The Asian Art Museum is now hosting the world’s first major art exhibit to explore yoga’s historical transformation over 2,500 years, and San Francisco’s yoga community is abuzz. Through more than 130 rare and compelling artworks, gathered from 25 museums and many private collections and encompassing four years of research, the exhibit shows yoga’s rising appeal from its early days to its emergence as a global cultural phenomenon.
The collection is so extensive that it can be overwhelming to navigate and get a singular sense of what yoga is and has been about””apropos for such a complex discipline with a long history and rich diversity. Because I am a practitioner and teacher fully immersed in modern yoga culture ”” as opposed to an art historian, who might perhaps have a different point of view ”” my impression of the Yoga of Transformation exhibit was utter exhilaration.
I was lucky enough to take in Yoga of Transformation at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., just before it hopped cross-country to San Francisco. In addition to leading personal tours through the current show, here are some thoughts and impressions I have to offer that I hope will help orient you as you take it in. This show is a do not miss for San Francisco yogis.
Yoga of Transformation starts by introducing visitors to the origins of yoga. Between 500 and 200 BCE, wandering ascetics of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions developed practices for controlling the body and breath as a means of stilling the mind. Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah ””concepts from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra -laid the groundwork for much of what would later constitute yoga. By the 7th century, many of yoga’s key concepts, vocabulary and practices were established.
All the transcendent beauty of yoga””impossible to put into words, yet at a heart level so familiar””is on exhilarating display in Yoga of Transformation. A radiant bronze Jina (or Jain) sculpture from 900-1100 AD greets you in the first gallery, the figure exhibiting an obvious and enviable state of having released all karma. I loved the juxtaposition of this sculpture and its counterpart from the Sackler show, a pure white 13th century marble sculpture Jina now on its way to the West coast.
Three Aspects of the Absolute
As she tells the story, exhibit Curator Debra Diamond first stumbled upon a cache of luminous 19th century Hatha Yoga manuscripts while researching her PhD dissertation in the 1990s. One of these painted manuscripts, Three Aspects of the Absolute, is one of her favorite pieces in the entire show, and mine as well. In three successive frames, it shows formlessness as an empty space, a haloed Nath sadhu sitting within the absolute, and the same sadhu seated within the material world. As yogis, we grapple with these concepts today, navigating between the stresses and challenges of the “real” world and the promises and aspirations of our spiritual selves. These stunning, shimmering Nath Charit manuscripts launched Debra’s idea for the blockbuster show we see today.
A five-faced Shiva painting from the 17th century, in orange and pink watercolor, gold and beetle wings, depicts Sadashiva, one of his most transcendent forms. His five heads represent the five streams of knowledge from the Vedas. A painted teak Hanuman as a yogi, arms and eyes raised upward, is the divine role model for worshipers of Lord Rama.
For sheer power and eroticism, nothing beats three rare 10th and 11th century Kanchi temple yogini sculptures from Tamil Nadu, reunited for the first time, resplendent and voluptuous. An 11th century granite sculpture of Shiva as Bhairava, represents the guru and god tantric yogis aspire to become through initiation and practice.
Other artworks depict recognizable yoga practices we still do today: meditation, asana and austerities like fasting. Until the end of the 1st century, asana was referred to as a simple seated posture for meditation. The number of poses described in Hatha yoga texts gradually increased over time, with asana eventually defined in more modern terms as a practice of physical postures to make the body supple and healthy, yet also lead the practitioner toward self-deification and supernatural abilities.
A delight in this gallery is the Bahr al-hayat (Ocean of Life), a naturalistically illustrated treatise on asana from 1600 Uttar Pradesh, showing yogis in the practice of nauli kriya, garbhasana, virasana, kumbhaka, khechari mudra, padmasana and sirsasana in full detail. Written by Muhammed Ghwath Gwaliori, a prominent Sufi spiritual master, the Ocean of Life was the earliest extant manuscript with illustrated asanas, its elegantly scripted, detailed descriptions never seen before.
For subtle body fans, there is an exhilarating, illustrated chakra scroll from 18th century Kashmir, a ten-foot candy ribbon of watercolor, gold, silver and Sanskrit. I was over the moon for this scroll, both for its detail and its content: the twelve energy centers of the body, seven underworlds and twenty-one worlds of the universe.
A centerpiece of the gallery is an early 19th century painted landscape, from the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati manuscript, showing perfected yoga siddhas in pointy black hats practicing pranayama, japa and meditation in a celestial heaven””pretty much as we do today. Following the twelve-year course described in the text, yogis could perceive the universe within and obtain the ability to control it. The painting is an absolute dream, its lush landscape and enlightened figures reflecting the highest realms attainable to modern-day spiritual yogis.
Wandering among the art, I was immediately struck by the simplicity and purity. From the point of view of today’s commercial yoga world, where expensive yoga clothing, accessories and accouterments are the norm, the visual history laid out in Yoga of Transformation reminds us that fancy outfits and materiality were never a part of early yoga. Yet, each piece is so visually exquisite.
Yoga Landscapes and Imagination
The second gallery examines the role of landscape in yoga practice, and the way yoga was historically depicted in Indian and Western imagination. No yoga studios here””these are paintings of idealized landscapes, the most potent being mountain peaks, where yogis and deities practiced in tranquil, verdant, wondrous settings. Standout paintings in this magical realm are the 17th century Yogini with Mynah from the Islamic court of Bijapur, where yoginis were considered agents of supernatural power.
Other paintings illustrate the different modes of classical Indian music, visualizing the specific emotions and suggesting an experience transcending our sense of seeing and hearing. A gem here is Kedar Ragini by renowned 17th century painter Ruknuddin from Rajasthan, a vina player and a dusty yogi sitting under a tree under the night sky, moon and stars aglow overhead. This little painting will appeal to bhakti yogis as one of the most evocative pieces in the whole gallery, silently drawing you into the mood, or bhav, of the scene. To compliment the other paintings of music, transcendence and desire, the San Francisco show added a listening station to hear a recording of Bhairava Raga, a nice touch not included in the Sackler exhibit.
Taking a Turn
The gallery also makes a distinct shift, showing yogis in the Western imagination from the 17th through 20th centuries, and it is here where Yoga of Transformation really gets intriguing. A grid of painted vignettes, Ascetics Performing Tapas from 1820 South India, shows ascetics with matted locks, japa beads and Shaiva markings standing in fire, headstanding, hanging upside down from trees, bathing and performing japa, meditation and pranayama on tiger skins. Photographed images of near-naked yogis and wandering sadhus with matted hair and crazed looks flooded the market in the late 19th century, feeding Europe’s fascination with yogis engaged in extreme and seemingly painful austerities. Whether the images were real or staged we will never know, and these images still shock even now. The first postcards, photography and films brought Eastern mysticism into American culture, reinforcing the miraculous yogi as a cultural motif.
It is clear that somewhere between the tranquil landscapes and yogis lying on a bed of nails, the practice was beginning to take a turn to what we know today.
The exhibit’s last gallery highlights modern transformations of yoga and the renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda is the charismatic figure here. He published Raja Yoga in 1896 and brought yoga’s most accessible philosophical teachings and system to the U.S. in 1893. Yoga of Transformation includes stunning photos of Vivekananda conveying his magnetism, his inscriptions signed Eka eva suhrid dharma nidhanepyanuyati yah (“Virtue is the only friend that follows us even beyond the grave”) and Samata sarvabhuteshu etanmuktasya lakshanam (“Equality in all beings – this is the sign of the free”), sayings that still resonate today.
The exhibit also gathers early 20th century yoga asana books, like Yoga Mimansa, whose style was copied by all the other photographic asana manuals that followed from the 1940s through the 1960s by noted teachers Indra Devi, Theos Bernard, BKS Iyengar and Swami Vishnu-devananda.
By this point, if the artworks have not knocked your toe socks off, the show closes with silent black-and-white film footage from the 1930s of master teachers Krishnamacharya and a young BKS Iyengar. Here, our predecessors perform asana and pranayama “”¦with sustained control, strength and grace, illuminating the role of the visual in transforming our teachers into enduring exemplars, establishing innovative practices and creating new ways of perceiving yoga.” These teachers, among many others, brought yoga to life for us in the 21st century.
After I attended the San Francisco preview, a reporter asked, “Why not be more explicit about the meaning of yoga: yoking one with God?” A spirited discussion followed. The consensus was that yoga has meant different things to different cultures at different times, and this is precisely what the profound collection of artwork in Yoga of Transformation suggests. The exhibit allows us to experience different aspects of yoga””the sublime, meditative, fierce, austere, erotic, psychological, physical””and not be colored by any set definition. This is the beauty of the yoga tradition: transformational on many levels. I recalled a visitor notecard from the Sackler show, which said, “I’ll have to come back one, two more times. Yoga saved my life.”
Don’t miss this show.
Yoga: The Art of Transformation is at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum February 18 – May 25, 2014. It travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art June 22 – September 7, 2014.