there is a lot of falling and sitting in yoga. defying gravity in an arm balance, going upside down, rooting the sitting bones firmly down in seated poses, and most importantly, resting the body in Corpse Pose necessitate a big, thick mat. a high quality mat is essential. even if you're not practicing regulary (yet).
poses are built from the ground up. bottom to top, as my principal teacher, Tom says. the mat is the first point of contact with the ground. the body is the second.
how big? how thick?
depends on the size of the body. ideally, 3 inches of space between the edge of the mat at the top and bottom when the body is lying down. when moving through say, a vinyasa flow, often the body will start off on the mat, and end up further forward or back from the point of origin. having ample space reduces the chances of ending up somewhere you do not want to be: half on the mat, half on the floor. this hinders balance and concentration. the mind picks up on any little thing to wander off. with so much going on in the physical plane, this is an area ripe for distraction. nevermind all the bizarre and uplifting sensations occuring. with me it goes something like this:
'goddamit! how did this happen? it was going so well. stupid. start again. pay attention!'
thinking is not the goal of yoga. saying mean things to oneself is DEFINITELY not the goal of yoga. the goal of yoga is to still all mental fluctuations. the mat is something easily controlled, simply find the right one. the mind and body are more rebellious. so, control what you can control from the beginning, yoga practice takes care of the rest.
i like space. lots and lots of space, so when i first started practicing with Tom, he told me, in Downward Facing Dog as I recall, that my mat was designed for a much bigger body. I'm 5"4', medium frame. he's right. my arms were not flowing straight out of the shoulder joints, they were wider. this was stressful on the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. Downward Dog is a resting posture. the body cannot rest when it's straining as i was doing. though i didn't ditch my mat (we had bonded by that time), Tom's instruction made me pay closer attention to plaing my hands beneath my shoulders. so, the width of the mat should be about 3 inches from the widest point on the body, usually either the shoulders or the hips. if you can lay in the middle and roll over onto the left or the right side without touching the floor, perfect.
thickness is important as many studio and gym floors are cement overlaid with hardwood or synthetic surfaces. there is no rebound, no 'give' in cement. no exchange of energy from the earth to the body is possible. this is sad news for the joints. all downward weightbearing force is simply being absorbed, gravity is in total control. this makes it more challenging to defyn during inversions and balances. when you want to get light and float up, there is more to work against. in seated and supine postures, the back body gets achey when sititng for long periods without enough padding on this type of surface. i usually feel it most in my tailbone, hips, and heels.
a thin mat always makes for a bad scene in Corpse Pose. especially if you have a generous teacher who lets you rest for 5 to 10 minutes. or you're at a deep realxation session where the body is supine most of the time. or in Yin yoga, with all the floor-based postures. when the body experiences discomfort, the mind again seizes on the sensation which creates distraction in the form of thinking, as well as fidgeting. neither are conducive to the ultimate goal of Corpse Pose: stillness in mind and body. the sages said this pose is the most difficult for this reason. it's also the most important pose as this is where the benefits of practice get embedded into the physical, mental, emotional and subtle bodies.
have a Tommy! sort of expereince when buying the mat. see it, touch it, feel it. smell it, too. don't give the senses anything to latch onto and drag you into distraction. i've noticed that some of the thinner mats are less slippery than the thick ones. a big consideration, especially if you sweat during practice. the mat is supposed to be useful, hazardous.
so much to say! i thought for sure this post would be two paragraphs. reality always surprises me.