The Religiosity of the Yoga Mat


Image by Jacqueline Hargreaves

The use of a towel-sized mat that defines the space on which an individual practises yoga seems quite modern. However, there are historical precedents for the size, quality and type of surface on which a yogin should practise. Well before Angela Farmer’s ingenious carpet-underlay and the commercial branding of eco-friendly sticky mats, the iconic yoga mat has a long and intriguing history. 

Yogins of various traditions have favoured certain materials for their mats, as far back as the Bhagavadgītā (circa 2nd - 3rd century CE), which prescribed that a yogin should sit on a steady seat that was not too high nor too low, and was covered with cloth, antelope skin or Kuśa grass (6.11).

Some centuries later, more complicated rules for the use of a mat occur in some Tantras. These were summarized in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which is a compilation on the preliminary rites (puraścaraṇa) for mantra recitation. It was written by Devendrāśrama, who probably lived in the fifteenth century.*

Before teaching postures (āsana), Devendrāśrama includes a number of verses on the types of mat (also called āsana) on which the practitioner should sit. His concern is mainly the practice of tantric ritual. The following account indicates that a fairly large array of mats were prescribed for use by some Tantrikas: 

"Hear of the Āsana [mats] which have been prescribed by sages.  
One should know that a tiger's skin brings success in all things; a deer skin is for mastery over [one's] location; a mat of cloth destroys illness; one made of cane increases prosperity; a silk [mat] is nourishing [and] a woollen one alleviates suffering.  
In [performing] rituals that harm enemies, [one should use] a black [mat] and in rituals that subjugate [others], etc., a red one. In pacifying rituals, a white [mat] is prescribed and in all [other tantric] rituals, a variegated one. In rites that paralyse [others], an elephant's skin and in death-dealing rites, a buffalo's skin. [Alternatively,] in rites that expel [enemies], a ewe's skin and in rites of subjugation, a rhinoceros' skin. In rites that cause dissension, a jackal's hide is prescribed and in pacifying rites, a cow's hide. 
When repeating a universal mantra, [sitting] on a bamboo mat [causes] poverty [and sitting] on a wooden one, misfortune. [Sitting] on the earth causes suffering and on stone, disease. [Sitting] on a straw mat destroys one's reputation and [sitting] on [one made of] twigs causes mental distraction. And [sitting] on [a seat made of] bricks results in anxiety.  
An initiated householder should never sit on a spotted black antelope skin. An ascetic, a forest dweller, a celibate (brahmacarī) and one who has taken the ritual bath [to mark the end of Brahmacarya] should sit on a completely square [mat] made of Kuśa grass, antelope skin or cotton, raised up one or two hands or four finger-breaths [from the ground]." 

The Puraścaraṇacandrikā is undoubtedly a compilation because many of its verses are found in earlier Tantras. It teaches eighteen postures and most of their names and descriptions occur in either earlier Tantras or yoga texts, such as the twelfth-century Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā

Several of the postures described in the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, which cannot be traced to a pre-fifteenth century source, can be found in the Haṭhapradīpikā (15th century CE). Seeing that the Haṭhapradīpikā and the Puraścaraṇacandrikā were probably written in the same century and that both are compilations, it's likely they borrowed these descriptions of Āsana from an earlier text that is no longer extant. 

It should be noted that such injunctions on the type of mat are not seen in Haṭhayoga texts. 

In contemporary times, the make and brand of a yoga mat is often a clear indicator of the style of practice; Aṣṭāṅgavinyāsa practitioners preferring the cotton threads of a woven Mysore rug, while Iyengar yoga practitioners tend to favour a sticky surface that can be easily folded for use as a prop.

With the advent of group classes, the particular direction and the gap between mats to allow for maximum attendance (or minimum interference) seems to depend not only on the popularity of the class but also cultural customs regarding personal space and teaching methodology for particular styles. Many of these rules are unstated, some are rational, others form part of an evolving ritualised tradition handed down from teacher to student, thus forming new conditioned behaviours. 

Some behaviours are obvious cultural observances inherited from India, like the simple action of taking off footwear (a sign of respect for the place and the teacher). However, many normative values have developed to help govern personal space while practising in a place shared with others and these often serve a functional purpose, such as the use a sticky surface to safely navigate postural proficiency. 

As various unspoken understandings of behaviour have evolved in modern postural yoga, use of the mat has come to symbolize an individual’s pursuit of transcendence (or personal health) as opposed to taking action in the community. This has led to the coining of slogans such as “Off the mat and into the world” in an attempt to combine concepts of social service and conscious activism with the practice of yoga. When viewed in contrast to the medieval tantric concept of attaining both liberation and worldly power through yoga and ritual performed on a specific mat, these slogans seem quite ironic.

Image by Jacqueline Hargreaves

* The Puraścaraṇacandrikā was quoted by name in a text called the Kramadīpikā, which was probably composed sometime after the end of the fifteenth century (see Alexis Sanderson, The Śaiva Literature, 2014, p. 69 n. 267). The Puraścaraṇacandrikā contains verses of texts that can be dated to the 12th – 15th centuries. Therefore, Devendrāśrama, the author of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā, probably lived in the fifteenth century. Much of the Puraścaraṇacandrikā's section on āsana is quoted with attribution in the Puraścaryārṇava (6.109 – 11, 6.116 – 42cd) of Mahārāja Pratāp Singh Shāh of Nepal (1774–1777). The section on mats is largely reproduced (without acknowledging the source) in the Tārābhaktisudhārṇava of Śrīnarasiṃha Ṭhakkura 1668 CE, (the Tantrik Text Series by Arthur Avalon, 1940, p. 367) and a paper manuscript called 'Āsana' (f. 1v) in the National Archives of Kathmandu (E0991-09), which is a compilation of various Āsanas and hand Mudrās. Textual parallels are also found in the Aṃśumadāgama (IFP TS3-019), the Sammohanatantra (quoted in the Prāṇatoṣiṇī (1820 CE) of Rāmatoṣaṇa Bhaṭṭācārya, the Merutantra and the Dīkṣāprakāśa of the Maithila Jīvanātha (1869 – 70). A similar verse to vaṃśāsane, etc., is quoted and attributed to the Nāradapañcarātra in Gopālabhaṭṭa's Haribhaktivilāsa. Thus, it appears that these verses found their way into a number of Tantric compilations in the late medieval period.

NGMPP A42/5; from folio 5r, line 2 onwards.

uktāni munibhir yāni āsanāni niśāmaya |

sarvasiddhyai vyāghracarma sthānasiddhyai mṛgājinaṃ |
vastrāsanaṃ rogaharaṃ vetrajaṃ śrīvivardhanaṃ |
kauśeyaṃ pauṣṭikaṃ jñeyaṃ kāmbalaṃ duḥkhamocanaṃ |

abhicāre kṛṣṇavarṇaṃ raktaṃ vaśyādikarmaṇi |
śāntike dhavalaṃ proktaṃ citrakaṃ sarvakarmasu |
stambhane gajacarma syān māraṇe māhiṣaṃ tathā |
meṣīcarma tathoccāṭe khaḍgijaṃ vaśyakarmaṇi |
vidveṣe jāmbukaṃ proktaṃ bhaved gocarma śāntike |

vaṃśāsane dāridryaṃ daurbhāgyaṃ dārujāsane |
dharaṇyāṃ duḥkhasaṃbhūtiḥ pāṣāṇe vyādhisambhavaḥ |
tṛṇāsane yaśohāni pallave cittavibhramaḥ |
iṣṭakāyām athādhiḥ syād etatsādhāraṇe jape |

na dīkṣito viśej jātu kṛṣṇasārājine gṛhī |
viśed yatir vanasthaś ca brahmacārī ca snātakaḥ |
kuśājināmbareṇāḍhyaṃ caturasraṃ samantataḥ |
ekahastaṃ dvihastaṃ vā caturaṅgulam ucchritam |

Please note the following: munibhir ] emend. : munir Codex. niśāmaya ] emend. : niśomaya Codex. śrīvivardhanaṃ ] corr. : śrīrvivardhanaṃ Codex. meṣī ] corr. : maiṣī Codex.