It's not just for wine bottles: how cork makes a sweaty yoga session easier
This springy mat could upgrade your practice.
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You can do yoga anywhere—in your living room, at the beach, in the park, at a studio—and you don’t necessarily need a fancy mat. However, anyone who does yoga regularly will tell you that the mat they use has an effect on their practice. Yoga mats made from different materials give you varying amounts of stability, balance feedback, and support in poses. As a yoga teacher, I’ll admit I’m picky when it comes to the mats I like to practice on.
I’m a longtime fan of the $80 Lululemon 5mm Reversible Yoga Mat, which is made of polyurethane and natural rubber. But lately, I’ve noticed more people bringing cork mats to the studio, so I decided to try out the the $40 Gaiam 5mm performance cork yoga mat for myself to see if it was worth the switch.
What is a cork yoga mat?
Most mats are made of PVC or vinyl, rubber, or TPE (thermoplastic elastomers, a type of plastic foam that has similar attributes to rubber). But a cork yoga mat is made with, well, cork—a natural material derived from a layer of bark from cork oak trees—that feels much smoother than other cork products, like yoga blocks or wine stoppers. Most brands claim the cork used in their mats is eco-friendly and sustainably sourced and seek out certifications from organizations such as OEKO-TEX and Fair Rubber Association (if the mat uses rubber as a base) to prove it. As a material, cork is antimicrobial, which means it resists germs and odors and is important for sweaty classes and mat storage. Cork also does not absorb dust, which could make it a good mat alternative for people with allergies and skin sensitivities.
Most cork mat manufacturers claim the mats have a non-slip grip, are lightweight and easy to carry, don’t contain chemicals, and are impermeable to liquids. You can find yoga mats from brands other than Gaiam such as Corc Yoga, Ananday, Yin Yoga Mats, Everyday Yoga, and Scoria.
How does a cork mat compare to a regular yoga mat?
A cork yoga mat serves the same purpose as a rubber or synthetic yoga mat. The Gaiam mat is made of cork with a lightweight TPE base bound to the cork surface with a liquid glue compound. (Other cork mats are fused to rubber, which contains latex, so the TPE is nice if you have allergies.) The mat I tried is about the same size and thickness as many yoga mats, at 68 inches long, 24 inches wide, and 5 millimeters thick, but it's not oversized like my 71-inch by 26-inch Lululemon mat. The Gaiam cork mat feels lighter at 4.5 pounds, though it actually only weighs a little less than Lululemon's 5.24 pounds. Like most cork mats, Gaiam claims its composition carries antimicrobial properties and the cork design can withstand even the sweatiest of practices and repels germs and odors, unlike other mats that absorb them. Gaiam did not seek out environmental certifications, but it claims the mat's cork is sustainably sourced.
The cork mat works almost the opposite way a rubber mat does in terms of handling humidity and sweat. Most rubber mats begin to get slippery in hot yoga classes, so you need a mat towel to absorb moisture so you can maintain your grip. The cork mat actually felt a bit slippery to me when dry and became better to grip as it got wetter. Once I realized this, I sprayed water on the mat where my hands and feet go as I started my practice—and the mat was easier to use from the get-go. If you don’t get super sweaty when you practice, I’d recommend getting a spray bottle and doing the same, at least while you’re getting used to the mat. The downside: It took two or three hours for the mat to dry off once I was done using it, and the Gaiam site recommends letting the mat dry while lying flat as opposed to rolled up.
What I like about using a cork yoga mat
One thing immediately jumped out at me when I took my mat out of its box: There was no odor at all. The rubber-based mats I’ve used, including the Lulu mat, have a distinct tire-like smell that takes days (even weeks) of airing out to fade away. I loved that the cork mat didn’t have any funky scent to it, because it made me want to use it immediately.
The second thing I noticed, after the smell (or lack thereof), was the mat’s springy texture. The Gaiam mat arrived rolled up so tightly that I worried it might lack the buoyancy I'm used to. However, it maintained a pleasant amount of bounce during the time I used it. I stored the mat rolled up on one end and just laying flat on the floor, and the mat sustained its cushioned surface throughout. This texture also helps it feel supportive, which I love in poses like table and downward dog. I haven’t had any issues with the mat slipping on my floor, either, thanks to the TPE underside.
I also didn't feel the need to wipe down my cork mat as often as my Lulu mat. During my testing period, I left both mats side by side on my floor for two days and played around on both throughout the day (I like to take stretch breaks as I work) to see how they held up to frequent use. After, I noticed that the Lulu mat collected more dust than the cork mat. This doesn't mean the Gaiam mat actually was that much cleaner, as its brown color and textured surface likely just means it shows less grime than the Lululemon mat's smoother, somewhat tacky one. But if you get skeeved out by the visible specks of dust that tend to gather on traditional mats, you may like a lower maintenance mat that doesn't always remind you it needs to be wiped off. For its part, Gaiam recommends spot cleaning the cork mat with its specialized yoga mat wash or a damp cloth, cold water, and mild detergent.
What I don't like about using a cork yoga mat
As mentioned, the cork surface is slippery when it’s dry. Because I don’t do many hot yoga classes, nor do I sweat heavily during my regular flows, most of my practice involved repositioning my hands and feet to remain stable. I used a spray bottle and a washcloth to wet the mat, which worked to improve my grip but got my clothes wet when I was kneeling or lying down in poses. I’ve noticed the mat also shows wrinkles and fold lines long after the mat is laid flat. This isn’t a big deal to me but may bother some who like their mats to look impeccably sleek (the Lululemon mat, for example, never wrinkles, even though it can pick up dirt). The lines on the Gaiam cork mat don’t impact my practice, but they are noticeable and worry me about its durability over time.
My final issue with the mat is that it doesn't stay rolled up on its own, which proved frustrating—and could be even more annoying to anyone who wants to travel with it (or just take it to a yoga class outside the house). After a few tries to keep it coiled up, I grabbed a string and looped it around the mat to keep it from unrolling yet again. You can also get a yoga mat sling if you know you’re going to carry it with you on the go.
Should you get a cork yoga mat?
If you practice hot yoga often, live in a humid or hot area, or just sweat a lot, there’s a good chance you'll like the cork material and qualities. Cork is a natural material with a long lifespan and potential for upcycling, recycling, and biodegrading, so it’s a good option for eco-friendly yogis, and it tends to be cheaper than rubber mats that have many of the same qualities.
As for me, I’ll opt for the cork mat when I take a hot yoga class or an outdoor class in the summer. But I'll stick with my Lululemon mat for when I’m teaching and practicing, because I don’t sweat much and prefer the material’s inherent grippy feel.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.