I took up Ashtanga yoga in 2013 in Madrid, Spain. The year before, I had run a half marathon in a stupidly beautiful wine region of Portugal, but I’d trained poorly, without proper form or shoes or nutrition, and—one by one—all my toenails fell off. This time, I decided I would take up something gentler on my body. I started by going to yoga classes at a studio that felt like church (not the kind I grew up in). It had high ceilings, white walls, tall french doors, several plants, and a cat that roamed where it wanted. Whenever I entered, the lights were dim and incense burned. The instructor, who walked around monitoring people’s form, spoke only in whispers. Sometimes they hosted vegetarian potlucks. After I could no longer afford the classes on my income as an English teacher, I took Ashtanga home with me to the apartment that I shared with three Spanish men. They were all nice to me, but I still felt like an outsider borrowing their space, so I was most comfortable practicing alone in my small room. About four days a week, I went through the same movements again and again, breathing loudly (Ashtanga is all about the breath) while James Blake’s Overgrown album played on YouTube. (The whole point, probably, was that I was supposed to be doing the practice in meditative silence, concentrating only on the flow of the sequence, but I became bored easily.) In the end, I screwed up my knees. Maybe because I was hyperextending, maybe because I still ran, or maybe because of the extra weight I carried on my frame after many cervezas and the previous year’s half-marathon training, during which I stress-gained a surprising amount. I left Ashtanga behind. Half a decade later, I missed the flow that once bored me. I recently started powerlifting, and I wanted to find a way to maintain my flexibility as I gain strength. Since I’ve stopped running, and my knees no longer pop when I kneel down, yoga seemed like a good option for me. There’s something, too, about the repetitiveness and the mobility of Ashtanga that calls me back—the way it lulls me into a different state of mind, and the fact that, once memorized, I can do it pretty much anywhere, whether I’m at home, on a trip, or at any wonderfully scented studio in the world. (Though I’m now landlocked in the American Midwest, I recently began a full-time job that will allow me to go on more weekend getaways than my freelance-writer budget and NYC rent allowed.) But, to practice anywhere and at any time, you need a yoga mat suited to travel. Below I’ll compare three popular options that I personally tested for weeks, paying special attention to 1) ease of transport, 2) comfort, and 3) functionality. Multipurpose mats got bonus points. (I’ll explain later.)
My Process for Testing Travel Yoga Mats
To compare these popular travel yoga mats, I tried to keep conditions as similar as possible during testing. With each yoga mat, I completed the same Ashtanga fundamentals session on a hardwood floor, wearing the same clothes and stopping midway to sample each mat as a topper over my at-home yoga mat. Though I’m a very sweaty person generally, I didn’t sweat much (if at all) during these sessions, as I practiced in air-conditioned rooms and at a slower speed. (This, of course, had everything to do with the type of yoga I chose. Hot yoga would’ve changed everything.) Since all the mats made claims about their grippiness, I emulated sweaty palms by running my hands under water about halfway through my flows so that they would be damp for the remainder of the practice, which included positions you might easily slip during if on a bad mat: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana), and Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I). Whether I actually traveled with a mat was a game of survival of the smallest. Mats that fit inside my 21.7” × 14.8” × 10.2” carry-on took trips, while the others (or, in this case, other—only one was too big) were left behind.
Travel Yoga Mats Tested
[sol title=”CleverYoga’s YogiOnTheGo Travel Mat” subheader=”Mat Dimensions: 71” L × 24” W × 1 mm | Weight ~2 lbs”]
This floppy, super-soft mat reminded me of a fancy cowhide rug. In reality, it’s probably the furthest you could get from a home accessory made of animal flesh. The CleverYoga YogiOnTheGo Travel Mat, according to the box it comes in, is eco-friendly, created “from all-natural tree rubber” “with a soft fabric surface” that is certainly not the dried-out skin of a mammal. This in no way discouraged me from making myself at home on my cross-country flight to Los Angeles by using the mat as a blanket. My four-hour trip from St. Louis Lambert International Airport to LAX was not terribly long, but it was a struggle. After a full night’s rest of two hours, I boarded at 5:15 a.m. and immediately wanted to lie down. Luckily, it wasn’t a full flight, so I could. Unluckily, it was cold, and blankets weren’t provided. So I got creative. I balled up my jean jacket to use as a pillow and pulled out the Clever mat, which I’d fit easily into the small carrying pouch of my weekender bag, which is roughly the size of a folded sweatshirt. I faced the soft side of the mat, letting the rubber exterior shield me from the blasting AC, and I was surprisingly warm and comfy, likely because of the mat’s flexibility and weight. The packaging claims it’s no heavier than about two pounds, with weight varying up to 0.3 pounds due to “the uniqueness of the natural rubber.” For the record, mine measured in on my kitchen scale as 2.48 pounds. All that said, I didn’t sleep like a baby, but I did sleep—like an adult woman, which is just okay. In additions to its luxe look, ease of transport, and multifunctionality, the cost of this mat is just under $45, which is an investment but won’t break the bank.
The only yoga I did in L.A. was a sun salutation or two the last morning of my trip, on the hard kitchen tile of the Airbnb. My notes: “not the most cushiony, doesn’t provide the best grip (but, according to the makers, it becomes grippier the more you sweat)—unrelated: realized how inflexible I’ve become, perhaps bc powerlifting?” During the more controlled Ashtanga test, I confirmed that the mat itself stays put on the floor, but its soft-side grip isn’t great, though, as promised, it does create more friction the sweatier (or waterier) your hands become, which is a neat twist. Even more curious was this instruction: “Lightly sprinkle mat with water where hands and feet normally land for superior grip.” So I did, like a priest blessing someone with holy water, and it helped. Still, not ideal. Neither is cushioning. Do you enjoy the sensation of sitting cross-legged, skin bare, on a hardwood floor? If so, you will probably find this mat comfortable. I, however, bruise like a peach, and I and my pale skin did not love it. At 1 mm thick, this material is not very forgiving. (When paired with another yoga mat as a topper, that discomfort goes away. So, if you’re a YogiOnTheGo who is more likely to attend a class with mats provided, it shouldn’t be an issue.)
Another fun and unexpected feature of the CleverYoga travel mat is that it can be laundered like a towel or any other piece of clothing. The extent of my yoga mat cleaning ritual has only ever been to occasionally—OCCASIONALLY—wipe it down with one of those antibacterial hand wipes. But I am a messy person. (“With you, the messiness is part of the art,” an editor once told me, for whatever that’s worth.) So the idea of being able to throw my yoga mat in the washer (and dryer!) after a particularly foul romp through an airplane, or wherever, seems both foreign and luxurious. After testing this out—normal wash on cold, dry on medium heat—I can say that it comes out looking basically as good as new. (For those of you wondering, there is an upper limit to the “wetter is better” feature. I tried to Downward Dog in the apartment building’s concrete laundry room floors on a soaking-wet, just-washed Clever mat, and it was kind of slick, as you might imagine.)[sol title=”lululemon Reversible (Un) Mat Lightweight Travel” subheader=”Dimensions: 71” L × 26” W × 1.5 mm | Weight ~2 lbs”]
I see what they did here with branding. The first thing I thought of when I read “(Un) Mat” was (un)chicken—so, veganism. Veganism evokes eco-friendliness, and a certain cultural elitism, which, hey, doesn’t miss the mark. Still, I took the (Un) Mat with me from St. Louis to Little Rock—via a decidedly (un) vegan flight, as a few of the passengers ate fried chicken, making my pretzels seem very sad. During my Ashtanga testing session with the (Un) Mat, I learned that the grip on this yoga mat is for real, with and without wet hands. A clear plus. Cleaning was straightforward, though I didn’t follow the rules. The instructions say to “clean this mat after practice with warm, soapy water,” and “after a heavy sweat session, fully submerge it in water and hang it to dry.” I’ve learned enough about myself as a person to know that I won’t be hand-washing items, unless those items are expensive lingerie or all of my dishes for the past seven years, because that’s how long I lived without a dishwasher. Instead, I used a Wet Ones hand wipe for sensitive skin to do a quick once-over. They were not kidding around about how the top layer “absorbs moisture.” The mat seemed to instantly evaporate any wetness (where? how?), and it even showed imprints from the oil on my nose, like some kind of massive blotting paper.
As it turns out, 1.5 mm thickness is still not thick enough to feel like you aren’t pressing your ankle bones directly into the cold, hard floor. (Though I feel the need to mention that the discomfort did disappear when the mat was turned into a topper.) Another bummer: This mat only barely fit in my carry-on bag. At 2.32 pounds, it’s lighter than the Clever mat, but it was inflexible enough that it had to be ungracefully fruit roll-upped and crammed between clothes, which left it looking crumpled. Visiting family for a long weekend, I got the chance to do some yoga with my mom, who used the Clever mat while I used the (Un) Mat. The practice was for “complete beginners” and we did it in our carpeted living room, so the mats’ thickness and grippiness didn’t come into consideration. Mainly we were in tune with the sensory experience. (“I wish this was a class where they came and massaged you!” my mom said before starting. She is not a huge fan of yoga, per se.) Both of us were distracted by the strong, almost fishy smell of the (Un) Mat. The Clever mat did have a slightly unpleasant tire-y odor, which has lessened with time and a wash, but the stench was much more invasive when it came to the (Un) Mat. To be fair, the packaging advises rolling it out to air before practicing with it, which I didn’t read until later. Perhaps the odor is from the natural rubber base, the polyurethane top layer that “absorbs moisture to help you get a grip during sweaty practices,” or the antimicrobial additive that apparently prevents the growth of mold and mildew—all great features! But something stinks until the mat has been aired out for a couple days.
At $48.00–$58.00 on the lululemon website, this is slightly more expensive than the CleverYoga option.[sol title=”Liforme Travel Mat” subheader=”Dimensions: 70.8” L × 25.6” W × 2 mm | Weight 3.5 lbs”]
This mat delivers in some important ways, as evidenced by being the top performer in my Ashtanga-on-hardwood-floor-with-wet-hands test. First, it looks cool. The design is neat enough on its own, but it’s also functional. The mat’s creator, James Armitage, said the Liforme Travel Mat came into being after a five-year process of research and development, including seven trips to the “Far East.” The markings on the yoga mat make up the AlignForMe system, which is supposed to help yogis and their teachers track positioning of the hands and feet, or any other strategically placed body parts. (James experienced a turning point in his yoga practice when he started regularly attending a guided Ashtanga primary series class, so perhaps the system was made specifically with those poses in mind.) Second, the mat felt like the grippiest of all three I tried, with what the makers refer to as a “Warrior-like Grip.” A little booklet that comes attached to the travel bag says: “We believe our revolutionary ‘GripForMe’ material is the grippiest Yoga mat material currently available on earth. And it stays grippy even when ‘sweaty wet.’” Can’t argue with that. Third, Liforme seems to have hit the sweet spot of travel-mat thickness at 2 mm. When used alone, the other two mats, at 1 mm and 1.5 mm, respectively, felt almost like having nothing between my body and the floor, while this one felt like enough of a barrier to not hurt my joints during my practice. Another notable feature, according to the attached booklet, is the mat’s “planet friendly, body kind” makeup: “sustainable natural rubber, topped with a specifically engineered eco-friendly material” that is “responsibly manufactured and biodegradable.” I appreciate that the mat came with its own zip-up travel bag, which includes an over-the-shoulder strap. The sturdy case will likely keep this yoga mat from getting beaten up over extended use. The Liforme website also provides detailed instructions on how to keep your mat in good condition and clean. (Again, I just wiped it down with a Wet One. But being a responsible adult, and considering that this mat is the most expensive of all—$125—perhaps you will feel more inclined to follow the recommended protocol.)
Even given all its wins, Liforme was the only mat that didn’t make it on an excursion. At nearly 26 inches rolled up, there was no way it was fitting in my carry-on. Though it came with its own travel case, I was worried that it would count as my personal item and the airline would charge me for my purse. Aside from this, adding any extra over-the-shoulder item is cumbersome when traveling, especially when said item is relatively heavy (about 3.5 pounds) and oddly shaped. Did I mention that this mat is over one hundred dollars? Because it is. For most of us (myself included), that’s a lot!
Like lululemon’s (Un) Mat, this one has an unsavory fishy smell, so you’ll probably want to air out this mat for a few days before your first practice.
This may come as a surprise, but my top pick for a travel yoga mat is CleverYoga’s YogiOnTheGo Travel Mat, because it shines in the two areas that a yoga mat of its kind should: being multifunctional and easy to transport. The runner-up would be the Liforme Travel Mat, for those who prioritize having a mat that’s supportive and super grippy during practice over having space in your luggage or fewer things to carry. It misses first place, in my book, because it doesn’t seem different enough in size or ease of transport from a regular yoga mat. When I was 21 years old, I went backpacking through Europe for nearly a month, bringing with me only what could fit in a relatively small backpack (think “back to school,” not Wild). If I were to take up precious packing real estate for a yoga mat, it would have to be smashable and it couldn’t be just a yoga mat. One of those nights I spent in a cold, closed train station in Nice where there were only homeless people and travelers like me with budgets too small to splurge on a hostel. It was among one of my most miserable travel memories and involved me curling up near a New Zealander couple I’d just met, using a pair of my damp, dirty jeans as a blanket. Here a yoga mat that served as a cushion would’ve been greatly appreciated, but realistically I probably wouldn’t have taken the extra space required by a more traditional, roll-up mat. On the other hand, a yoga mat that doubled as a blanket and took up much less room in my bag would’ve been worth it, since it would’ve been something I used again and again. (I was frequently cold on transportation and could’ve used it as a stand-in beach towel, picnic blanket, or hostel comforter, then washed it when it got too gnarly.) On top of all that, it’s the least expensive of the bunch. And what traveler can’t use more money?