A LOOK INTO THE MULTI-FACETED HISTORY OF YOGA
I got strange looks from friends and family (non-yogis) when I told them I was going to see an exhibit on yogic arts. Perhaps they envisioned walls plastered with Buddhas and statues of crossed legged yogis, but this was far from what the Freer Sackler (the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Arts) offered. It was an eye opening and educational experience that squashed some of my preconceived notions about yoga. Although my review doesn’t capture all of the yogic gems and wisdom on display, I hope it will encourage others to investigate further as the show travels America.
The Art of Transformation was billed as the first in depth exhibit of Yogic Art. Here 133 works are gathered in four galleries to showcase two millennia of sacred works. Chronologically displayed, the show is pieced into five categories.
The first part of the show, Path of Yoga, is where I learned that a yogini is not simply a female yoga practitioner. Rather, the term goes far back to yoga’s tantric history where the yogini is defined as a flying female goddess with supernatural powers.
I was impressed by the life-sized statues of three cross-legged goddesses in granite, which were formerly from a yogini temple near Kanchipuam, in Tamil Nado. The yoginis each had four waving arms, slim waistlines, and enhanced chests with full breasts. The gentle smiles on their faces are misleading, as these figures carried weapons, and skulls, ready to imbibe blood or alcohol.
Looking at the ghostly paintings in the same exhibit area, the goddesses were portrayed less attractively. Here they haunted cremation sites, mimicking vultures ready to devour dead bodies. Often yoginis appeared with ashes from the cremated smeared on their bodies. With smoke rising from the pyres, and the death grounds covered with skulls, bones and dead body parts, we see cartoon-like images of carrion eating dogs roving the ashes.
Moving into the exhibit, paintings were exquisitely detailed, and the yogis or ascetics were still heavily bearded. As time progressed so did their attire. Formerly naked men advanced to long robes with mala beads adorning their chests. This is not the Lululemon threads that fill yoga studios today. Colorful Indian landscapes feature ashrams, both realistic and imaginative for the artists of the time.
Well-documented, illustrated charts show yogic anatomy highlighting the chakras with Indian text. The detail and colors used in these works deserves a rave. My first thought when looking at these works was that the artistic process must have been quite meditative. Could the art have been created by the same men portrayed in the paintings?
My favorite piece was Goddess Bhadrakali Worshipped by Sage Chyavana.Here a shimmering golden goddess wears a crown adorned with emeralds that are represented by iridescent wings of beetles, and she sits on a bloated corpse. Yes, these were real beetle wings, which blended seamlessly into the painting. Oddly, the bloated corpse pose was not unique to this piece, and appeared in other works on display.
In the last section, I was disappointed to see how the media sensationalized yogis, starting in Europe and ultimately here in the United States. Capitalizing on their exotic appearances, unshaven, matted hair and scantily clad bodies, British photographers carefully posed the yogis for photographs that later turned a profit. They even flaunted a yogi laying on a bed of nails, which led way to Fakir promotions. Posters for the circus and performers of magical feats became popular as a result.
Diverse and exciting historical pieces of art document the evolutionary path of yoga in the various Indian religions (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain) and bring us to yoga in America now. Today’s yoga is the culmination of transformative spiritual and physical practices as they evolved over time. Art through the ages, depicted and experienced by those closely following the yogic exercises, enlightens viewers to the many facets associated with yoga. The show is definitely worthwhile for any audience interested in art, history, religion and yoga. It finishes at the Smithsonian January 26, 2014 and is scheduled to open in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on February 21st.
AnnaMarie Prono lives in New York City and has practiced yoga since 2007.