Viewing the 130 yoga-related items provides "an esthetic pleasure akin to the bliss of expanded consciousness," to quote one of India's greatest philosophers, Abhinavagupta (10th century).
The masterpieces of sculpture and painting date as far back as the 10th century in this first-ever exhibition about yoga's visual history. Click here for highlights and you'll see why it's a must-see.
Three life-sized granite yogini goddesses from a 10th-century south Indian temple are reunited for the first time in the exhibit. Each of these yoginis (a female embodiment of the power of yoga) has four arms, symbolizing divine power, a voluptuous figure, rather wild hair, fangs, and skull cups for drinking blood or liquor. Cobras coil around the fiercest one, who perches atop a headless corpse. They fly through the night in hordes...
One yogini from the first half of the 11th century is carved from sandstone, down to the cuticles of her fingernails and each little tooth. One of the greatest yoga sculptures in the U.S., it was loaned by the San Antonio Museum of Art. Twenty-five museums and private collections in America, India (the motherland of Yoga), and Europe have lent works for the unique display.
The exhibit has "some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art," said exhibit curator Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian's Sackler and Freer Galleries. "Some have never before been exhibited, and others are iconic works."
- One 1823 work that fulfills all three categories is the shimmering, radiant "Three Aspects of the Absolute", enlightened beings floating in a sea of gold. This "very important painting shows the essence of all being as a golden square," the curator noted.
- Renowned as one of India’s greatest court paintings, the 17th century "Yogini with Mynah" portrays the bejeweled, bluish-skinned goddess as elegantly elongated, theatrically backlit, and surrounded by huge flowers.
- The luminous white marble "Jina" (conqueror) dated 1160 was the "most perfect" representation of Jina, one of 24 founders of Jainism. The figure shows balance between stillness and alertness, the essence of yoga, Diamond said.
- Ten magnificent examples of the first illustrated yoga postures (asanas), created for a Moghul emperor in 1602, were never before exhibited together.
- A small, intricate bronze shrine circa 1330 is a "really brilliant, profound sculpture in the Jain tradition," the curator explained. It's slightly worn from ritual touching, repeated for hundreds of years.
- One of the most complex paintings is a two-part illustration of the raucous Battle of Thaneschwar, between followers of two opposing gurus, 1590-1595. Yogis wield swords, spears, axes, clubs, and sharp iron discs known as "chakras", and there's even a beheading.
The exhibit also focuses on the perception of yoga and its practitioners as it spread to America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
- One of eight volumes of the first book on "The People of India", published in London in 1868, shows yogis as "criminal, wily fakirs (fakers?) who were dangerous...They wore few clothes, were armed, smoked dope..." Diamond noted.
- Among the most intriguing of all the fascinating items is Thomas Edison's 1902 "Hindoo Fakir", the first film ever made on India. A turbaned yogi sprinkles magic dust and it becomes a giant calla lily, which transforms into a hefty woman who flaps her sparkly butterfly wings and levitates...
- Next to it is a video of "The Yogi Who Lost His Willpower", a Johnny Mercer song.
The stunning exhibit ends as it begins, with yoga teachers. The first is an extremely rare statue from 11th century Bengal of a smiling Guru Vidyashiva, sitting with crossed, folded hands and legs symbolizing enlightenment. This "historical figure was understood as a god on earth during his lifetime," Diamond explained.
The display ends with rare footage of the earliest yoga film (1938, sponsored by the maharaja of Mysore). The father of modern yoga, teacher T. Krishnamacharya, and some of his most famous practitioners, do various postures.
Some viewers might deem them contortions. Many positions seem to defy human possibilities, like balancing on fingertips while levitating the crossed-leg body; or balancing on hands, arms bent, both legs straight out, forming a literal right angle to the body.
Don't try this at home -- but DO try it at the Sackler Gallery. They're holding many yoga classes, taught by major instructors including John Schumacher, a local yoga practitioner and teacher for 40 years. Schumacher was an adviser to the exhibition.
(Although yoga instructor Hilaria Baldwin will not be teaching here, she and her husband Alec Baldwin co-chaired the Sackler's "Some Enlightened Evening" gala Oct. 17, which raised some $450,000.)
Even if you're a yoga school dropout like I am, and don't know a Downward Facing Dog position from a One-Legged King Pigeon Pose (I or II), you can attain enlightenment and even serenity from this extraordinary exhibition.
And enjoy the many free events at the Sackler and Freer galleries of Asian arts.
"Performing Indonesia: A Festival and Conference of Music, Dance and Drama" Oct. 31-Nov. 3 presents 35 musicians, dancers, and puppeteers from Java, Bali, and Sumatra, along with accomplished gamelan musicians from the United States. An extra treat with the performances, films, family programs, and talks -- Indonesian food will be sold on Saturday and Sunday. Free tickets are required for all evening performances.
For more info: "Yoga: The Art of Transformation", Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, www.asia.si.edu, on the National Mall at 1050 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 202-633-4880. Free. Through Jan. 26, 2014. Click here for yoga videos. The exhibit continues to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Feb. 21- May 25, 2014, and then to the Cleveland Museum of Art, June 22–Sept. 7. "Performing Indonesia: A Festival and Conference of Music, Dance and Drama" Oct. 31-Nov. 3.