Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Ancient Yoga Strap:

A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa

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For me, prop is not only for the asana. It should contribute to the position of the body which in turn can let the mind be calm and state of “chitta vritti nirodha” be experienced. Body is my first prop. The body is a prop to the soul [sic].BKS Iyengar1

As critical scholarship on the historical foundations of yoga traditions in ancient and medieval India continues to progress, we are constantly refining our understanding of both the continuities and disruptions between precolonial yoga of India and the transnational postural yoga practised by millions around the world today.

Many aspects of modern postural yoga are clearly just that: modern innovations. The concept of a large group yoga class, the majority demographic of female teachers and practitioners, and indeed, much of the vinyāsa “flow” style of sequenced postures set to the rhythm of breath has been shown to be a much more recent development than many yogins have previously assumed.

One aspect of modern yoga that finds surprising continuity with ancient forms of Indian yoga and asceticism, however, is the use of material “props” to support one’s yogic and meditative practice. In particular, the idea of using a cloth yoga strap or belt to fix one’s body in a posture turns out to be at least two thousand years old! 

In Sanskrit literature, this ancient prop was known as the yogapaṭṭa. Monier-Williams defines yogapaṭṭa in his Sanskrit-English dictionary as, “the cloth thrown over the back and knees of a devotee during meditation” (2005: 857).2 Similarly, in his Indian Epigraphical Glossary, Dineschandra Sircar (1966: 386) defines the yogapaṭṭa as a “band used by the ascetics to keep their limbs in a position of rigidity” and the related term yogapaṭṭaka as “a garment worn during contemplation.”

This article will provide a small window onto the longue durée of the yogapaṭṭa, or “yoga strap,” and introduce a brief selection of the textual, visual, and material sources available for constructing its history.3 It will demonstrate that although the use of a yoga strap in postural yoga is typically credited as an “invention” of BKS Iyengar in the 1960s, the notion of a cloth strap used to support one’s physical yogic practice turns out to be just about as old as the discipline of yoga itself.

Fig. 1: Great Stupa at Sanchi.
Madhya Pradesh (c. 50 BCE - 50 CE).
Image from Diamond (2013: 28).

The Visual and Material Record

Since before the Common Era, the yogapaṭṭa has been depicted visually by Indian artisans as an emblematic accoutrement of the ascetic—an icon depicting spiritual prowess and transcendence over the limitations of the human body. Some of the earliest sculptural depictions of the yogapaṭṭa can be found at the Great Stupa of Sanchi, an ancient Buddhist site in Madhya Pradesh (c. 50 BCE–50 CE). 

Here on the northern gate, we see we see two “headless” ascetic figures seated outside of their respective forest huts (Fig. 1). The one on the far right is employing the yogapaṭṭa to sustain a seated meditative position, in which the legs are crossed in front of the body with the knees-lifted. The yogapaṭṭa wraps around the bearded ascetic’s legs and lower back. The right arm of the ascetic is bent and raised, hand-lifted in the air, which may be a mudrā of some kind or the raised-arm practice (ūrdhvabāhu) for the generation of ascetical heat (tapas).

Fig. 2: King Bhagīratha as ascetic with yogapaṭṭa.
Tamil Nadu, Mamallapuram (c. 7th century).
Photograph Seth Powell.

Several centuries later, on the coast, south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, at perhaps one of the most famous sculpted reliefs in all of India, we find a similarly styled yogapaṭṭa at Mamallapuram (c. 7th century)—again “headless” due to damage (Fig. 2).

Around that same time at Ellora in Maharashtra (c. 7th century), a cadre of Śaiva ascetic devotees bound with yogapaṭṭas are depicted flanking a large seated Śiva (Fig. 3).

These early yogapaṭṭa images portray human figures in modes of yogic asceticism, with typical features of the ancient Indian renunciate: long beard, matted hair (jaṭā), located in front of a forest hut, surrounded by animals, established in a seated posture (āsana), and fixed in that posture by a strap. In this sense, the yogapaṭṭa as a prop for meditation is expressed visually as one of many accoutrements of the early Indian ascetic, and by the early centuries CE, had become a popular visual trope in Indian art, transcending geographical traditions across the subcontinent.

Fig. 3: Śaiva ascetic devotees.
Ellora (c. 7th century).
Photograph Seth Powell.

Indeed, once one begins looking for the yogapaṭṭa in Indian sculptural traditions, the yoga strap can be found just about everywhere. Even the gods and goddesses are depicted with yogapaṭṭas, to indicate their “yogic” forms and legends—or what David White has referred to as “the ‘yogi-fication’ of Indic deities” (2009: 167).

A circa seventh-century sculpture (Fig. 4) from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh displays the goddess Pārvatī seated cross-legged, aided by a yogapaṭṭa. Such sculptures invoke the well-known story in the Purāṇas in which Pārvatī performs tapas in order to win Śiva’s hand in marriage.

Fig 4: Tapasvinī Pārvatī.
Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh (c. 7th century).
Image in Joshi (1996: Fig. 4).

At Hampi, in northern Karnataka, a giant monolithic carving of Yoga Narasiṃha (Fig. 5) with a yogapaṭṭa survives from the fifteenth-century Vijayanagara empire—though the strap has been refurbished in more recent years. In this popular yogic form of Viṣṇu’s avatāra as the man-lion, Yoga Narasiṃha is possibly evoking the famous episode from the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, whereupon saving the young devotee Prahlāda from his demon-father, Narasiṃha instructs the young Prahlāda in the path of Bhaktiyoga (see Diamond 2013: 146).

Fig 5: Yoga Narasiṃha.
Hampi, Karnataka (c. 14th century).
Photograph Seth Powell.

In the north, medieval Mughal paintings also feature numerous depictions of yogins and ascetics—particularly Nāth Yogins—sporting the ubiquitous yogapaṭṭa (Fig. 6).

Fig 6: Close-up of encampment of Nāth yogīs. Bābur’s visit to Gorkhatri in 1519.
By Kesu Khurd. India, Mughal dynasty, 1590–93.
© British Library Board (Or. 3714 fol.320v).

The Textual Record

Reading the images alongside the textual record, we can be confident that the yoga strap was indeed used by lived ascetics and yogins, and not simply an artistic embellishment of idealized gods and sages. There are numerous references to the yogapaṭṭa in Sanskrit literature. One of it’s earliest occurrences may be found in the Kṣudrakavastu, a section of the enormous Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya (c. first few centuries CE), a treatise on Buddhist monastic code,4 where we find a description of a Buddhist monk who fashions a make-shift “yoga strap” out of his own monastic robes to fix himself in meditation (see Bass 2013: 68-69).

In the Pātañjalayoga tradition we begin to see more references to the yogapaṭṭa in an explicitly yogic context. When Patañjali states that one’s posture (āsana) become steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukham) in PYŚ 2.46, the commentary (bhāṣya) provides a list of about a dozen recommended postures. One such āsana is termed sopāśraya (lit. “with support”), which, although details are not provided in the bhāṣya, is interpreted by later commentators as an āsana in which the yogin employs a yogapaṭṭa—attesting to the use of meditative props in Pātañjalayoga.

For example, Vācaspatimiśra’s Tattvavaiśāradī (c. 10th century) states:
yogapaṭṭakayogāt sopāśrayam | 
[This posture is] with support (sopāśrayam) because it uses a yoga strap.5
Likewise, Vijñānabhikṣu’s Yogavarttika (c. 16th century), states:
sopāśrayaṃ yogapaṭṭayogenopaveśanam | 
Sopāśraya is the act of sitting by means of a yoga strap.
Examples like this can be found throughout Indian philosophical and religious literature—and across sectarian traditions—whether in prescriptive yogic treatises, or in iconographic descriptions of gods, goddesses, siddhas, or yoginīs.

One particularly rich description of the yogapaṭṭa is found in Dharmaśāstra traditions. Here a novice Brāhmaṇical ascetic (saṃnyāsa) is given a yogapaṭṭa upon initiation by his guru—providing some detailed insight into the ritualised nature of bestowing a yogapaṭṭa from teacher to student. The following is a summary of the initiatory yogapaṭṭa ritual found in the Yatidharmasamuccaya (11th century), or “Collection of Ascetic Laws,” described by P.V. Kane in his History of Dharmaśāstra Volume 2, Part 2 (1941: 962).6
The yogapaṭṭa (lit. the cloth of yoga, union with Spirit) is given in the following way: After the ascetic has undergone paryaṅkaśauca [a detailed bathing ritual described in the previous section], he should cleanse his waist, wear a string round his waist and his loin cloth and cover his waist with a piece of cloth. He should then sit with his guru’s permission on a high seat and should propound some Vedānta topic in the presence of the persons assembled. The ascetic guru should sprinkle on the head of his ascetic disciple water from a conch to the accompaniment of the Puruṣa hymn (Ṛg [Veda] X. 90), should honour him by offering clothes, sandalwood paste, flowers, incense, lamp and naivedya [food offerings]. He (the guru) should hold a piece of cloth over the head of the disciple, recite along with the other yatis the chapter called Viśvarūpa (11th chapter of the Bhagavadgītā) and from the 15th verse to the 33rd verse. He should then give the name already determined upon to the disciple and say to him ‘Hencefoward you may admit to saṃnyāsa one who is eligible for it, initiate him and give him the yogapaṭṭa.’ Then the disciple bows to the yatis older than himself. Then the guru gives to the disciple a waist-thread and a staff marked with five mudrās and should offer his own salutation to the disciple according to the tradition of his order. Other ascetics and house-holders also should bow to the disciple, who should only repeat the word ‘Nārāyaṇa,’ should leave the high seat and seat his guru thereon, should bow to the guru according to the rules of the order and to the other ascetics.
This highly elaborate initiatory rite for Vaiṣṇava saṃnyāsas thus requires serious prerequisite training—including memorised knowledge of Vedānta, Vedic hymns, and sections of the Bhagavadgītā—and grants the initiated ascetic both with a yogapaṭṭa and the power to bestow it, through the ritual, to other future ascetics. Its inclusion in orthodox Brāhmaṇical texts like the Dharmaśāstras suggest that the yogapaṭṭa was harnessed widely in premodern India.

By the early modern period, there was even a yogic āsana named after the strap, namely yogapaṭṭāsana, or the “Posture With a Yoga Strap.” The seventeenth-century Yogacintāmaṇi, quoting the Āgneyapurāṇa, describes it as follows:7
pādau dvau dviguṇīkṛtya tiryag ūrdhvaṃ yathākramam |
nyaset pāṇī yathā paṭṭasthitaśliṣṭāṅgalinakhau ||
yogapaṭṭāsanaṃ hy etat sarveṣām api pūjitam iti ||
Having folded over both legs, horizontally and upwards in that order, the yogin should fix the hands so that the nails and fingers are situated on the belt and joined together. This is Yogapaṭṭāsana, which is worshipped by all. 
(Edition and trans: Birch and Singleton, forthcoming, the Haṭha Yoga Project).
An illustrated manuscript of the nineteenth-century Śrītattvanidhi, which features numerous dynamic āsanas including the use of hanging ropes, includes an āsana named the “Posture With a Yoga Strap” (yogapaṭṭāsana) (ŚTN 121, Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Illustrated yogapaṭṭāsana in the Śrītattvanidhi (c. 19th century). 
Image in Sjoman (1996).

In the early twentieth century, Swāmī Hariharānanda Āraṇya (1869-1947), head of the Kapila Maṭha in Madhupur, Bihar, in commenting on the sopāśraya of PYŚ 2.46, writes:
Sopāśraya is squatting tying the back and the two legs with a piece of cloth called ‘Yoga-paṭṭaka’ (a strong piece of cloth by which the back and the two legs are tied while squatting) (1983: 228).
Despite this quite ancient record of continued usage, contemporary ascetic orders in India today do not appear to include the yogapaṭṭa in their bag of props. However, in Nepal and Tibet, the tradition seems to have been maintained to this day by the yogins of the Vajrayāna orders, who are often seen wearing a cloth sash over their shoulders, which can be fashioned into a strap for meditation.

The Modern Yoga Strap: An Ancient Technology Reinvented?

Having traced a two-thousand year history of the yogapaṭṭa, it may come as a surprise to learn that the yoga strap does not appear to have featured in the earliest expressions of modern postural yoga. BKS Iyengar, who is often credited for having “invented” the yoga strap, tells the story of this apparent yogic innovation in his own words:
In the 1960s, when I was in France, I saw people were using belts to carry or tie their luggage. They were holding their bags together with them. My bag was also tied with it and I returned home. Then I thought, this luggage belt is good for yoga also. If the bags are tied so firmly, I can use it for my legs too. I immediately tried it. With that grip, it held my legs and I could hit them out in a confined space. That is action with resistance. 
Next year, when I went back to France to buy those belts, I learnt that those particular belts were ‘out of fashion’ and taken off the market. Thankfully, since I had that one belt, after I returned home, I got belts with those buckles manufactured here in Pune. 
Later, I began using the belt to give my muscles a sense of direction. 
Everything can contribute to yoga is my ardent conviction. It is not the size of the object or the complexity of its arrangement or the content which is important, but the intention and attitude which convert a simple gadget into a prop (Iyengar, 2012).
In this way, it seems, Iyengar refashioned an ancient yogic technology, unbeknownst to himself, to fit the modern and evolving needs of his own yoga practice and teaching. The buckle was new, and so too the array of possibilities for employing the strap in modern yoga practice. While premodern sources traditionally depict the yogapaṭṭa for supporting seated postures, Iyengar refashioned the yoga strap as a prop to be used to support an endless variety of āsanas for creating “action with resistance” (see Fig 8). And while a yogapaṭṭa may have originally been granted to a disciple by a guru in a highly elaborate rite of initiation, today one can purchase a cloth yoga strap on Amazon or any retail store.

Fig. 8: From BKS Iyengar’s “Body is My First Prop” (2012).


Āraṇya, Swami Hariharānanda. 1983. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali: Containing His Yoga Aphorisms with Vyāsa’s Commentary in Sanskrit and a Translation with Annotations Including Many Suggestions for the Practice of Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Bass, Jeffrey. 2013. Meditation in an Indian Buddhist Monastic Code. PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Diamond, Debra, ed. 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute.

Joshi, N.P. 1996. Tapasvinī Pārvatī: Iconographic Study of Pārvatī in Penance. New Delhi: New Age International Limited.

Kane, P.V. 1941. History of Dharmaśāstra : (Ancient and Mediæval Religious and Civil Law in India), Volume 2, Part 2. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Iyengar, BKS. 2012. “Body is My First Prop.” Pune: Ramāmaṇi Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.

Monier-Williams, Monier. 2005. Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European Languages. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sircar, Dineschandra. 1966. Indian Epigraphical Glossary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sjoman, Norman. 1996. The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. Mysore: Abhinav Publications.

White, David Gordon. 2009. Sinister Yogis. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Woods, James Haughton. 1977 [1914]. “Yoga-System of Patañjali: Or, The Ancient Hindu Doctrine of Concentration of Mind, Embracing the Mnemonic Rules, Called Yoga- Bhāshya, of Patañjali and the Comment, Called Yoga-Bhāshya, Attributed to Veda- Vyāsa and Explantion, Called Tattva-Vāicāradī, of Vāchaspati-Micra”. Harvard Oriental Series 17. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


1. From BKS Iyengar’s “Body is My First Prop” (2012), published posthumously by the Ramāmaṇi Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute. I wish to thank Daniel Simpson for kindly directing my attention to this article and providing a PDF scan.

2. Monier-Williams’s dictionary entry references the word “yogapaṭṭa” or “–paṭṭaka” in the Padmapurāṇa (c. 5th/6th century CE), Harṣacarita (ca. 625), and Hemādri's (1260-1309) Caturvargacintāmaṇi.

3. This brief article is part of a larger study on the yogapaṭṭa that I aim to publish in the near future. 

4. Today the Kṣudrakavastu, the largest section of the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya only survives in its later Tibetan translation. See Bass’ 2013 dissertation.

5. There is some disagreement amongst interpreters over how to take Vācaspatimiśra’s yogapaṭṭaka in this sentence. James Woods translates as follows: “Because there is a use of the yogic table (yoga-paṭṭaka), this is [the posture] with the rest.” Woods remarks in a corresponding footnote that the nineteenth-century editor, Swāmi “Bālarāma says that this yogic table is a special kind of support for the arms of a yogin who is about to practice concentration. It is made of wood and is well known among udāsin by the name of ‘changan’” (Woods 1977 [1914], 191, n.3). Though I think the early evidence points to yogapaṭṭaka referring to a cloth strap, the possibility of a wooden “yogic table” only further adds to the discourse on premodern yogic props.

6. I wish to thank James Mallinson for this reference.

7. Earlier Śaiva Tantras such as the Mataṅgapārameśvara and the Kiraṇa describe this as Paryaṅkāsana, wherein the yogin applies a yoga strap while seated upon a cushion (paryaṅka). I am grateful to Jason Birch for this reference, and for kindly sharing his forthcoming translation of the Yogacintāmaṇi.

8. I am grateful to James Mallinson for confirming this.

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Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā

Friday, 8 June 2018

Premodern Yoga Therapy (Yogacikitsā)

A portrait of a devotee seated in meditation (using a Yogapaṭṭa).
19th century (early). Drawing on paper. Rajasthani-style (14.3 x 9.9 cm).
Museum No.: 1914,0217,0.15
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Jason Birch writes:
Apart from the ṣaṭkarma, there is evidence for one other significant development of a distinctly Yogic therapy, which was called such (i.e., cikitsā). This therapy is described in a chapter appended to the Haṭhapradīpikā’s four chapters in two manuscripts. The colophons of both manuscripts mistakenly entitle it as a section on herbs. It was undoubtedly added to the Haṭhapradīpikā at a more recent time, most probably at the beginning of the eighteenth century, judging by the date of one of these two manuscripts. Seeing that very few catalogue entries report of a Haṭhapradīpikā with five chapters, it is probable that the chapter on therapy had only a brief association with this Haṭha text. The chapter has been taken from a Śaiva text called the Dharmaputrikā, which teaches a system of Yoga with six auxiliaries (ṣaḍaṅga) for the Śaiva laity. The Dharmaputrikā is sometimes included in bundles of manuscripts of the Śivadharma corpus, and it must have been composed earlier than the mid-eleventh century on the basis of two dated manuscripts. The fact that its chapter on therapy was attached to at least two manuscripts of the Haṭhapradīpikā suggests that it had some currency amongst yogins from the sixteenth to eighteenth century, possibly because of their interest in the practical application of its therapy for curing illness. 
The aim of this therapy is to cure imbalances of the humours in relation to one another caused by a yogin’s negligence (pramāda). Negligence while practising Yoga may make the breath stray from its normal path in the body, causing a blockage (granthi) and then various diseases, which are obstacles to Yoga. The method of treatment proposed is very simple: 
In whatever place pain arises because of disease, one should meditate with the mind on the breath in that place. Having meditated on it with a one-pointed mind, [the yogin] should breathe in and out completely, carefully [and] according to his capacity. Having performed many exhalations and inhalations again and again, he should draw out the breath that has accumulated [there], as one [would draw out accumulated] fluid from the ear with water.
Haṭhapradīpikā: 5.9-11 (Dharmaputrikā: 10)
This method is distinctly Yogic insofar as it relies on the yogin’s ability to meditate and manipulate the breath. Other verses in the chapter provide further advice on diet, the practice of kumbhaka, prāṇāyāma in a supine position and the various diseases that can be cured by this therapy. A significant comment on this therapy’s relation to Ayurveda is made towards the end of the chapter, when the yogin is advised to perform this Yogic therapy (yogacikitsā) in addition to taking the treatments prescribed in Ayurvedic texts (vaidyaśāstra). Therefore, it appears that the author of the Dharmaputrikā understood its Yogic therapy as distinct from but complementary to Ayurveda.
The art of healing diseases through meditation has another antecedent in Tantra. For example, the treatment of diseases (rogacikitsā) using concentration (dhāraṇā) on the elements and meditation can be found in the Matysendrasaṃhitā, which was composed at the time when early Haṭha and Rājayoga systems were being formulated. There are even traces of this conception in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra: 1.32, in which the hindrances (antarāya, vikṣepa), including disease (vyādhi), are said to be prevented by focusing the mind on one object (ekatattvābhyāsa). 

Extract from the publication:
Birch, J. 2018. "Premodern Yoga Traditions and Ayurveda: Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis." History of Science in South Asia. Vol. 6 (April): 1-83. 
Available as an open-access PDF: 
Also available on

You can read more about the Dharmaputrikā (including translations of its āsana practice) in a post by Dr Christéle Barois (of the AyurYog project):ā
Stay tuned for a forthcoming article by Dr Christéle Barois, in which she will be providing a detailed study of the Dharmaputrikā's chapters on medicine as an integrated part of yogic practice, including the yogacikitsā one.


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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Lotus Within | Olivia Fraser Exhibition

Breathe, Olivia Fraser (2016).
Stone pigment and Arabic gum on handmade Sanganer paper.
91.5 x 91.5 cm (36 x 36 in).

6 - 26 June 2018
35 Bury Street London SW1Y 6AY

Artist Olivia Fraser writes:
I have drawn on tradition in a variety of ways all of which are linked to the symbol of the lotus as the archetypal icon of yoga used as a tool for visualization with its association with perfection, renunciation and spiritual growth. In different paintings I pull the lotus apart, deconstructing it, iterating it, expanding and contracting it, unravelling it, isolating it into icons both large and small, exploring its association with colour and with the senses and its connection to the ground and the cosmos and to Indian philosophy and poetry. I am concerned with inner landscapes rather than external ones, so the majority of my works are painted or enclosed within a square format reflecting the idea of a mandala with its associations of energized space and meditation.

Sthalapadma, Olivia Fraser (2017).
Stone pigments and Arabic gum on handmade Sanganer paper.
Consists of nine individual panels.
58.4 x 58.4 cm (23 x 23 in) each.
175.3 x 175.3 cm (69 x 69 in) overall.

Frazer describes the above work as follows:
I have been reading the Gheranda Samhita a recently translated early C18th Sanskrit text on yoga and the sevenfold pathway to perfection. There is a wonderful bit in the section on Dhyana where the yogi is told to visualize an ocean of nectar in the middle of which there is “an island of jewels” on which, amongst groves of kadamba trees, there are seven scented  flowers “perfuming every quarter.” Having learnt a very visual form of yoga with colourful visualizations using imagery culled from the garden - flowers, trees, animals, etc. used as tools for meditation, I was intrigued and excited to learn about scent also being a focus for meditation. Along with the expected various forms of jasmine the sthalpadma  flower was one of the seven mentioned perfumed flowers. Translated as “land lotus,” some sources say that it changes colour during the course of the day. Traditional Indian scents are oil based and, when applied to the skin, the perfumes amplify and intensify reflecting the body’s temperature over the course of a day. I am interested in exploring visually the idea of an ever-increasing scent, the essence of a lotus, reflected in an ever increasing saturation of the colour pink.

Pause II, Olivia Fraser (2016).
Stone pigment and Arabic gum on handmade Sanganer paper.
71.1 x 91.4 cm (28 x 36 in).

I was rather intrigued by this extract from an early C18th Sanskrit text called the Gheranda Samhita: 
“Through breath - control the yogi gets the ability to move in the ether; through breath control diseases are destroyed; through breath control the goddess (Shakti) is awakened; through breath - control the mind enters the supramental state. Bliss arises in the mind and the practitioner of breath - control becomes happy.” 
In this painting [above] I focus on exploring the idea of stillness, breath and time using the icon of the paired down, closed lotus.
The show at the Grosvenor Gallery is the first time this specific yogic imagery has been seen in London. Robert Macfarlane comments on the exhibition as follows:
Pinwheels and starbursts, constellations and soul - maps, slow unfurlings and rich pulsations: Fraser’s work somehow possesses at once a calm grace and a hallucinatory intensity. She practices what Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has called “elaboration by simplification... they are no longer details magnified but details transformed”. The result is a hugely powerful body of work that – to quote again from The Gheranda Samhita – “puts the self in space and space in the self.”
The complete exhibition catalogue is available online for preview.


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Monday, 23 April 2018

Yoga and Āyurveda: do they share a history?


An Ayurvedic medical practitioner taking the pulse.
Watercolour, ca. 1825.
Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Premodern Yoga Traditions and Āyurveda:
Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis

History of Science in South Asia, Vol. 6 (April), 1-83.

The research for this article was prompted by the question: were Yoga and Āyurveda as intimately connected in premodern times as they seem today? It attempts to give a preliminary answer by assessing the influence of Āyurveda on a corpus of mediaeval Yoga texts, in terms of shared terminology, theory and praxis. The date of this corpus ranges from the eleventh to the nineteenth century CE, and all of its texts teach physical techniques and an ascetic state of dormant meditative absorption (samādhi), either as auxiliaries within a system of Yoga or as autonomous systems in themselves. The physical techniques became known as Haṭhayoga and the ascetic state of samādhi as Rājayoga, and the texts in which they appear posit the practice (abhyāsa) of Yoga as the chief means to liberation (mokṣa). The article begins with a discussion of the terminology in these texts that is also found in the Bṛhattrayī, that is, the Carakasaṃhitā, the Suśrutasaṃhitā and Vāgbhaṭa’s Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā. It proceeds to discuss the relevant theory (digestive fire, humoral theory, vital points, herbs) and praxis (āsana, ṣaṭkarma and therapy or cikitsā) of the yoga texts in question in order to assess the possible influence of Āyurveda.

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How to Cite:
Birch, J. 2018. "Premodern Yoga Traditions and Ayurveda: Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis." History of Science in South Asia. Vol. 6 (April): 1-83.

Friday, 16 March 2018

BORIS SACHAROW: Germany's First Hathayoga Teacher

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Fig. 1: Boris Sachrow performs "Akarshana Dhanuarasana."
(Sacharow 1958. Vol II, Issue II: 27)

Svāmī Śivānanda Sarasvatī (b. 1887 - d. 1963) mentioned his “correspondence” student, the Ukranian Boris Sacharow (b. 1899 - d. 1959), in his book Practical Lessons in Yoga, which was first published in 1938.1 In 1937, Sacharow had opened Germany’s first school of physical yoga in Berlin.2 He probably never met the Svāmī in-person, since the famous guru most certainly never travelled to Europe. This is an interesting piece of yoga history in today’s times of growing appreciation for direct guru-śiṣya (teacher-student) relationships supporting ‘spiritual growth’.3 Boris Sacharow reports that, from 1937 to 1945, despite the Second World War,4 he was supervising yoga students from approximately fifty German cities, either in person or by mail. Based on these early teachings, Sacharow published seven sequential booklets (twelve issues) between 1950 and 1960 with the title Indian physical training (Hatha-Yoga). Practical method of body culture in 12 issues according to Indian standard.5 These brochure-like publications form the basis of this study as they bear witness to the earliest practice of Haṭhayoga in Germany.

Fig. 2: Title page (first edition) of the first volume of Sacharow's booklet
Indische Körperertüchtigung (Hatha-Yoga).
Praktische Methode der Körperkultur in 12 Lehrbriefen
nach indischem Muster
(Sacharow 1950. Vol I, Issue I).

Historical Situation in Germany and Prehistory of Sacharow's Yoga Teaching

In the early 20th century Germany, ‘Yoga’ had already become a common term. Owing to the well-known translations of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra of the time, it mainly designated Rājayoga and not Haṭhayoga. In 1924, the first German yoga school with the name ‘Deutsche Yoga-Hochschule’ (German Yoga University) opened its doors under the chairmanship of the musicologist F. Weber-Robine. Its teachings were mainly concerned with “Rājayoga in scientific and practical form” (Wedemeyer-Kolwe 2004, 143). It is most likely that the classes offered sessions similar to those of the popular New Thought movement of the time, which frequently referred to Rājayoga as breathing techniques, will-strengthening, autosuggestion and positive thinking, and did not include elaborate physical practices. This suggests that, at that time, there was not yet a system called (Haṭha-) yoga which linked complex physical postures to spirituality.6 Thus, from its earliest reception in Germany, yoga was a cultural hybrid rather than a fixed concept. It was established without direct contact to any Indian yoga master and was, moreover, based on literature.

It is Boris Sacharow who presented, for the first time, a comprehensive physical method called Haṭhayoga to the German people, which he had learned from Svāmī Śivānanda. On the front page of his brochures, Sacharow described his technique in the language of the time, as a “practical method of body culture according to Indian standard.”7 He taught a different conception of ‘body culture’ than the Western one, which was mainly oriented towards worldly achievements. However, the few Westerners who framed physical practices in spiritual terms, such as ‘harmonial gymnastics’ or ‘expressive dance’, were convinced that body movements are spiritual acts per se, while Śivānanda and Sacharow made it clear that the body is but an instrument (to be kept healthy) for experiencing an Advaitavedantic type of self-realization.8 In terms of body techniques, Sacharow’s yoga system was unmatched in its detail and precision, and it was actually practicable. Based on Śivānanda’s concept of Haṭhayoga, Sacharow’s system connected many elements which are now part of modern yoga: complex physical postures, breathing exercises, meditation and liberation. It is quite possible that the Svāmī, who was aware of the Western fascination for body techniques, which he had come to appreciate himself, was involved in creating a practicable version of āsana-s, adapted to the developing health discourse and facilitated by his Western medical education.9

Fig. 3: Boris Sacharow preforms "Uddiyana Bandha"
(Sacharow 1950. Vol II, Issue II: 43).

The Characteristics of the Earliest Known Haṭhayoga Practice in Germany

It is interesting to note that Boris Sacharow does not mention any kind of sun salutation in his publications. His yoga practice consisted of the traditional number of 84 āsana-s, which can all be found in Śivānanda’s book Yoga Asanas (1931). In addition, Sacharow describes (preparatory) exercises labeled with German titles, which might be his own invention. For example, die fressende Giraffe – “the eating giraffe” (see Fig. 4) is given as a preparation for paścimottānāsana (Sacharow 1953, Vol III: 23). Such workouts, which were to be performed repeatedly, might be inspired by gymnastics – to which Sacharow explicitly refers, if only in a distancing way, like Śivānanda. Sacharow’s approach also includes the special physical techniques from Haṭhayoga traditions, such as purification exercises, inner locks (bandha-s), and breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma). Although Sacharow doesn’t name all of his sources, his teaching can be considered as a hybrid of different systems of practice.10

In keeping with Śivānanda's doctrine, Sacharow believed that the āsana-s, although occupying the centre-stage of his teachings, are just a part of a much larger step-by-step path, which is based on the eightfold division (aṣṭāṅga) of the Yogasūtra. Among them, Sacharow mainly taught prāṇāyāma and dhāraṇa (concentration). The yama-s (ethical observances) and dhyāna (meditation) are discussed in later volumes of his publications, while he merely mentions samādhi - “the highest immersion” (Sacharow 1950. Vol XII, Issue XII: 48). This combination of intensive health-and-effciency-oriented bodywork with elements of Haṭhayoga, medical rationalization, concentration exercises, and the goal of Vedantic self-knowledge closely reflects the method and spiritual path of Svāmī Śivānanda.

Fig. 4: A student of Sacharow performs die fressende Giraffe – “the eating giraffe”
(Sacharow 1953. Vol III, Issue III: 24).

First and foremost, Śivānanda was a devout Hindu who had a Western education and spoke fluent English. Yogic āsana-s are not a primary part of his teaching and it has to be asked when he came into contact with āsana-s for the first time. In his autobiography, Svāmī Śivānanda mentions āsana-s for the first time, when talking about his stay in Rishikesh, where he settled in 1924:
For maintaining a high standard of health, I practised Asanas, Pranayamas, Mudras and Bandhas. I used to go out for long brisk walks in the evenings. I combined physical exercises such as Dand and Bhaitak11 also (Śivānanda 1995 (1958), vi).
While at that time Śivānanda was doing a mix of different training programs for his health, which included āsana-s, he writes about his early adulthood, prior to his stay in Malaysia and Rishikesh:
As an adult I was fond of gymnastics and vigorous exercises (Śivānanda 1995 (1958), vi).
It seems that, while being trained in many physical activities in his youth, Śivānanda, unlike T. Kṛṣṇamācārya, did not undertake the practice of yogāsana-s in his childhood. It is thus to be presumed, that he only came into contact with the practice of āsana later, maybe during his travels in India before he settled in Rishikesh.

In response to, but also in exchange with, colonial occupation, the cosmopolitan Svāmī developed a health-based method that followed the ongoing trend of the physical culture movement, while seeking roots in Indian spirituality. He branded it as a simplified, modernized Haṭhayoga and distanced himself from the ‘wretched mendicants’ who had previously been linked to the term.12

Svāmī Śivānanda taught Sacharow a combination of two systems which the German literary audience had previously – under the influence of Svāmī Vivekānanda – considered to be different: ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ yoga. By combining both, Sacharow’s Haṭhayoga was a holistic life concept, which included hygienics, dietetics (vegetarianism, no alcohol, no cigarettes), ethics in the form of Patañjali’s yama-s, like non-violence (ahiṃsā), and techniques to train certain mental attitudes or abilities. It was his pioneering work that led to the formulation of a modern style of yoga in Germany. Indeed, Sacharow’s Haṭhayoga was based on a worldview and lifestyle which has been carried forward by most styles of modern yoga practised in Germany today.


Baier, Karl. 1998. Yoga auf dem Weg nach Westen: Beiträge zur Rezeptionsgeschichte. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann.

Sacharow, Boris. 1950-1960. Indische Körperertüchtigung (Hatha-Yoga): Praktische Methode der Körperkultur in 12 Lehrbriefen nach indischem Muster. Volume 1, 3 and 4. Aalen/Württ: Ebertin. Volume 2, 5, 6 and 7. Büdingen-Gettenbach: Lebensweiser-Verlag.

Śivānanda, Svāmī. 1995 (First published 1958). Autobiography of Swami Sivananda. Tehri-Garhwal: The Divine Life Society.

Śivānanda, Svāmī. 1938. Practical Lessons in Yoga. Motilal Banarsi Dass: Lahore.

Śivānanda, Svāmī. 2004 (First published 1931). Yoga Asanas. Tehri-Garhwal: The Divine Life Society.

Tietke, Mathias. 2014. Yoga im Nationalsozialismus: Konzepte, Kontraste, Konsequenzen. Kiel: Ludwig.

Wedemeyer-Kolwe, Bernd. 2004. Der neue Mensch: Körperkultur im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.


1 See Śivānanda 1938, 116.

2 There is evidence that Sacharow only came to Germany in 1926 (Tietke 2011, 83). In this case, the statement by his successor Sigmund Feuerabendt that Sacharow founded his school in 1921 is unlikely. Also, the ‘school’ was a very small establishment, as it was situated at Sacharow’s home.

3 This is, for example, the opinion of Paramaguru Sharat Jois. Retrieved from: guru/. Accessed on: 25 February, 2018.

4 Sacharow did not seem to have been actively involved in the Nazi regime. It is still astonishing that he was allowed to teach his Yoga system during that period, as he himself notes that all things “mystical,” “occult” and “foreign” were banned by the Nazis (Sacharow 1950, Vol I: 7). He states: “Somehow I was able to convince the authorities of the scientific character of these doctrines.” Translated by the author. The German original is: “Irgendwie konnte ich die Autoritäten vom wissenschaftlichen Charakter dieser Doktrinen überzeugen” (Tietke 2011, 89). In his foreword to the first of his booklets, Sacharow emphasizes that he had supporters at the time and that, due to the circumstances, he had to limit his explanations about the learned method to a minimum of what was permissible (Sacharow 1950, Vol I: 8).

5 Translated by the author. The original title is Indische Körperertüchtigung (Hatha-Yoga). Praktische Methode der Körperkultur in 12 Lehrbriefen nach indischem Muster.

6 On the one hand, the well-known Theosophist Annie Besant recommended simple gymnastics in order to keep fit for meditation and, on the other hand, yoga-like breathing techniques as well as yogic postures like the lotus seat were used in bodybuilding (Wedemeyer-Kolwe 2004, 145f).

7 This is the subtitle of Sacharow’s booklets.

8 Śivānanda notes: “Though the body is Jada (insentient) and useless, yet it is an important instrument for Self-realisation. The instrument must be kept clean, strong and healthy” (Śivānanda 2004 (1931), xv).

9 Śivānanda reports in his autobiography that he adjusted the practice of the students according to their needs, even if in this case he writes about a spiritual, not a physical practice: “I closely observed their faces to see if they liked the work and then carefully selected matter suited to their taste and temperament and entrusted them with the work. Sometimes I had to do the whole work. I love the students. Unasked, I attended to their needs” (Śivānanda 1995 (1958), 18).

10 Sacharow mentions that he deliberately left out some parts of Haṭhayoga by concentrating on the āsana-s and simple forms of prāṇāyāma while replacing the omissions by exercises of other types of yoga (Sacharow 1950, Vol I: 8), which he doesn’t specify.

11 “Dand and Bhaitak” are push-ups and squats, stemming from the Indian martial arts and wrestling traditions.

12 For a description of this early, pejorative reception of “Yogins”, see Baier (Baier 1998, 79- 85).

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About the Author

Laura von Ostrowski is a PhD student at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München, who wrote her Master thesis about the early reception of the Yogasūtra in Germany. In her current project she is primarily interested in the history of the reception of yoga texts in the modern age, as well as in the various forms of knowledge that emerge from a "lived" or "embodied philosophy". She has been a yoga teacher for eleven years (website coming soon) and pursues an active yoga practice.

Academic Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Anne Koch and Prof. Dr. Andreas Nehring

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