When you hear the word yoga, your thoughts might turn to scenes of Indian yogis engaged in mystical rites, steeped in an ageless Hindu tradition. Or you might think of the purely exotic, conjuring images of near-naked ascetics covered in ash and saffron.
Most likely, however, your mind will probably fill with images of spandex-clad exercisers casting themselves in a series of seemingly unnatural postures (asanas). Such is the challenge with a topic such as yoga.
Yoga: The Art of Transformation, an exhibit currently on display at the Asian Art Museum until May 25th, addresses these impressions and, in some cases, dubious stereotypes with a comprehensive and entertainingly enlightening view of the wonder, art, culture, and history of this ancient discipline and philosophy.
Comprehensive, of course, is a relative word. With a history that spans over 2,500 years and featuring the influence and contribution of at least four major religious traditions, yoga presents the opportunity for significant study and understanding. But with more than 130 rare and eclectic works of art on display, the exhibition offers many surprises and insights, and is likely to satisfy your deepest interest in the subject.
Yoga emerged in North India between the fifth and third centuries B.C.E., developed by renouncers of society as a means to transcend the suffering of existence. Continually impacted by the myriad and evolving social, religious, and political contexts of India, the core concepts and practices of yoga were nevertheless laid down by the seventh century C.E.
The current exhibition, originating at the Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, represents the first major art exhibition to explore this subject and particularly its historical transformation. Featuring artworks from the 2nd to the 20th centuries (with most from the 8th to 18th centuries), the exhibition brings together items from 25 museums and private collections spread across India, Europe and the United States, principally highlighting the Hindu experience, with Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, and Sufi images providing additional illumination.
Spread spaciously across three galleries at the museum, the exhibition examines elements of yogic tradition and conceptions of the body, together with the relationship of place and power to yoga practice. Of particular interest is a critical examination of how yogis (yoga practitioners) have been interpreted and portrayed in both Indian and Western cultures. The exhibition also traces the origins of key features of modern yoga as it relates to our popular understanding of the discipline as an approach for healthy living and spiritual well-being.
Richly represented with a range of artifacts including early photographs, prints, books, manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures, Yoga: The Art of Transformation delights with several unexpected works including sections of the first illustrated book of yogic postures (circa 1600), along with the Edison Manufacturing Company film, Hindoo Fakir, acknowledged as the first American movie ever produced about India featuring a Bengali magician adopting the persona and appearance of a yogi.
Visitors might also be surprised to learn that not all yogis were advocates of peace; wisdom and violence blended smoothly in early Hindu epics, most notably the Mahabharata (200 BCE–400 CE). Similarly, representations of female yoga practitioners (yogini), including the 17th century painting Yogini with mynah, demonstrate how yoginis were believed capable of influencing the outcome of battles through the application of supernatural powers.
The emergence of modern yoga is likewise traced, focusing on Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the publication of Raja Yoga in 1896, and photographs of Vivekananda introducing yogic concepts to the United States at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Of course, no exhibition of yoga would be complete without illustrating the influence of yoga in California, showcased through an interactive historical timeline that connects through to our present-day emphasis on health, fitness and spiritual well-being (with or without the spandex).
In sum, Yoga: The Art of Transformation is a timely exhibition that fully seizes the current fascination with this ancient practice while presenting a deeply satisfying and well-connected traversal of the rich intricacies and meanings behind what to many, at first, might have seemed little more than simple exercise.
About the Museum
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94102
Yoga: The Art of Transformation
On display until May 25, 2014