Invest or buy cheap
Essentially, a yoga mat provides a non-slip and clean surface for you to practice on. The bottom line is that a towel or your camping sleeping pad won’t provide a safe place for you to do yoga because you will be slip sliding all over the place.
There are really two general approaches to buying your first yoga mat. Either go cheap or invest.
For $20 (or less) you can buy a sticky yoga mat (they sell them at Target, sporting good stores, etc.). A cheap mat will do the trick in terms of providing a safe, relatively non-slip surface for you to practice yoga on.
The benefit is that they are inexpensive. So, if you are new to yoga and not sure if you will become a committed yogi, then this may be the best vehicle for your test drive.
The down-side is that cheap mats are, well, cheap. They won’t last you very long. More importantly, when you sweat, and you will, your hands will slide forward in down dog. And finally, they are usually PVC-laden and not eco-friendly. Don’t get me wrong, when I started yoga I bought the cheapest mat I could find and practiced on it for over two years with confidence. They are just not ideal for a regular yogi and when I started practicing more regularly, I upgraded and will never go back.
Thickness If you are willing to spend more (around $70) you will get a better quality, eco-friendly mat that will last longer and provide a non-slip surface. I recommend a Jade mat. It has a good grip, so even when you sweat you don’t slide. It is also made sustainably in the United States and contains no PVC or synthetic rubber. It is more of an investment but I think it is worth it if you are able to spend the funds. Another popular brand in this category is a Manduka mat.
Mats also vary in thickness. The thicker the mat, the harder it is going to be to balance on. Some people like thicker mats because they provide padding for their knees and other body parts. I recommend using a yoga blanket (typically provided by the yoga studio) to pad those areas as needed and not using a thicker mat. On the flip side, travel mats are usually extra-thin and shorter and I don’t recommend one unless you plan to frequently take it on the road with you.
Also for sale are mat towels that are cut to the size of an average yoga mat and have sticky dots on one side that will grip to your mat so the towel doesn’t slide around. Some yogis who sweat a lot like to use these towels because they provide an extra layer of resistance and soak up perspiration. I have never used one. In the heat of the summer I use an extra thin hand towel at the top of my mat to wipe off sweat from my face, etc. as needed. But some yogis swear by mat towels and won’t practice without one.