All over India, you will see men walking around with a thin cotton “scarf” around their shoulders. Called “gamchhas,” these colorful, checked “scarves” are actually some of the most versatile and useful towels ever invented. Their thin cotton is surprisingly absorbent and yet dries quickly in the hot Indian sun, making them a perfect go-anywhere bathing towel. Workers use them to wipe the sweat off their brows and to provide padding when they’re carrying heavy loads. The uses of the gamchha seem almost endless, but interestingly, they are next to useless to yogis, who need a towel of sterner stuff.
Traditional Indian yogis carry as few possessions as possible. Even today you can occasionally see one wandering the countryside of India wearing only a loincloth and a white gamchha draped over his shoulders for protection from the sun. He will be usually be carrying a brass lota or gourd for his drinking water and if he is a hatha yogi, he’ll often have a thicker towel or mat made of woven cotton or wool tucked under his arm. In lieu of the older tradition of a tiger skin, this towel serves as his mattress, his meditation blanket and his exercise mat.
Western yogis have come up with some clever variations on the yoga towel that combines some of the versatility of the gamchha with the usefulness in yoga of the highly portable mat-towels of traditional yogis. These yoga towels aren’t designed to replace the yoga mat, but to supplement it.
The only thing wrong with a traditional Western terry cloth towel is that it can’t double as a yoga mat. It’s the wrong size, for one thing, and it slips around on the floor, for another. Some inventive Western yogis have addressed both of these problems by making oversized towels with silicone nibs attached to one side. The nibs solve the slippage problems when the towel is face down and those who use them love the acupressure feel of the silicone nibs when the towel is reversed. These towels are very compact, making them excellent for travel. They also double as a towel for drying off after a workout in the gym.
Another popular type of yoga towel is similar to the chamois used to dry off the family car, only larger. These are made of a mixture of natural and synthetic fibers that give them a number of qualities that make them perfect for the yogi on the go. Like a chamois, they stick to a surface if placed flat and glide smoothly if bunched up. They provide a degree of padding that makes them a useful substitute for a yoga mat when you’re traveling, camping or attending a yoga retreat. At the end of a session, you can dry off quickly with one of these, rinse it clean, wring it out and hang it up. By nightfall it will be dry again and you can wrap it around your shoulders to keep you warm during your evening meditation.
When it comes to versatility and practicality, the traditional Indian gamchha has found a new rival in the modern yoga towel. There are so many brands, styles and colors available that the only way to effectively shop for one is online. A specialty item, you’d have to do a lot of looking before you found one in your shopping center. If you happen to buy a yoga towel and take it to India with you, maybe you should think about giving it to a wandering yogi you meet along the way. It is one possession he would really welcome!