Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Just published in India Currents!

Fasting Buddha, 700-800. India; Jammu and Kashmir state. Ivory. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  1986.70

You know what yoga is, right? Perhaps it’s time to examine that preconception. “People have a certain set of ideas about what yoga is, whether they’re a practitioner or not,” says Qamar Adamjee, Associate Curator of South Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum. “This exhibition gives a richer sense of yoga’s histories; there’s no single path and no single answer.” Featuring 130 pieces of art from twenty-five museums and private collections across India, Europe, and the United States Yoga: The Art of Transformation highlights Indian religious traditions from the 2nd to 20th centuries.   

Conceived by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “we are proud to be the only West Coast venue for this groundbreaking exhibition on yoga’s history” says Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum. The exhibit reunites three 10th century stone yoginis from the same temple in Tamil Nadu, reveals pages from the first illustrated book of asanas, and features Thomas Edison’s 1902 film Hindoo Fakir, identified as the first movie made about India. Throughout the exhibit special attention is paid to philosophy while problematizing the orientalism and cultural appropriation that often defines contemporary yoga practice.

Vishnu in his man-lion incarnation as Yoga-Narasimha, approx. 1250. India; Tamil Nadu state. Bronze. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1973.187.

“Sun salutations were not devised until the 1930’s, by which time they were in association with wresting and body building exercises” explains Adamjee. The exhibit explores the long history before sun salutations, including Jain meditation, Buddhist revisions of asceticism, Sikh yogic practices, the development of hatha yoga, and the dialogue between Hindu and Sufi mystics. Stunning Mughal albums point to the connection between spiritual power and political rule. “There was a tight relationship between gurus and kings. Gurus were often political advisors” says Adamjee.

One of the exhibition’s multiple narratives is transgressive practice. Violent battles for control between militant yogi orders join nuanced explorations of the figure of the yogi himself. “Literature is filled with tales of yogis who shape-shift and pluck out other people’s livers” adds Adamjee. Yogic powers developed through austerities attracted both 19th century Theosophists and the colonial desire to classify, and negatively define, yogic practitioners. 20th century film, photography, and publicity posters reveal a complicated western fascination with the idea of a magical fakir.

Yogini, 1000–1050. India; Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh state. Sandstone. Courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art90.92. 

“The yoga world today is largely composed of female practitioners. We see female presences early in the exhibition, then sources fade for a while,” comments Adamjee. In response a strand of the exhibition’s narrative traces the feminine, including a sandstone yogini from 11th century Uttar Pradesh. “She’s an absolutely gorgeous, enigmatic figure who challenges and attracts the viewer. Sensitively carved, her halo echoing the head of the owl she sits astride, the figure’s composition communicates the power of the dakini,” says Adamjee. This dauntless dakini offers viewers the chance to identify with, and challenge, the selves and narratives they see reflected in the exhibition. “Seeing the exhibition is a chance to reaffirm the amazing historical wealth from South Asia’s past” Adamjee concludes.

A slew of events accompany the yoga exhibit. In April Dr. Margaret Chesney, Director of UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and Dr. Anand Dhruva, an integrative medicine physician, will meet for several talks to discuss Ayurveda, yoga, and health. On May 4th Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose, the Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian Art from the Art Institute of Chicago, will juxtapose Vivekananda’s reformation of yoga with Jitish Kallat’s installation Public Notice 3, talking about religious tolerance and terrorism. Throughout the exhibition in-gallery curator talks, lectures by senior yoga teachers, punchy BAAT CHEET programs about yoga in California, classical Indian dancing, yoga workshops, and multiple family and children’s activities are scheduled.

It can be easy to dismiss an exhibit about something intrinsic to your history, especially when it’s bound to draw Lululemon-clad crowds. Yet Yoga: The Art of Transformation is a nuanced study of Indian tradition. The exhibition demands an understanding and appreciation for yoga to properly access its depth and breadth. Come, stand in front of the art, and see what transforms for you.

Yoga:  The Art of Transformation
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm
Adults $17, seniors and students $13, children under 12 free