Monday, 31 December 2018

2018, A Year to Remember




It has been a jam-packed year, the busiest yet for The Luminescent.

2018 was definitely the year of unrelenting fieldwork for us. We visited government and university libraries, private collections, temples, palaces and museums in at least half a dozen states of India as well as other countries, such as Bhutan, Japan, Austria, France, Czech Republic, Canada, Italy, Australia and Britain. We also attended conferences, gave talks and facilitated reading (and practice) workshops in most of these countries. We feel very lucky to be at the leading edge of the emerging field of academic study into Yoga.

Every day of 2018 was spent on the road, sleeping in all sorts of conditions (some comfortable, some not so) and moving from week-to-week (sometimes, day-to-day) carrying our few worldly belongings on our back. 

Despite our endurance for nomadic ways and having our spirits elevated by several significant research successes, the itinerant life has certainly taken its toll on our wellbeing. So, we do hope to settle in one place for 2019 to rejuvenate and, most importantly, write up some of our findings.

Our TOP FIVE research achievements for 2018:

1. Yoga and Āyurveda |  It was in early April 2018 that the efforts of our time spent in Vienna as part of the AyurYog Project were officially put into print. The peer-reviewed article “Premodern Yoga Traditions and Ayurveda: Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis” was published in the open-access journal, History of Science in South Asia. This article discusses 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. 

2. Amaraughaprabodha | The earliest text to teach Haṭha Yoga |  In April, we traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to participate in RINDAS 2018: Traditional Indian Thought. Dr Jason Birch presented new manuscript evidence in his paper “The Amaraughaprabodha: Awakening with Buddhist and Śaiva Nectars.” These research findings have revealed that a short version of the Amaraughaprabodha was probably one of the earliest texts to teach Haṭhayoga. It is also evident that the author of the Amaraughaprabodha created Haṭhayoga from the yoga of the Amṛtasiddhi, which is a Vajrayāna work composed sometime before the mid-twelfth century. A forthcoming article by Birch on this topic is due for publication in 2019.

3. JoYS |  On the 1st May, we officially launched the Journal of Yoga Studies with preview events held (almost) simultaneously in Kyoto, London and Delhi. The creation of this peer-reviewed open-access academic journal, led by Dr Elizabeth de Michelis, has been a few years in the making. The journal hopes to spearhead the dissemination of research findings of this emerging field of study and the first two articles were certainly a taste for the quality and rigour of the publication. We are equally excited about the forthcoming contributions due for publication in 2019. Stay tuned.

4. Haṭhābhyāsapaddhatī | A Precursor of Modern Yoga |  It was during the 17th World Sanskrit Conference, which was held at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) in July 2018, that we were able to offer a preview of our efforts to reconstruct the 112 āsanas of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. We were extremely pleased with the reception it received by our learned audience, with some remarking “it is a groundbreaking form of outreach for this type of philological research.” We very much look forward to sharing the fruits of this exciting project in late-2019.

5. The Vienna Volume |  The much anticipated Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives was published by the University of Vienna in September 2018. This outstanding collection of articles covers the breadth of academic studies on Yoga and includes papers from world leading scholars in this field. It is the culmination of many years of collaborative research and editorial work, and documents the proceedings of papers that were presented during the conference (convened under the same name) at the University of Vienna in 2013.

Biggest impact story of the year:

Our most widely read story for this year was “A Culture of Silence: Satyananda Yoga”, co-authored by Jacqueline Hargreaves and Dr Josna Pankhania. Although it was officially publish in late-Dec 2017, the significance of this collaborative work has had lasting repercussions, impacting international industry standards (e.g., Yoga Alliance) as well as grievance policies and codes of conduct (i.e., Yoga Australia).


It was in 2018 that we broadened our contributions to include articles from up-and-coming academics Laura von Ostrowski, with her interesting piece on “Boris Sacharow: Germany’s first Haṭhayoga Teacher” and Seth Powell, with his well-researched contribution on “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” We look forward to sourcing more contributions from academics and the research community in 2019. It is through these efforts that we hope to continue to fulfil our vision as an independent, high-quality source of original research, news and discourse for the Yoga community.

Charity Fund Raisers:

The generosity of our readers enabled us to successfully support two GoFundMe campaigns in 2018. Firstly, we financed the purchase of much needed yoga equipment for the school children in Khed, Maharashtra (India). And, more recently, we have reached our target to send their inspiring Yoga teacher, Mangesh Khophar, on a fully-funded certified teacher training with Yoga Synergy.

2019, fingers-crossed!

Well, that’s the re-cap for 2018 and it only seems fitting to build some anticipation for what we hope will be an important year ahead. 

We are very excited to be collaborating with the AyurYog Project once again. This time to construct a web-based visual and textual timeline for premodern Ayurveda and Yoga. There is also the translation of Christian Bouy’s book in the pipeline. There will be the official launch of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhatī reconstruction project towards the end of 2019 (as we still have some important research findings to document in this regard). Several forthcoming publications, the first of the critical editions and translations of Haṭha Yoga Project, and more. Also, we’ll be expanding to include online trainings, exclusively designed ethical products and printed volumes. Phew!

Thank you so much to our colleagues, patreon supporters and followers. 

You have put some rice in our bowls this year and kept us nourished.


Jacqui & Jason
of The Luminescent

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Āsanas in Clay


The craft of doll making and clay modelling from the district of Ghurni in Krishnagar, Bengal, India is thought to be about 250 years old. To this day, artisans exquisitely handcraft dolls that attempt to capture the diverse lives and occupations of various people. These decorative creations often reflect the period in which they were produced. The style is realistic and most pieces are intricately painted or clothed in fabric. They were highly sought after by collectors in Europe during the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

The Albert Hall Museum of Jaipur, whose main vision is to collect, protect and persevere the industrial arts and handicrafts of India, has a gallery dedicated to such pottery works. Its impressive collection contains a selection of Sadhus performing a variety of seated, inverted and dynamic āsanas. Below are a few of these miniature clay figurines that can be dated to the late-19th century.

Dr M. L. Gharote of the Lonavla Yoga Institute (India) documented the complete collection, which includes one hundred āsana miniatures1, in his book, Encyclopaedia of Traditional Asanas (2006). Gharote (2006, lxvi) notes that the Jaipur Central Museum (also known as the Albert Hall Museum) commenced its collection in August 1881 and that its catalogue, which was first published by the Imperial Medical Hall Press in 1896, includes descriptions of these figurines by Pandit Lakshmi Nath Sastri, Principal Sanskrit College, Jaipur.

The models provide some insightful details about the lives of ascetics during this early modern period, such as their accoutrements (like a very practical umbrella), sectarian affiliation (most commonly Vaiṣṇava and Śaiva) and use of texts. Also, the collection as a whole is valuable for scholarly efforts to document premodern variations of āsanas. For example, there are three variations of viparītakaraṇāsana, four variations of aikapādāsana, and two variations of kappyāsana and kubri-āsana, respectively.

1 Although Gharote states there are one hundred āsana miniatures in the collection of the Jaipur Central Museum (2006, lxvi), I have found references to only seventy-two of these āsanas in his book.

A Sadhu seated in an āsana (labelled siddhāsana)
with arm raised (likely ūrdhvabāhu) and dressed in a loin clothe.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7143.
Bearded Sadhu with jaṭā (dreadlocked hair),
fire tongs and a kamaṇḍalu (water pot).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7240.
Sadhu from the Nirguna sect performing an āsana
(labelled vṛkṣāsana and resembles vātāyanāsna).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7152.

An ash covered ascetic performing an āsana
(labelled ardha garuḍa bheda).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7145.

Sadhu seated in an āsana
(labelled vajrāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7161.

Sadhu performing a supine posture
(labelled matsyāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7172.

Sadhu performing a dynamic back bending āsana from the standing position
(labelled ardha kapāliāsana).
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7183.

Sadhu seated in an āsana (labelled kubriāsana)
with a crutch (yogadaṇḍa) under the his left armpit.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7199.

Sadhu seated in sahajāsana under an umbrella.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7211.
Sadhu performing kukkuṭāsana.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7144.
(Photograph: Borayin Maitreya Larios)

Sadhu performing gorakṣāsana.
Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur. Accession No.: 7177.
(Photograph: Borayin Maitreya Larios)

Watch the Bengali artisans at work in this documentary.


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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

What is Haṭha Yoga? The evolving definition.


The Haṭha Yoga Project team members: (from left) Daniela Bevilacqua, James Mallinson (P.I.),
Jason Birch and Mark Singleton

As the Haṭha Yoga Project marks the end of its third year, this gallant team of scholars chose to gather at the newly formed SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies to present their evolving understandings of the term haṭhayoga. On the surface, this appears to be a fairly straight forward and simple topic to discuss, because haṭhayoga is a familiar phrase which is commonly used to categorize many of the popular forms of transnational yoga practised around the world. However, when scrutinised historically through the lens of philology and when the ethnographical data from contemporary ascetic practitioners is considered, its varied meanings and the subtle nuances of understanding quickly form a very complex debate.

Each of the panelist offered insights into the definition of the term given their particular area of study. The audio recording of this event is available here:

Listen here.


Dr James Mallinson
[00:00-24:51] Early Haṭha Yoga and proto-Haṭha texts. 
Dr Jason Birch
[24:58 - 43:30] The formative years of Haṭha and Rāja Yoga and their influence on 15th - 18th century literature. 
Dr Daniela Bevilacqua
[43:31 - 58:05] The study of contemporary ascetics in India and their understanding of Haṭha Yoga. 
Dr Mark Singleton
[58:10 - 01:13:50] The transnational meanings of Haṭha Yoga which are developing in the globalised milieu of contemporary yoga.
Below are some notable quotes from each of the researchers.

The Amṛtasiddhi is the oldest of the ten texts that we’re [...] editing, as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project. And it introduces various things which become very important in later textual treatments of haṭhayoga, including these three practices that I just mentioned: mahāmudrāmahābandha and mahāvedha. 
It also goes into the principles of the yogic body: sun, moon, fire, bindu, that I’ve been mentioning; these three knots that the breath pierces as it rises up the central channel; a connection between the mind, breath and bindu (if you control one, you control the other two); the four states of practice; and then, four levels of aspirant. 
Now, we’ve just, Jason and I and others in the room, we’ve just had a workshop in Italy where we read this text very closely and we made great progress understanding it. It’s a complex text. One of the things we knew already, from a close reading of it, was that it was written by tantric Buddhists, which is a big revelation and an exciting development in our understanding of early Haṭhayoga’s history.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Mallinson:
Haṭhayoga's Philosophy: A Fortuitous Union of Non-Dualities

The early proponents of Haṭhayoga do not characterise the practice of Haṭhayoga as difficult or dangerous, but they do acknowledge that manipulating prāṇa forcefully was dangerous and could kill the practitioner. Therefore, they advise that the techniques of Haṭhayoga should be learnt from an expert and that they should be practised gradually, and never forcefully. 
Nonetheless, those who rejected Haṭhayoga emphasised the dangers of forcing the breath and advocated for easier and safer ways for achieving liberation. In particular, gnostic traditions tend to exaggerate the difficulty and exertion of physical yoga techniques because, from their point of view, there are more effective methods for gaining knowledge. 
Perhaps, in response to this criticism, haṭhayoga was defined (in the fourteenth century) as the union of the sun and moon, which was interpreted to mean the practice of prāṇāyāma. This definition became the preferred one of erudite Brahmins who wrote scholarly compendiums that incorporated teachings on Haṭhayoga. In defining Haṭhayoga as prāṇāyāma, within the system of aṣṭāngayoga, these compendiums downplay the forceful effects of physical yoga techniques and emphasise their compatibility with older systems of yoga.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Birch:
The Meaning of haṭha in early Haṭhayoga

The majority of the ascetics that I interviewed were understanding haṭhayoga not as a kind of method of yoga, but mostly as a kind of mental intention. So, Haṭhayoga is a dṛdh saṅkalp and it is a firm determination to accomplish something or reach a goal. […] 
[The] use of the breath as an interpretation of Haṭhayoga is another type of meaning that the sādhus give to the [term]. And, in fact, this has been explained to me by a sādhu, Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji. [He is] a Rāmānujī, and he understood haṭhayoga as [follows]:

Manhant Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji: 
“The aim of Haṭhayoga is to reach keval kumbhak and then to go into samādhi. Therefore, the haṭha yogi reaches a stage where he is not going to breathe again if he does not want to and, in so doing, he can push his body into death. The final stage of Haṭhayoga would be the death of the yogi who remains in samādhi.”

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Bevilacqua:
Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas.

An idea that has been growing in popularity, at least since the book called Selling Spirituality (2004) by Carrette and King, is that Yoga along with practices that are prevalent now such as Mindfulness, can be seen as political tools, which are used in conjunction with neoliberalism and commercialisation, in order to get people back to work. So, you relax people and send them back to work the next day. It’s sort of a critique of Haṭhayoga, and in some ways quite a powerful one and [it is] something of an academic trend to see practices (including Haṭhayoga), framed this way. There are some obvious problems with such a theory. [...]

So, I am musing at the moment, as I’m currently reading the new book by Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, where he is talking about the rise of artificial intelligence and the coming of the part-human, part-AI cyborg. This is an idea that I first came across in the context of yoga in the work of Joseph Alter:

In many respects the cyborg is in effect the ultimate embodied form of yogic practice, a jivanmukta as everyman. 
I’m wondering what will now become of Haṭhayoga and how we are going to think about and define Haṭhayoga in a world where humans are increasingly interacting with technology: with biohacking; with possibilities for the elongation of life (so a very typical goal of hathayoga would be immortality, which is apparently now a very near biomedical reality); with new trends to use [tools, such as] the MUSE headband for monitoring your own brainwaves into order to bring yourself into meditative states and NADI X yoga pants that will actually vibrate to tell you how you should move in a particular yoga posture.
So, a philosophical question to leave you with: 
What does yoga become in a post-human cyborg world?

Here is some further helpful (open access) background reading on this topic by Singleton:
Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives.


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Monday, 1 October 2018

Yoga in Transformation: The Vienna Volume

The much anticipated volume Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives has been published. This outstanding collection of articles covers the breadth of academic studies on Yoga and includes papers from world leading scholars in this field. It is the culmination of many years of collaborative research and editorial work, and documents the proceedings of papers that were presented during the conference (convened under the same name) at the University of Vienna in 2013. 

The abstract for the volume states:
This volume explores aspects of yoga over a period of about 2500 years. In its first part, it investigates facets of the South Asian and Tibetan traditions of yoga, such as the evolution of posture practice, the relationship between yoga and sex, yoga in the theistic context, the influence of Buddhism on early yoga, and the encounter of Islam with classical yoga. The second part addresses aspects of modern globalised yoga and its historical formation, as for example the emergence of yoga in Viennese occultism, the integration of yoga and nature cure in modern India, the eventisation of yoga in a global setting, and the development of Patañjali’s iconography. In keeping with the current trend in yoga studies, the emphasis of the volume is on the practice of yoga and its theoretical underpinnings.
Below is the Table of Contents, which outlines its comprehensive contribution to the history of Yoga in South Asia and Tibet, as well as transnational and globalised forms of contemporary Yoga. 

Through the efforts of the editors Prof. Karl Baier, Dr. Philipp Maas and Prof. Karin Preisendanz of the University of Vienna, and the financial support of AMRAY, this volume has been made available both in print and as an open-access PDF. It is a tremendous triumph to have made such a prestigious publication freely available.

The book can be purchased in hardback here:

or at other booksellers by using the following bibliographical data:
Karl Baier / Philipp A. Maas / Karin Preisendanz (eds.). Yoga in Transformation - Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Wiener Forum für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, Vol. 16, 2018. Vienna University Press by V&R unipress. 
ISBN 978-3-8471-0862-7.
The download of a PDF of the whole volume is possible free of charge in accordance with open access.

We truly hope you savour this publication as much as we do!



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Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Ancient Yoga Strap:

A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa

Download this article as a PDF

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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