I never really thought about keeping my yoga mat clean until one day, in cobra pose, my nose revealed the truth of the situation at hand. It was at my yoga teacher training in Thailand. We were there for three months and it was very hot! Not to mention we were doing a very vigorous practice and there was much sweating going on. Needless to say the mats got stinky pretty quick; lucky for us we had a lot of fresh air moving through the space. Over there cleaning our yoga mat was pretty straight forward, we just hosed them off outside with cold water as needed and then hung them up to air dry.
The second time I really thought about how to clean yoga mats was while I was teaching at a community college. I realized that about a hundred different students used those mats each week. Thinking about all those feet with questionable levels of sanitation week after week and the infrequency in which the mats were washed I began to think it was kind of gross not only sharing foot funk but putting our faces down on those mats for prone positions like cobra, locust and bow. I started encouraging the school to wash them more and students to bring their own mats or at least a hand towel to put down under their faces if they were sensitive to that sort of thing.
This led me to think about my own mat at home. How long had I actually used that mat since it had been cleaned? Had I ever cleaned it? What should I be doing for maintenance to keep my yoga mat clean, sanitary and lasting for many years to come? I am actually surprised that I did not think about it sooner being the semi clean freak that I am. Luckily there are some very simple and easy ways to clean a yoga mat.
However, before I jump into the nitty gritty details of cleaning I’d like to mention that some yoga mats have a thin film on them when they are new that needs to be washed off. You’ll know you have one of these if your “sticky” mat is not sticky and you feel like you are slipping and sliding. If so, use the washing machine or the hand washing method as the spray method will not be effective in removing the film.
There are three basic ways to wash your mat as was just mentioned: hand washing, machine washing and using a spray disinfectant in between uses or as needed.
When hand washing it is helpful to have a bathtub. It works great if you have a hand held shower head (alternately use a plastic tub like the ones left over from yogurt). Use your hands, a clean sponge or a wash cloth; rub it gently (just use water or if you prefer use a mild soap like Dr. Bronner’s) and then rinse it well. If you use soap make sure you get all the soapy residue off. You can then put down a large towel, put the yoga mat on top of it, roll it up, stand on it, squish it and roll it around to get some of the water out of the mat and into the towel. Hang the mat to dry over a clothes drying rack, towel rod or over a shower curtain rod. If it is warm outside then put it outside to dry in the fresh air. The downside of this method is that it can take quite a while to dry depending on the temperature, humidity and airflow. It will probably take at least 24 hours or possibly even days. Be sure it is completely dry before rolling it back up. Otherwise the moisture that is in it will come out and it will feel wet, slippery and possibly a little slimy next time you go to use it. Give it more time than you think it needs.
Another way to wash your mat is to just put it in the washing machine. Some folks discourage this and say that it can cause little tears in the fabric, especially in top loading machines. I have not seen this happen to mine, yet use this method at your own risk. If you are nervous about it or feel uncertain just use one of the other two methods described here. I have tried this method with cold, warm and hot water, it all seems to work just fine, although most people recommend using cold water. Put one mat in the machine at a time, by itself. Sometimes I just use water other times I use a very mild soap. I have also put it in the dryer on the lowest temperature setting which seems to work just fine as well. Sometimes I’ll just dry it part way to get the initial wetness off and then air dry it the rest of the way; you can also do this with the bath tub method.
The third way to sanitize your yoga mat is to spray it down with an all natural disinfectant. Some of these are pre-made and sold in stores, yoga studios and online. You can also make your own very easily and inexpensively once you have the ingredients on hand. Find a nice, clean 8 oz. spray bottle with a good sprayer. Ideally find one that is pretty and makes you happy to look at and use, so you keep it out by your mat and will be more inspired to use it frequently. You will also need to find lavender and ti-tree essential oils and grapefruit seed extract (GSE). These are readily available at health food stores, natural supplement stores, some grocery stores and online. I know this will seem like a bit of an expense just for cleaning you yoga mat, yet if you only use these products for cleaning your mat you probably have invested in at least a five year supply of consistent use (you could even make some for your friends and give it away as gifts). Another possibility if you are on a budget is to just use one of the essential oils instead of two or even just one of these products diluted in water. However, the combination of all three is really the best and most effective. These three products have such a wide range of uses you may well find yourself using them more frequently for self care and around the home. Be sure to get real essential oils not the fake stuff and of course if you are a purest organic is best.
Grapefruit seed extract (GSE) is a very powerful antibacterial (we used it in Thailand to clean our water bottles out between uses and when we had an upset stomach from eating something questionable).
Ti-tree essential oil is anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial (very few of the essential oils are actually anti-fungal, so this is a good choice since we are dealing mostly with feet). A very small percentage of people are sensitive to ti-tree oil and many can use it directly on the skin for the healing of wounds, blemishes etc… (test a very small amount on the inside of your arm before using it more extensively on the skin; it can also be used diluted in any nut or vegetable oil). However, some people do not like the smell of this oil as it is a bit astringent (usually retail stores where you purchase essential oils have testers so that you can see for yourself if you like the smell or are turned off by it).
Lavender is one of the most loved, therapeutic and commonly used essential oils. This one is also very safe on the skin, most people can use it directly without a carrier; be mindful however these are very potent, concentrated substances (again use the inner arm test). This oil is antibacterial and antiseptic. It is relaxing, smells lovely and has balancing qualities to it. It helps treat burns (good do dilute in water and spray on a sunburn), helps accelerate the growth of new healthy skin in wounds and can help alleviate a headache by putting a few drops on the temples.
To make your yoga mat spray put 4 drops of lavender, 3 drops of ti-tree and 3 drops of grapefruit seed extract into your spray bottle (remember these are very concentrated substances and a little goes a long way). Fill the bottle with pure water, cap it and shake well (shake it up before each use). You can spray this lightly or generously onto your mat after each use or just when you feel inspired. It makes the room and the mat smell fresh and clean. You can rest assured that any funkiness has been effectively dealt with. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to maintain and clean your yoga mat. Leave the mat out to air dry completely before rolling and storing.
Yoga has the potential to be such an opening, expansive experience. At times I have found myself laying on my mat on my stomach or in child’s pose and shrinking a bit energetically from the “ewe, my mat is stinky” experience. It is much more pleasant to stay in that expansive space; happy to breathe deeply, even with my face resting on the mat, with the peace of mind that all is fresh and clean.