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'Yoga, The Art of Transformation' at the Asian Art Museum

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For most of us, the word “yoga” conjures up images of impossible body contortions, limited to the young, the limber and those fascinated by a certain image of India. Others, of a more spiritual bent, learned about yoga through the writings of Yogendra.

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The current show at the Asian Art Museum, “Yoga and the Art of Transformation” shows how little we knew.

Gathered from 25 museums and private collections across the globe, the 135 artworks date from the 2nd to the 20th centuries. The exhibit debuted in October in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. But it had to come to California - possibly the first place where yoga was taken seriously in the West.

The show is organized by topic and the surfeit of Tantric Goddesses, intricate manuscripts and film footage of the early days of yoga in the West can be a bit overwhelming.

“The Path of Yoga” begins in the Osher Gallery, illuminating yoga’s origins from 500 and 200 BCE. Practitioners of the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions developed the original practice through techniques for stilling the mind and achieving enlightment. The show avoids labeling yoga as originating solely from Hindu religious practices, which has caused criticism in some quarters.

Some of the practices proved too ascetic to survive. Starving oneself to death in the name of enlightenment does not appeal to most followers. But other visions of the divine created some of the most vibrant and beautiful sculptures in the whole show. The whistling yogini, all sculpted sandstone and glorious full breasts is far from austere; in fact, she is a celebration of the body in full bloom as a vehicle for enlightenment and a power to be revered.

"Look at this beautiful bejeweled woman," said Qamar Adamjee, the Asian Art Museum's associate curator of South Asian art, during the press preview. "I love this sculpture. See the softness of the belly, and there's her voluptuous body, and yet she's holding a sword and a shield, and she has teeth," more typically associated with demons in Indian art.

Three yogini sculptures, from the 10th and 11th centuries, have four arms to dignify their divine status. One 13th-century figure is circled by snakes. On first glance, they look like vines. Protruding from his lips are two deadly fangs. Yet he also is an image of the divine.

“Three aspects of the Absolute” from a manuscript of the Nath Carlit is a shimmering painterly vision of a perfected yogi. This gallery is packed with intricate works, shimmering gold and delicate hues, showing the development of the yogi body.

The next room (Hambrecht Gallery) shows the further development of yoga as it became more powerful and wordily. It was adopted by the Mughal courts whose greatest emperors adopted the figure of the yogi to portray a harmonious and diverse empire.

The impact on the West, especially the British rulers of India, is displayed in a series of photographs of naked yoga-practicing ascetics. Some of these were designed to be visiting cards, although given the Puritanical practices of the time, it’s hard to see where that would be acceptable.

The art work in this gallery also shows how yogi images and those of the “exotic” East were popularized for the public. Yogi became associated with painful practices like lying on a bed of nails or exotic, erotic women like the circus performer Koringa.

Early movies show patronizing and racist Western attitudes. In a clip from the 1941 movie "You're the One," a jazz singer performs with a big band while a goofy, mustachioed swami squats in front of a crystal ball. The tune has lyrics by Johnny Mercer:

There was a yogi who lost his willpower

He met a dancing girl and fell in love.

He couldn't concentrate or lie on broken glass.

He could only sit and wait for her to pass.

But he who laughs last, laughs best. About 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, according to a survey by the Yoga Journal. It has been touted as a cure for everything from arthritis to stress and who is to say they are wrong. An art that is 2500 years old has a lot to teach us.

There is a full compliment of lectures and public talks and a beautiful catalogue, which is a pre-requisite for fully understanding this show. For those who want more of India's rich art, visit the permanent displays on the 3rd and 4th floor galleries of the museum.