It’s not every day that you get to see a depiction of 2,000-year-old yogi in lotus pose practicing his meditation—let alone one hanging on the walls of one of the great museums. But on Saturday, October 19, the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., will unveil a dazzling array of artwork in the world’s first-ever exhibition of yoga’s visual history, called “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” Ever grumble about how much yoga’s changed since you started practicing? This show will blow your mind… —Amanda Benchley
Photo: Anatomical Body. 18th century. India, Gujarat. Wellcome Library, London, Asian Collections.
From fringe to phenomenon
“There’s so much we can learn about the teachings and history of yoga from visual culture,” says exhibition curator Debra Diamond. “It’s never been tapped in a broad way.”
Diamond first hatched the idea for the show almost 20 years ago, when yoga was still considered more of a hippie hobby, and not yet a daily practice of 20.4 million Americans. But with yoga studios now on every block and an explosion in yoga scholarship (even Yale offers a course in yoga history), Diamond has finally made her yoga retrospective a reality—assembling more than 130 yoga-related sculptures, paintings, photographs, and films to fill an entire floor of exhibition space. Think 8,000 square-feet of yoga-bilia.
Photo: Yogini. first half of the 11th century. India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj. San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with the John and Karen McFarlin Fund and Asian Art Challenge Fund, 90.92.
One of the coolest things about so much history in one room is how it lets you see yoga’s total transformation. The earliest poses didn’t include the fast-flowing movements we know today, Diamond explains. They were mostly seated (asana is the Sanskrit word for “seat”) and a meditative vehicle for ancient yogis to be still while they sought to “to transcend suffering and attain release from the cycles of rebirth.”
The exhibition also shines light on a time when yoga was associated more with mischief than with mindfulness.
In the 19th century, it was thought that hatha yogis—seen on old photo cards looking especially evil—would use yoga to attain supernatural powers, thus completely freaking out the British colonials (that those yogis were often naked or smoking marijuana didn’t help their cause).
Hindoo Fakir, the first film about India made in 1906 by Thomas Edison (which will be shown at the exhibition) features an Indian magician using yoga as part of his act. “Nobody wanted to teach asanas back then,” says Diamond, herself an “occasional yogi,” whom we caught up with at Wanderlust in Vermont. “They were connected with magic tricks, or skeevy guys.”
But in the early 20th century, Krishnamacharya, well-known as the godfather of modern postural yoga, started promoting the practice’s health benefits. You can catch him and his star pupil, B.K.S. Iyengar, in a 1938 silent film that will be shown, larger-than-life-style, in a full-wall installation. As a bonus, D.C.-area yoga teachers will hold classes and discussions in front of the film twice a week, making it an interactive experience. (No handstands against the film, please.)
Photo: “Three Aspects of the Absolute,” folio 1 from the Nath Charit. By Bulaki, 1823. India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur. Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS2399.
Among the main attractions are an 8th century ivory carving of what may well be the world’s skinniest Buddha (uncharacteristically thin because he’s depicted fasting); three, monumental medieval sculptures of yoginis used to ensure kings’ military battles (girl power!); and a 17th century manual showing the proper way to do headstand, or virasana, that promises to clarify, once and for all, how true to the original your version is.
The exhibition, which is free and will run through January 26, 2014, is already generating plenty of buzz and support from across the wellness world: Whole Foods donated $70,000 as part of a successful crowd-funding campaign to raise $125,000, and Manduka donated mats for the free classes. It will kick-off with a gala co-chaired by Alec Baldwin and his celeb-yogi wife, YogaVida’s Hilaria Thomas, bringing even more wattage to an awesomely enlightening exhibit.
Photo: Swami Vivekananda, Hindoo Monk of India. United States, Chicago, 1893-94; Vedanta Society of Northern California, Harrison series, V22
“Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” October 19, 2013–January 26, 2014, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., free admission, www.asia.si.edu