Interview: A More Natural Practice with Seona Robinson, ecoYoga

Seona Robinson is the creator of ecoYoga mats, a more natural and ecologically conscious mat for a practice of spiritual health and physical wellbeing.

What inspired you to create natural yoga mats?

Yoga mats have become the major accessory to ones practice and it means millions and millions of mats are out there being bought and disposed off. That’s a lot of mats in landfill sites. We believe the postures on your yoga mat are the beginning of a journey to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of your body, mind and soul. The ever increasing popularity of yoga reflects awareness of the transformation of the inner environment; it seems a natural progression that our awareness, our consciousness, be extended to the external world.

We thought it would be lovely to be able to practice on something a bit closer to nature, something aesthetically considered but still have the grip that everyone so desires.

If this inner awareness is awakened one hopes it finds reflection in the external world. Practising on a shiny glossy plastic mat made as cheaply as possible for maximum profit we view as the antithesis of yoga. It is a simple gesture to practice on a mat created with yoga in mind from renewable resources. Of course the choice is up to you.

What are you mats made from and why?

Rubber and Jute. Both are plant based. Rubber has the practicality of the grip and the jute fabric provides the scrim for the manufacture.

The aesthetic, strength and environmental quality of jute, along with Scotland’s (now gone) jute industry, was inspiration for me to create mats using jute fabric at their core. I was ridiculed at the start and I really had to stand my ground regards using the jute fabric but since then jute has become trendy, mainly the jute shopping bag but also with packaging and even yoga mats.

I have old mats in my allotment where they suppress weeds and protect tree bases. Over the course of a few years weather exposure crumbles the material to dust.

The compound used is based on 100% aqueous natural rubber in conjunction with fatty acid soaps. Approximately 1.5% of the total composition accounts for the man made dispersions which meet EU standards and are regarded as environmentally neutral.

Do they contain any synthetic or toxic chemicals?

Tapped rubber is opaque white and goes through an initial centrifugal system to remove ‘impurities’. In its raw state it is very unstable and will go off very quickly once in contact with air. In order to keep it stable prior to curing during the manufacture process, there is a level of processing e.g. ammonia is used as a stabiliser.

The factory lament that it is so pure which makes it so difficult to work with. Every time I attend production they ask why I don’t just add chemicals to make it cheaper and easier to run. Every time.

The curing (baking) of the compound flashes off substances. Curing is like a cake that has ingredients such as flour, butter, eggs but none of these are detectable in their original state. The curing changes the chemical structures to create a stable final product.

In manufacture of the mats I do not add life-extenders or fillers, nor synthetic nor recycled rubber.

Over the years I have had inquiries about various substances. A few of years ago my German client expressed concern over three specific ones: Latex, Nitrosamines and PAHs. Germany are very strict with regulations so I ran some tests.

Latex

The mats are 100% natural rubber so there is no escaping that they contain latex. If a latex allergy is known or suspected then the advice is not to use these mats.

Latex proteins and nitrosamines can be reduced by flushing with water. This process is used for moulded medical gloves and condoms.

I did enquire about hydro-flushing for the mat material post-production however the energy consumption for such a process is considerably high and I made the choice, with advice, that it was not essential for the mats.

When we started manufacture in 2003 the then factory’s technical staff advised me that substances within the cured rubber compound were both chemically altered to become encapsulated in the material (such as the pigment) and/ or evaporated/ flashed-off in the heat of the curing ovens.

In production occupational health hazards are regulated for materials (latex and pigments) used in their raw state.

Nitrosamines

In rubber, nitrosamines are a naturally forming byproduct of the accelerator in the composite (accelerators are used to stabilise the natural rubber). Levels can be variable and the formation is dependent on the amount added at any time as well as temperature. I am always in communication with the factory regarding these factors in the production of the yoga mat material.

In 2013 I ran tests and had a report done by Rubber Consultants – Tun Abdul Razak Research Centre, Hertford, UK. Their main consultation is in the pharmaceutical field. They reported safe use of the material as yoga mats.

Nitrosamines and nitrosatable substances are omnipresent at low levels in many foods (meats, cheeses, coffee beans), cosmetics, tobacco and on. Even water and air contain trace levels of 100ppm or less . They form when frying certain foods at high heat and are naturally found in the acidic environment of our stomachs. Nitrosation (chemical reaction creating nitrosatable amines/ nitrosamines) occurs in the stomach where the acid plus nitrites from saliva are both present.

Nitrosamines are present in latex/ rubber products: balloons, elastic bands, babies teats, medical gloves, swimming caps, child playgrounds, running pitches and artificial turf. However there is a lack of regulation on these non-consumable rubber products and no comparable studies for yoga mats.

Positive in lab rats as causing cancer they are assumed to be cancerous also for humans. Research and tests will be ongoing until results are conclusive. Consumption and/ or child toy use is the only regulation to currently exist for rubber products for this is where the assumed threat is. Saying that, mainstream condoms and child play areas, which both use rubber are not regulated, nor are there controls in orthodontic/ dental rubber bands though nitrosamines are known to be present.

Nitrosamine Regulations:

  • General oral intake regulations: 100 ug/kg
  • In Germany for babies rubber teats and children’s toys: 10 ug/kg
  • For balloons EN71 requirement: 50 ug/kg (not intended as toy but may have mouth contact).
  • Our mats have been found to contain no more than 0.02 mg/kg nitrosamines and no more than 0.4 mg/kg nitrosatables.

PAH – Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons

PAHs are used as intermediaries in dyes, pigments, pharmaceuticals, photographic products, agricultural products. Less than 1% of the overall rubber compound used in the ecoYoga mats is pigment. The colour free mat uses none.

You will find PAH presence in charred foods and tobacco. Breathing air from open fires can expose you to high levels and examples of occupations considered for exposure inclu

de oil mining, metal working, motorcycle driving, road laying.

Tun Abdul Razak Research Centre’s initial test on the PAHs reported levels were “very low” and “would pass any pharmaceutical requirement”. In addition they commented: “If you look hard enough you find these compounds in anything, from background environmental pollution.”

Our bodies are exposed on a daily basis to pollution in our food, water and air. Whilst we have an empowering capacity to adapt and process, it is not our intention to expose our customers unnecessarily or over burden with any substance that may be “anticipated” or “assumed” to have a negative impact on humans.

Do you use natural dyes?

Though rubber is itself a plant, vegetable dyes do not work with latex molecular structure. I have run trials with mineral pigments that work better but they are not wholly practical. A large volume of pigment is required to create any depth of colour which has an effect of diluting the compound, making the final product less durable. This volume means higher cost which is never favoured by customers. Also the colour range for mineral pigments is limited: greys, terracotta reds and yellows. The colours I did try, terracotta and grey, were not popular with customers. The dyes used currently are phthalate free.

What makes them different to mainstream mats and why is there a demand for them?

On the whole mainstream mats are mass produced in China and made from some form of plastic, though synthetic rubber blends are now being used. These are promoted as ‘natural rubber mats’ as they contain a percentage of natural rubber but 100% natural is costly and difficult to control so mass production is unlikely to be adopted as standard.

We have not yet found any supplier of yoga mats that conform to our sense and standards of ecology.

The chances are that these mats still contains PVC, an environmentally damaging plastic. Also many of the other plastic and rubber mats require high energy consuming production methods. There is, however, much change afoot in the yoga mat world with increased demand for non plastic goods.

Why is it important that consumers explore the origins and effects of materials in exercise mats?

I believe we should not take for granted anything that we consume. I remember 30 years ago one of my school teachers made our class aware of the manufacture and trade of products. Anything and everything we looked at, stationary, clothes, watches, were all made in China, Philipines, Taiwan.

The ecoYoga jute mats are made in Lancashire, England. We deliberately choose not to make our mats in China or Taiwan where they would have been cheaper.

People exercise for different reasons but primarily to be more healthy. In my mind health is not just about the body, it is a process of deepening ones physical and mental sensitivity and awareness. With any luck that will extend to ones surroundings, lifestyle and environment. Synthetic products are more often than not highly toxic and energy consuming in their manufacture and difficult to dispose of.

Where are the materials sourced?

The rubber is currently sourced from the international market. Until there is a large consumer demand for a known source rubber all the farms, small holdings and large plantations producing natural rubber are mixed together and sold through the international market. If I had the financial and political clout, I would create a source direct.

I have inquired into FSC (forest stewardship council) rubber but a friend working in international community development told me to be careful; it is a complex area and not all as it seems. This friend works mainly in Indonesia and South America and is deeply involved in communities displaced by plantations palm oil, paper, etc.

I have another friend works in Africa, in humanitarian aid, also wise to the needs of indigenous people and land. Both these friends have experienced the political tension in which commodity market goods, including rubber, are produced and marketed. If I stick with using rubber, one day I hope to be able to employ their services to help source, or at least support, a community directly involved or affected by the rubber industry.

Are they sustainable and fairtrade?

Plantations of any crop can get bad press. The rubber ones I visited in India, and my colleague in Sri Lanka, were low impact on the land. In small holdings the rubber often co-exists with other crops. Rubber is ideal for polyculture agriculture: though this is not always practised in larger plantations.
Jute is a fast growing crop and for most farmers grown between seasons of their other harvests.

Our Scottish jute supplier has long family business relationships in India and Bangladesh and works only with government factories (all ISO-9001 certified) where standards can be monitored. They already have their own standards in practice.

The rubber industry has not met with consumer demand to supply fair trade rubber though, in the current climate of business, we hope this will change in the not too too distant future. We are making our own inquiries into the potential of this for our yoga mats.

Do your mats last as well as mainstream mats?

Life span depends on the user. Some people will use their mat until threadbare whereas others want it looking unused. On the spectrum I have had customers disappointed after several months and others still completely devoted to their mat after 10 years. On average the mats can last 3-4 years. I am on my 2nd mat in 14 years. At the end of 2006 we made some improvements to the mat so we anticipate longer life spans for most practitioners.

Every ecoYoga mat is created with care, respect and thoughtfulness for the environment, the manufacturers and to you the Yoga student. We keep it simple, practical, beautiful and essential.

www.ecoyoga.co.uk

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