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Your own bed of nails at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum: art history of yoga

History and Art of Yoga at the San Francisco Asian Art MuseumYogi lying on a bed of nails
History and Art of Yoga at the San Francisco Asian Art MuseumYogi lying on a bed of nails
©John Montgomery

San Francisco Asian Art Museum exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation

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--Diane LeBow. Photography by John Montgomery

Yoga art and history at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum
©John Montgomery

Here in the West, the term Yoga brings to mind special sexy pants, healthy stretching, and meditation. But did you know that Yoga’s origins go back 2500 years when wandering ascetics from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions looked for ways working with the body and breath to quiet the mind, to counter what the Buddhists call “Monkey Brain”? We’re all still working on that one, right?

“Yoga” in Sanskrit means “yoke” or “join,” referring to its basic concepts of stilling the mind and uniting mind, body, and spirit.

The Asian Art Museum’s exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on view in San Francisco February 21-May 25, 2014. Previously it was at the Smithsonian and next will travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu says: “We are honored to serve as the only West Coast venue in presenting this historic exhibition…illuminating aspects of yoga and its hidden histories to Bay Area audiences.”

Created in partnership with the Smithsonian, it is the world’s first major art exhibition that explores yoga’s history and art over its 2500 year history. The works from 2nd century through 20th century are drawn from twenty-five museums in India, Europe, and the U.S.
Displayed in three galleries and drawing from the perspectives of many disciplines including psychology, sociology, religion, and health, the presentation includes the Core Practices, Yogis and Place, and Contemporary Practices. The latter include contemporary focus on health as well as yoga in Hollywood films.

Some highlights of the exhibition include three stone yogini, or goddesses, from a 10th century South Indian temple. Combining the attributes of ferocity and gentleness, their loose flowing hair, and draped snakes indicate danger. They carry weapons as well as cups made from skulls filled with either blood or liquor. It’s interesting to note that after the 13th century yogini temples ceased to be built. Why did their female presence fall out of favor?

Artworks show various forms of yoga practice, including meditation and postures. Especially from the 17th through 20th centuries, the Western imagination was piqued by the sensationalism of partially naked yogis, with long matted hair, practicing extreme rituals, like lying on beds of nails and austerities--fasting, celibacy, and immobilizing the body in difficult positions--with cages on head and neck as well as nether parts. From around 1600, ten pages from the first illustrated book of yogic postures (asanas) is on display, as is a 1902 film by Thomas Edison, Hindoo Fakir.

In the final section of the exhibition, modern Yoga as we in the West know it, emerges with its aspects of health, fitness, and spiritual well-being. As you exit through the tempting bookstore and gift shop, the title of Robert Love’s book The Great Oom: The Improbably Birth of Yoga in America might catch your eye, as you hurry to your next yoga class--most likely sans bed of nails.

The Asian Art Museum’s exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation will be on view in San Francisco February 21-May 25, 2014. Previously it was on view at the Smithsonian. Next it travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco. www.askianart.org 415-581-3500