Manduka, revered yoga mat company, opens its doors to the community in El Segundo Saturday
by Mark McDermott
The story begins with an architect and yoga teacher named Peter Sterios, who had a realization one day that the mats he and his fellow yogis using were not conducive to the practice of yoga. This was nearly two decades ago, when yoga was far from the mainstream. A common practice then was simply to have a roll of PVC in the back of a yoga studio from which students could cut a piece to practice on. Material quality varied, but was almost invariabley poor.
Sterios, with a penchant for design, took the same material and greatly compressed it. He made a dense, thick black mat that possessed unrelenting grip and cushion. He then sent prototypes out to some yoga friends, among them early popularizers such as Rodney Yee and Shiva Rea, and the mat was rapidly embraced by yoga teachers around the country.
And so in 1997, Sterios invested his life savings to create one container full of these thick black mats and formed a company, which he named Manduka — Sanskrit for frog — in honor of his own yoga teacher, a Hungarian named Shandor Remete.
“He always taught a pose called Mandukasana,” said Sky Meltzer, Manduka’s CEO. “Whenever he said that word, the way the word rolled off his tongue, the room erupted with laughter. So Peter decided to call the company Manduka, in homage to his teacher and to the joy around that word.”
Word of Manduka spread. Like so many great design ideas, it appeared obvious, but only in retrospect, after the mat had been created. The company’s signature “Black Mat” was nicknamed the “Taj Mahal” of yoga mats.
“It’s really just a beautiful grassroots story where people used the product and it was great,” Meltzer said. “And through great product and great customer service and an engagement with the influencer community, a brand came to be. We’ve taken the values of that black mat, which are performance, quality, and conscious design…And really built a product line around it.”
Within the quickly burgeoning world of yoga — according to a 2012 study, well over 20 milliion Americans, or 8 percent of the population, now practice yoga — Manduka became a revered brand.
“Thick, heavy and graphite-gray , the Manduka mat is a status symbol in itself,” the New York Times reported in 2012.
That same study, conducted by Yoga Journal, estimated that $27 billion was being spent annually on yoga in the U.S., an 87 percent increase since 2007, while those who practiced yoga increased in numbers by 29 percent. Industry revenue was projected to keep increasing nearly 5 percent a year.
“I think it is going mainstream,” Meltzer said. “You see it. Athletes are using it; it’s part of conditioning. It’s cross-generational — kids are doing it with their moms. So you are seeing all age groups practicing yoga, and you are seeing it grow. I mean, it’s still in its infancy in many ways, but at the same time, it has and continues to play a vital role in kind of health and wellness in this age. And there is vast opportunity for it to continue to grow.”
Manduka, privately held and based in El Segundo since 2009, this year will see revenues of $40 million, Melzter said, and is expected to continue the 30 percent annual growth the company has experienced for several years now. He said El Segundo has a been a perfect place for fostering the company’s growth, in part because the access to creative talent is great in the Beach Cities, as well as the fact that nearby light rail allows many of its 60 employees to commute easily.
”El Segundo has really transformed as an environment for great brands to put their headquarters,” Meltzer said. “You see it before your own eyes — all the creative places and design-based brands. It really seems like a very great and emerging place to be.”
Manduka’s mats are still considered elite, and as the industry itself has expanded, so has Manduka’s product line — to include a broad array of often lower cost mats that include travel mats, “eKo” mats made out of sustainably harvested tree rubber, and 100 percent recyclable “LiveOn” mats.
But the Black Mat, which costs around $100, often double its competetion, still carries a certain mystique about it. With its lifetime guarentee and a feel that is often described as “luxuriant,” the mat remains the core of the company’s business and representative of its ethos. Other mat brands have proliferated, but there is no mat with which yogis form a deeper attachment than Manduka’s signature model.
Suzy Nece, owner of Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach and one of the top yoga teachers in the South Bay, said given the amount and quality of the time yogis spend on their mats, the importance they place on a well-made yoga mat is natural. She’s used a Manduka mat for nearly 14 years.
“And for someone who fears commitment that $100 mat was a big step, but one I’ve never regretted,” Nece said. “Manduka mats are made of sustainable or biodegradable materials — truly mine is made of sweat and tears. The perfect prescription, after all — ‘The cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears or the sea,’ Isak Dinesen wrote. The mat is a companion, a pillow on long plane rides, a bed in crowded airports or bumpy campsites and a friend. It’s advertised as a ‘luxuriously dense cushion with unparalleled grip and a lifetime guarantee’ — isn’t that what best friends are made of? Someone you can lean on, who cushions your fall, holds on tight when you need them and is in it for life.”
How something so simple as a 71 or 85 inch roll of PVC has achieved such high regard among a few million people is indicative of how and why yoga itself has so quickly taken root in American culture.
“You have to go back to why people are doing yoga,” said Joanne Sessler, Manduka’s vice president of product. “You think about the reasons, some spiritual, many physical — some people need to rehabilitate from some injury or another. We live in a crazy, connected world, overconnected, really…but I don’t know any proof its made us better human beings. When you roll out that mat, it’s almost like an animal marking territory. This is physically your space for the next 90 minutes. It’s you deciding what you want to do for you. Really it’s about rolling out that space for you to go inside and for you to get what you need from that class. A lot of us go inside to be better on the outside world, and so it’s about that experience people have on the mat. This is the beauty of yoga.”
“A mat becomes a symbol for personal transformation,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer experience such transformation himself through yoga.
“I grew up around yoga,” he said. “My name is Sky — my parents were hippies. I disassociated from everything New Age, and I was an investment banker early in my career. The irony is yoga led me to investment banking because I wanted the most conservative path, but then investment banking led me to yoga because after several years working on Wall Street I took some time off, recovering from a leg injury, and my sister took me to a yoga class and I was just blown away by how amazing it was, and how hard — the sheer force and strength and agility that I saw in people and their practice. And I thought, I want that — so I committed myself to yoga. Everything I did from that point forward revolved around yoga, and really since then. I met my wife in yoga teacher training and became a yoga teacher.”
Meltzer, who was first introduced to the company through the Black Mat, still recalls the first time he practiced on it.
“I was taking a teacher training program and everybody had a Manduka mat,” he said. “So I decided to cough up the dough — I just went with the first mat that I saw, which is like an 85 inch runway. So it was very luxurious because it had so much space. The experience was amazing — to be supported by a cushion, but one that had such density…It changed the experience for me. It allowed me to focus on my practice, versus slipping again.”
Which ultimately is exactly what Manduka’s mission is: to make the experience better, and thus bring more people to yoga.
“It is a tool for evolution, and more and more relevant to this world,” Meltzer said. “We are more connected to our cell phones, and distractions, and yoga gives people a tool to connect to themselves and find some balance and align themselves. And that changes the way they think about how they are eating and their relationships. It creates more harmony among people, and more joy. And that is why our greater vision is to lift the world to the joy of yoga. That is why we come to work every day. We believe that more people practicing yoga will create a more joyful experience on our planet and in our communities and in our families and in our relationships and with ourselves.”
Manduka is holding its summer sample sale, featuring discounted yoga gear from past and recent collections, June 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Manduka Headquarters, 345 S. Douglas Street, El Segundo. For more information, see Manduka.com.