There was so much information saturating us during the yoga symposium that I’ve barely had an opportunity to review my notes and impressions. One of the things that came up was that several people noticed that many of the Indian temples showed figures of yoginis (female demi-gods, not the current use as female yogis) using yoga straps (yogapatta) to bind their legs in cross-legged position, leaving their knees raised off the ground. I did a quick search through the PDFs of the Yoga: The Art of Transformation catalog (page 146 for one reference) and found at least three illustrations that demonstrated using a strap to hold a seated posture:
At first glance, a Western yogi might think that raised knees in the cross-legged seated posture might be bad form since Lotus or Easy pose is usually portrayed as having both knees on the ground. But it turns out that this raised-knee variation is an accepted modification and the strap around the knees and the lower back serves as a means of securing a steady seated posture for a long time. If you are going to sit in meditation and other austerities for hours, even days, your body will give up faster than your spirit or will.
The third illustration of my gallery shows an ascetic seated on his haunches who uses a strap or belt to bind his legs close to his body. I remember, a few years ago, watching a video (National Geographic or Smithsonian channels) about the scientific investigation of a mommy of a Tibetan monk who had been bound in this position and died. The high altitude preserved his corpse well for decades, perhaps longer. In some of the other catalog illustrations, yogis or ascetics use what look like crutches to prop up their arms or torso.
During the symposium panel discussion, several people commented that even today the use of a strap to assist in sitting cross-legged for a long time is fairly common. So B.K.S. Iyengar did not “invent” the use of straps to help maintain a posture (I don’t think he ever claimed such a thing, but his style is noted for its frequent use of props); he just adapted a mundane artifact to the tool yoga kit.
I mention this example because it shows that our expectations or stereotypes of what yoga was and is in India may not match up with the actual practice. Just as every historical depiction of someone seated in a cross-legged position does not mean that the person was practicing yoga: It just shows that in chair-less cultures, you plant your butt on the ground and fold your legs so that others don’t fall over them.