Why do you do yoga? The four main reasons that yoga-lovers practice are: to relieve stress, to improve their emotional state, to enhance overall health, or to improve sleep.*
For me, it’s the physical benefits, as well as a calm moment to myself. (That’s not always how it transpires though, during lockdown I found myself trying to shavasana while a toddler sprawled herself on my stomach demanding horsey-rides, with the torturous background screams of my primary schoolers engaging in WW3 over pokemon cards...deep breaths)
But I digress. The reasons we practice yoga got me thinking; if it’s all about the mental, physical and spiritual health benefits, why would we do it on a toxic plastic mat? And I’m not just talking any plastic; conventional yoga mats are made of polyvinyl chloride (aka PVC) - probably the most toxic consumer plastic around.
PVC is used for yoga mats because it’s cheap, grippy and flexible. But these benefits simply cannot outweigh the problems that come with it. At all stages of its existence, PVC is an environmental and health nightmare. In its production, huge amounts of toxic chemicals are released into the environment. While in use, we are inhaling potentially harmful chemicals and absorbing them through skin contact. The main ingredient in PVC is vinyl chloride, which is a known human carcinogen (that means it promotes the formation of cancer). Then, when it comes to it’s end-of-life, PVC is the least recyclable of all plastics. When it is incinerated or buried in landfills it releases dioxin, another known carcinogen. Other toxins also leach from PVC, including endocrine-disrupting phthalates. There is no safe way to create these mats, practice on them or destroy them.
The more I learnt about PVC yoga mats, the more mind-boggled I became; for the last seven years, including three pregnancies, I’ve literally been child-positioning my face into, and taking deep, calming breaths over, a toxic PVC yoga mat (thanks Kmart!). It actually made me pretty upset.
On a completely fickle note in comparison to all that, PVC yoga mats also get really stinky! Less fickle is the reason behind this; PVC is in no way antibacterial or antimicrobial, meaning that the mats can be a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria, especially if you are using communal ones.
OK, enough on the angry PVC rant. Let’s get to the happy part of this blog. As soon as I realized all this about my PVC mat, I started looking into alternatives, and I’m happy to report that I’ve found the perfect one.
Valka Yoga is a NZ small business that makes yoga mats from,.. wait for it… cork. Why cork - (apart from the fact that it isn’t a toxic, synthetic, carcinogenic, chemical-filled plastic?) I’m glad you asked! Cork is an amazing material, with some really cool properties! It really is the ideal material for yoga mats, and you’ll soon be wondering why all yoga mats aren’t made of it – I sure am!
Firstly, it’s a naturally beautiful, raw material which is 100% biodegradable, recyclable and renewable. It also has a natural waxy substance in it, called suberin, that makes the surface non-slip, even during the sweatiest of yoga practice.
It is also naturally antimicrobial – which means that it resists mold, mildew and stinkiness.
Last but certainly not least, cork is sustainable. No trees are cut down to harvest cork, rather, the bark is stripped off every 9 years. At first I thought that was probably not good for the trees, or for their carbon-storage, but it turns out that regenerating their bark actually means that the cork oak trees store, and therefore absorb, up to five times MORE carbon that one that isn’t being regularly harvested. The bark is harvested by hand and provides over 100,000 jobs. Some entire communities in the Mediterranean derive a sustainable annual income from the cork harvest. The cork in Valka Yoga mats is sustainably and ethically sourced from Portugal.
The mat is backed with rubber; which is sustainably tapped from rubber trees in China, which is also where the mats are made. When I asked the owner of Valka Yoga, Danny, about the working conditions for Chinese workers, I was impressed to hear that he had visited the premises, and made sure that they meet and exceed all health and safety regulations, the employees are paid fairly (they are unionized) and their typical work day is 8:30 - 17:30. The premises are closed during public holidays and they even provide catered lunches to all their employees.
‘Aha!’ you say, ‘But how do they stick the rubber and cork together?’ Incredibly, they’ve even got that covered, they use thermal bonding - to fuse the cork fabric upper to the rubber base. No adhesives are used in this process.
So the mats make complete sense in terms of health, sustainabily and ethical manufacturing. The only remaining thing was how they stack up in terms of practicality. I’ve been using my mat for just over a month now, and I highly recommend it. It’s thicker and a bit cushier than my old mat, making it more supportive. It’s equally grippy, and completely odour-free. And while ‘looking good’ was not on the list of main reasons that people do yoga, it certainly does that too; simple, sophisticated and natural.
It is a bit heavier than a plastic mat, but it’s a weight I’m more than happy to support, knowing what that weight represents. I feel proud, knowing that I’ve made a conscious decision to support local, healthy, sustainable and ethical. (Oh, but if the weight is a problem, it also comes with a carry strap.)
I was left with just one problem; what to do with my old mat? Knowing what I now knew, I didn’t want to use it for yoga, but I also didn’t want to send it off to landfill. Then I found a blog by Valka Yoga full of suggestions for reusing, rather than throwing out your old mat, like donating them to animal shelters, or using a small piece as a jar opener. Consequently, I cut a strip of it to use as protector pads on the bottom of furniture, and I’m now using the remainder to kneel on when I’m gardening.
So if or when you’re looking for a yoga mat or eco-friendly yoga accesories that align with the reasons you do yoga in the first place, check out Valka Yoga.
I love sharing about incredible, sustainable NZ businesses. This post is written in collaboration with Valka Yoga. I only work with businesses that I use, trust and love. The words and opinions expressed are entirely my own.
*(2012 survey; National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)