Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect size and price for BallerYoga’s smallest mats. The mats, which are 69.5 inches and not 72 inches, start at $495, not $475. This version has been corrected.
So you’re really interested in yoga. But are you interested in a yoga mat made out of leather — the same kind used for NFL footballs? With the name “BALLER” emblazoned on it, and some purely decorative, football-inspired lacing?
How about dropping $1,000 on this product? Would you be interested in that?
Chances are, the average yoga enthusiast is emphatically answering “no” to these questions. But the mat’s creator is confident that its appeal will lie in the fact that there’s nothing “average” about it.
I ran the concept by a bunch of yoga devotees. Some found the whole idea of luxury items antithetical to yoga’s philosophy. However, many agreed that there was a place in the evolving yoga market for high-end and/or male-centric items.
The man behind the soon-to-be-released product, Cedric Yau, seemed fairly indifferent to yoga philosophy when he spoke with me recently by phone from Los Angeles. That is not to say that the 37-year-old entrepreneur, who manages a data analytics system for a New York hedge fund and has an off-Broadway producer credit to his name, is unfamiliar with the discipline.
He told me that he has been practicing yoga for eight years, and he conceded that the use of leather doesn’t exactly jibe with its principles. “If you’re coming from the yoga world,” he said, “there is, for some yogis, a vegan attachment.”
“But,” he added, “when it gets into the athlete community, we don’t really see that as a primary concern.”
At the BallerYoga website, the mat is pitched at “athletes who have everything and desire nothing.” That tagline comes right after a large headline that blares, “Unrolling $1,000 Yoga Mats.”
The price is associated with BallerYoga’s biggest mat, a 26-by-80-inch model, suitable for tall wide receivers or hulking offensive linemen — or, possibly, hedge fund managers for whom bigger, and costlier, is better. The smallest mats will start at a mere $495 (and I was told there won’t be a Kickstarter campaign, contrary to what the website indicates), but Yau is happy to lean into the bigger number precisely because it’s “what seems to grab people’s attention.”
Asked what, exactly, makes his mat worth $1,000, he responded, “Exclusivity.”
Which was a sticking point for Debra Mishalove, founder of D.C.’s Flow Yoga Center, who pointed out that “we strive to practice inclusivity.”
There is also the matter of the Baller mats’ actual effectiveness. They are advertised as featuring “genuine grip and rapid release,” of a caliber that allows Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers to zip spirals 30 yards downfield, even in wet weather. “I do believe that no surface grips better than football leather,” Yau said, “so you’re paying for the experience, the performance, the material; you’re paying for the idea that leather would last.”
Jasmine Chehrazi, founder of D.C.’s Yoga District collective of studios, had a different reaction: “I would personally find practicing on the skin of a dead animal kind of gnarly, in addition to being flat out contrary to the highest ethical rules of yoga,” she wrote in an email. “But I don’t think BallerYoga is making this product for me — it’s a luxury item targeting American men, to whom football is synonymous with masculinity, patriotism and tradition.”
I also wanted to get a take from a man who teaches yoga to other men, so I connected with Massachusetts-based Broga instructor Chuck Raffoni. “I think a status symbol product is counter to the philosophy of yoga,” he wrote in an email. But he also declared, “If this mat gets more people on the mat, particularly men, then I wish them well!”
Wes Smith, who teaches “Yoga for Men” at Washington’s Circle studio, had a similar reaction. “Spending up to a grand on a leather mat seems mightily pretentious, unnecessary, and not in the spirit of what a yoga practice is, could be, or should be,” he said via email. “. . . But in the end, if you are actually practicing yoga, that’s a good thing, whether it’s on a bamboo mat, dog towel, foam rubber, or NFL-grade leather.”
In addition, Smith noted that he had “read the promotional info on the mat and was thinking it was some kind of spoof or joke.” That sentiment was echoed by Scott Shetler, who helps rate and review yoga mats and towels for the website Yogauthority.
“My initial reaction, looking at the website, was that this has to be a joke,” Shetler told me over the phone. “Especially the way it was written, emphasizing the high price tag, and sort of the way the copy reads, it almost sounds like something the Onion would write.” (The BallerYoga website has since dropped some of the copy to which Smith and Shetler were reacting.)
Shetler thought “the durability issue is something that [Yau] might be able to persuade people on,” but without trying the mat out himself, he wondered about its moisture absorption, especially in hot-yoga classes.
According to Yau, hot and sticky weather provided the inspiration for his mat, as he began devising it while on a yoga retreat in Bali. Well, there was also the fact that he was at “a five-star resort,” an environment he felt deserved a premium mat, rather than the one he was provided, which left his hands slipping as he attempted poses such as downward dog.
As for his product’s name, Yau freely admitted that, in addition to the sports connection, it has a sexual connotation. So yes, the high price tag comes with some lowbrow associations, but that’s in keeping with the mat’s target of professional athletes, or at least well-heeled men looking for, as Yau put it, “aspirational lifestyle” items. Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst for NPD Group, agreed that BallerYoga could potentially find its niche.
“I don’t know how big the market will be for it, but there are a lot of men doing yoga right now,” he said, “and I imagine there are some who would like to make the activity a bit more masculine, and certainly a product like that would [make] it a bit more of a guy thing.”
“In theory, there would be a potential market for a $1,000 yoga mat,” Shetler said. “It would be small, but there is a lot of money in this industry, and there are people who spend $10,000 to take a yoga retreat in Costa Rica or Hawaii.”
Or, you know, Bali. Yau is almost certainly right about one thing: Football players and other professional athletes are increasingly interested in yoga, but mostly for its ability to keep them on the field, not so much for its ties to Eastern mysticism.
To Yau, all he’s really doing is taking an item “out of the yoga realm” and putting it into “the premium-goods realm,” with the commensurate price increase. And if that seems unbearably crass to yoga practitioners who put a premium on a more spiritual experience, well, the BallerYoga mat is simply not for them.
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