In your quest for inner peace and limber limbs, you may be spending a lot of face time with a yoga mat. But what is that squishy substance under your nose, knees and toes?
Almost all low-cost, cushiony plastic yoga mats are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), an environmentally contentious plastic often softened with hormone-disrupting phthalates. Those phthalates have been banned from children's toys because of leaching concerns, but wouldn't you know it, they're perfectly legal in yoga mats everywhere but Denmark (where they'll be banned by 2015, anyway). There are exceptions like Manduka's top-of-the-line Pro series, which uses PVC that's OEKO-TEX-certified not to leach certain baddies. Manduka's also very durable. One more thing: if your mat says it's treated with antimicrobial Microban, make sure it's free of eco-toxic triclosan before you buy.
Scoping out an eco-branded mat that still looks and feels like the "classic" PVC kind? This yoga mat material can seem about as mysterious as the meaning of life, but do a little digging on polymer environmental resin and you'll find it's basically a cleaned-up PVC. Instead of phthalates, it uses acetyl tributyl citrate, considered a safer plastic softener; hence, it's turning up in more nail polishes and cosmetics. On the other hand, PER is still manufactured with vinyl chloride, the component that's made PVC so harmful to factory workers and the surrounding environment. Is it safer for health-conscious yogis? Yes, but it's not much greener for the planet. Found in Bean and some Barefoot Yoga Co. mats.
TPEs, thermoplastic elastomers, are touted as non-toxic, biodegradable, recyclable and phthalate-free, which sounds amazing. However, TPEs aren't just one thing - they're a class of synthetic rubbers. Some are styrene-butadiene-based (both compounds are human carcinogens, though it's hard to say how much is released from mats), some are polyester-based, others plant-based, and the list goes on. Each deserves a different score. Many TPE mats are styrene-based, which suggests they're not as biodegradable or eco-friendly as they claim. PrAna, Kulae and Hugger all offer TPE options. Ask what type is in the mat before you invest. PS: TPE users often complain the mats aren't durable.
Like yoga teachers, rubber mats won't all jibe with your vibe. Lululemon's closed-cell rubber mats are pretty thin (3mm), slippery when wet and made with an undisclosed antimicrobial additive. Jade's open-cell mats have more grip, more padding (5mm) and are made in the U.S. (rather than China). Also, a tree is planted for every mat sold (plus, an extra $5 goes to cancer research or autism when you buy one in saffron, pink or teal). Spongy open-cell rubber mats like Jade's absorb more sweat so may require an occasional bathtub soak. Being biodegradable, rubber's less durable than plastic, but it's definitely gentler on the planet since it's made of the sap of rubber trees. Heads up: these mats emit a rubbery odour (that wanes with time) but are 99 per cent latex-free.
Yes, on a regular floor a hemp yoga rug is a bit like doing poses on a cartoon banana peel, but they're a great mat topper for grippy natural rubber mats and the PVC mats at your yoga studio; this way you're creating a bit of a barrier between you and offgassing odours or chems. Plus, they'll absorb more sweat when the heat's cranked. Rawganique has handwoven, sweatshop-free, organically grown European hemp yoga/meditation rugs (from $49). Barefoot Yoga's Original Eco mat blends jute with natural rubber.
Living in the now
Mindfulness gurus teach me about disconnecting to reconnect
I often kid that I'm an old woman trapped in a young woman's body. I was almost the last person on Facebook (just ahead of my mom), only got a cellphone (the retro flip kind) in 2011 and have trouble maintaining an up-to-date blog (ahem). But all it took was a smartphone upgrade to catapult me ass first into the 21st century. At the flip of a switch I've become a secret device junkie.
Maybe that's why I felt compelled to get on a plane to San Francisco to go to a tech conference with 2,000 other attendees and one stated question: How can we live with wisdom, awareness and compassion in the digital age?
I've been trying to live with a little more wisdom of the capital-W variety since my older brother passed away three years ago. He was an avid meditator, and so meditation became my way of connecting to him. Now I see it as a pathway for many of us to connect more honestly and compassionately with ourselves, each other and nature in a crazy, disconnected world.
Still, I check on my phone like it's a newborn child. What's the weather outside? Who just texted me? Am I falling behind on work emails? (Likely.) When's the next streetcar coming? So I'm here in San Fran for Wisdom 2.0, where the tech sector and meditation gurus meet annually for a thought-provoking heart-to-heart on disconnecting to reconnect.
Really I'm here because I want to be in the same room as a handful of Zen masters, hoping their magic enlightenment dust rubs off on me. People like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced mindfulness techniques to the medical community, and Eckhart Tolle, bestselling author of A New Earth. If only they could text me reminders to get present and be in the now. Short of that, I put their books on my phone to get a little inspiration on the go.
But I also came to witness the mindful revolution in action. Exec after exec gets up on stage to share their on-the-job mindful meditation techniques. U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan explains how he's bringing five-minute mindful meditation breaks to troubled schools and veterans, with impressive results.
But the surprise inspiration comes from the room of 2,000 engaged people who've arrived from all corners of the globe - Sweden, Brazil, Israel - mostly because they felt a tug to be part of a greater mindful societal shift. Virtually every single person I meet came here to figure out ways they can bring more mindful awareness to their communities.
Through it all, there's a call to be more present, to get our heads out of the virtual world (yes, this is coming from the very companies that make the websites and devices we can't stop checking) and be here for the now with more compassion.
Onstage, Tolle a surprisingly funny guy, pokes fun at our "status updates" and how our hamster-wheel minds mire us in negativity. That negative mind, as he's said before, wreaks havoc on our lives and the planet, and we won't get a grip on global pollution unless we fix our minds first. The only antidote, he insists, is a shift in human consciousness that goes back to being present and aware of ourselves and our environment.
But there's so much squeaky bubble wrap enveloping our brains. If only being mindful and really present full time didn't feel as challenging as a 24-hour boot camp. Though it feels a lot better on the soul.
After a weekend taking in a good dose of mindful vibes, I have to ask myself: am I really in the now right now?
Truthfully, I'm just trying to ignore my cat while he paws at my keyboard to convince me he needs an extra feeding.
But, hey, I haven't checked my email, scanned the web, Twitter or my phone in what feels like an eternity, and I'm pausing to look up at the tree outside my window. I think, at this precise moment in history, that may count as fumbling a little closer toward enlightenment.