Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Ancient Yoga Strap:

A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa

by SETH POWELL
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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).


References


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.


Notes



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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