Sunday, February 10, 2008

Saving the planet one asana at a time: Gaiam printed yoga mat

Stop the presses! Yoga mats don't have to all be a flat purple color anymore. A variety of colors can now be had to distinguish your mat from the sea of purple (and occasional blue) in your yoga class. You can even go wild and get a mat with a printed pattern to really get the oohs and ahhs from your yoga peers and attract the attention of that hottie across the room. Ok, so maybe money can't really buy you the acceptance from your peers or attention from the opposite sex, but it can buy you a nice yoga mat.

The Gaiam printed yoga mats are sized 68"x24" (172.7cm x 61cm) and 1/8" (3.175mm) thick. The nature themed prints are attractive and pleasantly fitting for a yoga mat. The marketing descriptions claim that the mats are made from a natural environmentally friendly and latex-free rubber. I'm not quite sure what that means since rubber is usually derived from latex. It could be that they have removed all the latex allergens (only specific proteins in latex cause an allergic response), or maybe they are using hypoallergenic rubber derived from guayule. At any rate, the mat isn't made from PVC like most yoga mats, and that's a good thing for the environment and potentially your health. The lifecycle of PVC (manufacture, use, disposal) results in significant amounts harmful chemicals (including mercury, phthalates, and dioxins) being leeched into the environment and into people's bodies.

The mat works just like a regular yoga mat, except it's perhaps not as tacky (in terms of stickiness, not fashion sense). The mat is supposed to be "light-tack" and "non-slip" according to Gaiam. In my experience so far, those assessments are fair. I actually rather liked that fact that the mat wasn't as tacky as a regular PVC mat. Because it doesn't contain plasticizers like a PVC mat, it's just a tad less flexible than a normal yoga mat. It's nothing major and shouldn't affect it's every day use. The rubber mat will just not roll up quite as tightly as a plasticized PVC mat. The Gaiam mat is also a little firmer than the PVC mats I've used in the past. The mat is still pretty well cushioned though, at least as cushiony as an 1/8" mat is going to be anyhow. I actually think the firmer pad is a plus, since I'm not a huge fan of the spongy feel of some yoga mats.

When I bought my mat, it came with a mini-dvd. I don't really think this is a big selling point. It's almost entirely filled with snippets of their dvd product line. Now, I do like some the Gaiam yoga videos. But some of those video previews almost made me spray milk out of my nose. It could be that I'm a martial arts snob, but I found the Budokon video preview to be pretty amusing. Anyhow, the word on the mini-dvd: slim on content, hefty on the marketing and advertising.

All in all, I really dig Gaiam's printed yoga mat. Sure, you could get a cheaper yoga mat, but it would probably be made from environmentally and health unfriendly PVC. It's better to just suck up the extra few bucks of cost and get a yoga mat made from a less toxic material. As an added bonus, the Gaiam mat comes with a nice print. Quite possibly the only thing that could make their printed mats better is if Gaiam would bring back their Scooby Doo yoga mat collection (I kid you not!). Scooby Doo, where are you???

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Smartwool roundup

This winter, I finally took the plunge and tried out some wool winter gear. Ok, I didn't really try it out myself. I actually bought stuff for Gen to use her as the guineau pig before getting something myself. After reading about the benefits of wool (environmentally sustainable material, moisture wicking, warmth even when wet, temperature regulation, natural odor control, etc.) and hearing good things about Smartwool, I finally gave into my consumer curiosity and bought something. Smartwool claims to use the finest and softest New Zealand merino wool for maximal comfort. They are also committed to sourcing their wool from growers who do not mulesing their sheep; since I'm an advocate of being compassionate towards other living beings, that gives Smartwool some bonus points in my book.

But sustainability and moral issues notwithstanding, how well do their products actually perform? Well, let's take a look. First up, the socks:

1. 3/4 Crew Light Hikers (Women's)

2. Crew Medium Hikers (Women's)

3. Women's Light Ski Socks (Women's), left stock photo, right my photo

4. Annabelle Pointelle (Women's, light cushion), left stock photo, right my photo

Since reviewing each individual pair of socks would be pretty repetitive, I'll make some general comments. First off, the socks feel quite soft and well-made. That's about as much as I can say from first-hand experience, since I did buy them for Gen. Plus, I'm not sure Gen would be all that happy with me stretching out her socks with my big manly feet. Any comments about the socks from this point on are based purely on her reaction to the socks.

Since our socks are largely generic cotton socks, the Smartwool socks are a huge step in terms of quality and warmth. After the first day of use, Gen was in love with the socks. Her feet were now comfortably cozy, which is fortunate for me; I'm not particularly fond of feeling the shock of ice cold toes when she's trying to warm up her feet on me. I did intentionally choose women's socks for the slimmer profile, which was a good choice in my opinion. The socks look like they are a snugger and more comfortable fit. The generic cotton socks look like they're a little baggy in places and not as well fit.

I tried to pick socks with extra toe and heel cushioning and with extra arch support. I got no opinion one way or another whether those features added any comfort. This is where the engineer and non-engineer perspectives diverged in the sock evaluation. Here I am worried about the specifications of the socks (percent wool, nylon, elastic, etc) and whether addition of structural cushioning elements would affect sock performance. All I get for my questioning is "I love them, they're really comfortable." All that research into the extra frills for a sweeping generalization of comfort. Sigh.

The claims about wool's moisture wicking and odor control seem to have some element of truth. The wool socks wick moisture away from the feet and help retain warmth in the presence of moisture. I'm sure there's practical limits to the warmth performance under really wet conditions, but I can't convince Gen to try dousing her feet with cold water and assessing the warmth retention of her feet. In the event of foot overheating and sweating, Gen found the Smartwool socks would still keep her feet relatively dry and not smell as much as regular cotton socks would. Nifty. [note: I've been asked to note that Gen's feet usually do not have any odor]

That covers the general impression of the socks. There were a couple of specific notes. First off, the medium cushioned hiker socks were actually a little too warm for indoor use. Granted, we have free heat, so this may not be a concern for people without the luxury of a comfortably temperature regulated apartment. Gen wasn't immediately in love with the ski socks since the elastic was initially a little tight. After a day break-in, the comfort was no longer an issue. Now, she won't leave the house on a cold day without them since they keep her entire lower leg warm.

Overall, the Smartwool socks get two big thumbs up. Gen thinks they're fabulously comfortable and warm, and I'm happy that her feet are comfortable and toasty. The only possible downsides to the socks are that they are on the pricey side, and the designs and colors might not be to everyone's tastes. The higher prices are worth it though, especially if you can find some Smartwool on sale.

Next up is the gift I finally bought for myself:

5. Active Training Cap (unisex)

Since my winter hats kept being "borrowed," I finally decided to buy myself a Smartwool cap. The cap is pretty comfortable. It's certainly more comfortable than the acrylic fiber caps I had before that were constantly disappearing on me. The cap is actually meant for exercising, so it's not quite as warm as other winter caps and is supposed to allow the wicking and evaporation of sweat. Personally, I find that the cap is just the right warmth most of the time. My head would often overheat and start sweating under my Thinsulate cap. I rarely have that happen with the Smartwool training cap.

I had initially thought that the "cap" would only cover the very top of my head. The size of the cap isn't that clearly depicted in the stock photo. Assuming you don't have a ton of hair, the cap should pull down over your ears. My ears and head stay cozy (but not too warm) under the cap. Considering that the cap is also light weight and easy to stow in my coat pocket, it's not surprising that I opt to use this cap in lieu of my other winter caps the vast majority of the time. I fiercely guard this cap from being borrowed so that it doesn't magically attach itself to another household member's head. The only downside I could find to the cap is that it has an extraneous tassel. I could see how that would annoy people, but it doesn't bother me. I just use it as a convenient handle for pulling off my cap.

This Smartwool cap gets my stamp of approval. I don't think Smartwool actually makes this particular style of cap anymore, but if this cap is any indication, I imagine that the other caps in their line must be equally comfortable and warm.