is a rough, black side, which is very grippy. I still tend to use only the smooth side but I do find that the grippy side prevents the mat from slipping on smooth floors. I generally don’t have issues for this as my practice spaces tend to be carpeted.
Eco friendliness: As with the Unmat, this mat is made from Polyurethane, so it’s not the most eco-friendly option out there. The cushion part is made from latex and rubber. There is a bit of a rubber smell when you first purchase the mat but it seems to disappear quickly.
Size & Style: 180 x 66 cm. 2.38kg. As with the Unmat, The Mat comes in a variety of colours and patterns that are refreshed every season. They do a larger mat (fittingly called ‘The (Big) Mat), which costs $99NZD, measures 213 x 74 cm and weighs 3.2 kgs. This mat tends to come in more masculine colours and patterns but would be worth checking out if you find standard sized mats a bit short.
Wear & Tear: I have had this mat for 2 years (although it doesn’t really get used as
much as my Unmat) and I can see it lasting for a long time. Which is a shame, in a way, as I often like the new prints Lululemon bring out each season but I don’t need a new mat every 3 months.
Yoga mats are a strangely personal thing. What works for one person, is another person’s nightmare mat. I hate it when other people walk all over my mat (especially in bare feet!) but other people aren’t so precious about their mats and their space. A yoga mat is often a yogi’s first big purchase once they have realised they are pretty serious about their practise.
My Mat Story
When I first started yoga, I just used the standard sticky mats that my studio provided but I found them really slippery and was constantly re-adjusting my hands in poses such as Down Dog. I then tried a mat that I got as a Gift With Purchase but this was the same waffle PVC mat as the standard studio mats. I even tried scrubbing it, hoping to roughen up the surface but to no avail. The next mat I tried was a Nike one, with different textured sides. While this one felt nicer (much better for poses where there is pressure on the joints), I still felt like I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I then looked into mat towels but couldn’t justify spending that much on a towel with non-skid dots on the bottom! Especially when I read reviews saying that you need to moisten the towel first, to make it non-slip (seems to defeat the purpose, no?) I did, however, try a regular microfiber towel over my mat but I didn’t feel like it did much. After much umm-ing and ahh-ing and penny-pinching, I picked up Lululemon’s The Unmat (chosen over The Mat purely for price, seeing as the surfaces were the same). I chose to try Lululemon as my teacher and a couple of other students had them, and when talking to them, they felt it was worth the expense.
It wasn’t love at first sight. The first night I tried it, I tried the rough, black side, thinking it would be grippier than the smooth, coloured side. Wrong. It was so slippery, it was even worse than the ‘sticky’ mats! I couldn’t even hold a downward dog. I nearly cried, thinking I had wasted $60 on a mat that was absolute crap. Luckily, I then thought to try the other side and it was fantastic! I have since bought The Mat (5mm version), as my teacher training was done in a room with wooden floors, which can get hard on your joints after a while and I have also treated my mum to one (with matching carry strap) for Mother’s Day this year.
The Unmat Review
As detailed above, this was the first mat I purchased. This is described by Lululemon as a lightweight mat, ideal for the commuting or travelling yogi. It can be used on its own or layered over another mat for more thickness/cushioning.
Thickness: 1.5mm (A standard sticky is mat 3mm)
Stickiness/Texture: The top of the mat (the side with the Lululemon logo on it) is really smooth but has really good grip. My hands barely slip anymore and there is good traction for standing poses.
Price: I paid $60NZD for this mat in 2013. At the time of writing, this mat was not available for purchase on the New Zealand website but I found it for $48USD on the US website.
Eco-friendliness: According to Lululemons website it is made of polyurethane. I have heard it described as ‘the same stuff Tennis racquet grip tape is made of”. I’m no expert on how this material compares with PVC but I don’t think this is particularly eco-friendly.
Size & Style: 180cm x 66cm. Weighs 1.05kg. It comes in a range of colours and patterns. They tend not to repeat prints and colours every season. It is light and easy to carry around. I tend to prefer to roll it up, as opposed to fold because I don’t like the fold marks that tend to stay in the mat.
Wear & Tear: I have used this mat most days for the last 3 years and it has held up really well. There are scuff marks from where the mat has ‘stretched’ when doing wide legged, standing poses, like Warrior 2. It also has a type of anti-fungal and microbial coating on it that prevents mould, bacteria and fungus growth. I still tend to wash my mat, especially after festivals or if I have lent it to someone. I just fill up the bath and use some dishwashing liquid. I put it out over the clothes line (usually coloured side down so it doesn’t fade) to dry. I can’t recall it having much of a smell, like some new mats do and there was no breaking in period as such (once I tried the right side!).
For me, when I purchased this mat I had 2 main factors in mind: stickiness and price. A bonus with the Lululemon mats is that they have some in store that you can try out before you purchase. Compared with other top-of-the-range mat brands, like Manduka, I don’t think the price is unreasonable. I would recommend Lululemon’s Reversible yoga mat range if you are in the market for a new mat and eco friendliness isn’t an issue. For me, while I am very happy with my mats, when/if one of them wears out, I will be looking to find a more eco version.