We were able to attend the exhibit “Yoga: the Art of Transformation” at the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art last weekend, just before it closed. Everything is now being crated for shipping to San Francisco where it will open in February and then onward to Cleveland, where it will be on display over the summer. It is well worth seeing.
It’s billed as the first exhibit (presumably anywhere) to look specifically as to how yoga has been displayed throughout its history in the visual arts. I will assume this to be the case, but what is clear is that attributes of yoga have been portrayed in numerous works of art over the centuries, and that the curators of this particular exhibit have been enormously successful in putting together approximately 120 of these works (religious items, paintings, sculpture, books, manuscripts, photographs, and prints), each of which is worthy of attention.
I did learn a few things:
First, I have often been confused about the relationship of the practice of yoga to religious doctrine. I must admit that I still am, but now I understand that yoga transcends specific religions, and that the beliefs that attend yoga are modified by the religious persuasion of the practitioner. Yoga is clearly Hindu, and Jain, and Buddhist, and to my surprise, even Islamic. The Mughal rulers of India and Persia, a tolerant Muslim dynasty, at least tolerated yoga, and supported artists who did not refrain from painting human images. Who knew? (Many of the works on display contained wording in Hindi or Sanskrit or related languages; the Mughal works were described in Arabic letters, presumably Farsi or a predecessor language.) Yoga transcends religions – therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that today there are Christian and Jewish adherents.
Second, yoga is very ancient – perhaps as old or older than ancient Judaism, reaching back 4000 years.
Third, yoga first grew as (these are my words – I think they capture the gist, but no expert would describe it this way) an escape from the world, and a way to forget your troubles and find yourself at one with the universe, at one with the Creator (in some religious teachings, reaching Nirvana). Older works of art depicting yoga practitioners depict them in postures of meditation, often with stylized symbols and postures that I cannot begin to understand or appreciate.
Fourth, because yoga was exclusively a meditative art, it was not a form of physical exercise, and the yoga postures that we are so familiar with today, were developed over the past 100 years, a blink of time in the full history of yoga. This means that the yoga of today is quite different from what existed before, with meditation perhaps playing a smaller role, with the symbols of yoga pretty well ignored (at least in this country) and with yoga postures (which didn’t exist as recently as the 19th century) now representing the prime aspect of the practice.