Yoga has led me down many untrodden paths and today’s visit to Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution was no exception. Although I’ve lived in the Washington DC area for a quarter of a century, I’ve never visited the Sackler, a small gallery bursting with art from Asia.
While viewing the exhibit, I was grateful to have read The Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika which provided a basic knowledge of the history of yoga. The exhibit brought much of this ancient practice to light.
The earliest pieces in the exhibit include statues of yogis sitting in a meditative position. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali mention only one posture, sitting. All the statues are either sitting or standing with arms extended to embody this quest for Samadhi (bliss). The attainment of this highest state is signified by a marking the third eye. Three monumental stone yogini goddesses from a tenth-century Chola temple are reunited for this exhibit and they look blissful although slightly broken. As I took my very first steps into this exhibit, I was pleased to see the inclusion of female master practitioners. With all the talk of men leading yoga in the olden days, seeing these statues and the paintings of female ashrams made quite a positive impression on me.
Magnifying glasses are available in each of the rooms to view the tiny, elaborate details in the artwork. Many of the paintings and carvings show practitioners attempting to leave the physical body behind with sunken faces and shrinking limbs from fasting. The first illustrated compilation of asanas made for a Mughal emperor in 1602 show sitting postures with one daring headstand. Large paintings depict the chakras of the body in colorful symbols which entice even the most unskilled of artists to do the same. Perhaps figurative painting is the only way to express the true meaning of yoga.
As a yoga teacher, I noticed the scenes of students sitting and listening to their gurus and teachers. The aesthetics of these paintings show peaceful landscapes. Yoga was represented as a serene practice dominated by cleanliness in open spaces. One 16th century painting shows a change in style as the Renaissance in Europe became influential.
Some of the illustrations show a different, sometimes darker, side of the yoga culture not known in our modern studios. Yogis would serve as spies because they could travel extensively to every corner of India. Some were known as wizards with one painting showing a woman slashed so the yogi could gain supernatural powers. The battle scenes from The Bhagavad Gita and Krishna’s revelation of his true self depict man’s struggles in this earthly life. These images from yogic history add depth to the exhibit.
Heading over to the modern section of the exhibit comprising the 20th century, you’ll find many staged and artificial photographs. The westerners wanted exotic photos and these were the impressions that were commissioned. Here we also find the beginning of the many hatha poses brought to America in the early 1900’s. Books show how the scientific examination of yoga started at this time to justify yoga’s benefits to the medical world. Many photographs of the first Swamis to visit American provide a glimpse of the earliest faces associated with yoga and you wonder what they were thinking. At the end of the exhibit, black and white videos of some of the oldest masters demonstrate difficult yoga poses requiring extreme flexibility.
My only wish was that the exhibit would be larger with more of a bridge from the ancient to the modern yoga. The perception of yoga to the Western world has always limited. This exhibit shows a small bit of the history of India. Yoga is one fine thread of this country’s rich and robust heritage but what a wonderful thread this exhibit is!
After looking at these changes over the last 2,000 years, one can only wonder where yoga will journey in the future. Will we see even more extreme versions of yoga? Will yoga for specific physical and mental conditions become commonplace? Will it survive another 2,000 years in some new form?
Please let me know your impressions of the exhibit. Photography is prohibited or I would have loved to share my thoughts about specific pieces. You have to see Yoga: The Art of Transformation for yourself here in Washington DC or at its next stop in San Francisco.