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Enlightenment Hits Our Nation’s Capitol…Well, Sort Of

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By Peg Mulqueen


It’s been a long-ass week here in Washington, DC.

And especially if you’re Dr. Debra Diamond, curator for the Smithsonian exhibit, ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation‘—which nearly didn’t open on time, thanks to a bickering congress and government shutdown. In fact, even last week’s benefit gala had to be moved last minute during the political debacle, as Lululemon-clad yogis performed “complicated yoga stretches” in lieu of the art.

So when I showed up exactly one hour after the scheduled media preview, a full morning which had included breakfast, a tour and interviews – I had little hope of Dr. Diamond having the energy or wherewithal to squeeze me in.

I was wrong—and never so happy to be so. This impassioned historian seemed nothing but delighted to kick back and talk yogic super-powers, trippy new-age journeys and all about the exhibition she began thirteen years ago, the one she describes as her most collective and collaborate one yet:

Debra Diamond: I’m a Yoga Dork groupie. You’re a favorite of mine! Everybody here reads it.

Peg Mulqueen: Well, I’m not THE Yoga Dork – but definitely A yoga dork! In all seriousness, it’s a real honor to meet you. Yoga is such a huge part of my life—or, it IS my life. So I feel like I’m discovering my roots and it’s incredibly meaningful. Thank you.

DD: That’s really good and really complimentary but we need you to complete it. When I started working on this, there weren’t that many people doing yoga. I find it totally interesting how yoga is becoming embedded in American culture.

PM: Especially the asana, but I suppose that always comes first.

Garbhasana, a watercolour from 1600, depicts a yogi in practice

Garbhasana, a watercolour from 1600, depicts a yogi in practice

DD: No, not always. Meditation is often first. Well in some traditions … actually, there are so many different traditions! It’s so fascinating!

PM: Um, you mean confusing…

DD: It’s totally confusing. I was reading a great translation of the Gheranda (Samhita), and it’s a very syncretic treatise. It has all these bits and contradicts itself as it adds these bits. A lot of Indian knowledge systems work like that, something new comes along or they have a new insight and they just add it on top. So it’s totally confusing. I’m so lucky I had scholars I worked with who are really, really great, and they disagreed with each other. (laughing) Oh, you’ll see if you read the catalogue really carefully. They define things differently.

So I just try to find things that were important in many yoga traditions.

I really believe it emerged to transcend suffering. Enlightenment, heightened consciousness or correctly perceiving reality is one sort of set of goals and Siddhis (super-natural powers) is another set of goals. Those who go for Siddhis may not be going for enlightenment. And those who go for enlightenment, may not be going for Siddhis, or think they’re unimportant or they just come at a different time.

PM: I think I’m a super-power kind of girl. Actually, The US News sensationalized their exhibit review with a teaser headline: Sinister Yogis: The Dark Side of Yoga Art. Like some magical version of yogis behaving badly.

DD: You know the Yoga Sutras has that whole chapter on super natural powers. Well, they used them! I mean, they were King-makers. Of course, not all yogis, but some yogis, and certainly in medieval India. So you find them in all of these legends in the formations of kingdoms.

They could be great teachers and they could be hailers but you know, if they got angry, they could also burn down your city. They were scary. They were figures who could be understood as very dangerous but also really positive.

PM: I wonder what the ancient yogis would think of us today.

DD: I think when I first started, and also as someone who started yoga in India, I had this sense that Americans do some stupid yoga.

PM: Some of them do…(laughing)

DD: But I’ve moved beyond that. I understand that it can be totally transformative.

One thing that I think is good in going back and looking at the rich history is, in the exhibition we don’t define what yoga is. I mean, we kind of say it’s multiple and shifting, which may be totally hard for a lot of visitors. Some might like to walk away with a really pat answer.

Still, you don’t have to make a practice 5,000 years old to make it meaningful. So I think the debate about what’s authentic yoga is a big waste of time.

PM: Agree. (Sort of)

DD: You devote your life to it. And then there is, from my historian’s perspective, there’s a text, The Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, that says:  (paraphrasing) ‘This can’t be put into words, you can’t understand this knowledge or emissions, you have to do it in order to know it. But for the sake of those who want to read this, I’m going to explain it as best I can.’

We have some folios from those manuscripts in the exhibit. Though it’s very clear, you have to do it, to know it.

Peg with Curator Debra Diamond.

Peg with Curator Debra Diamond and yogi pal.

PM: I am so in awe of you, that you had this vision thirteen years ago before yoga had even become mainstream.

DD: You’re saying that, but you began your practice how many years ago?

PM: Twelve.

DD: It’s the same. Same thing. So twelve years ago, did you know that you would be an important teacher? Did you know that you would’ve changed and impacted the lives of people or be writing about it? It’s just part of the texture of your life.

It’s a journey. And I don’t know how to talk about it without using trippy, new-age words … Like, you don’t go for mastery at this point. It’s not mastery, right? I love when yoga teachers say, “I’m a student. I’m always a student.” That’s how I feel. For every new thing I learn, the topic gets bigger. I know less and I love that part of it. It’s the best part of it.

PM: Speaking of the best part, I’m sure you’d never admit to a favorite, but …

DD: No! They’re all just so beautiful. I love to be in there (the gallery).smithsonian-jinas-statue

There’s a marble Jinas who’s seated in padmasana who’s really still and totally symmetrical but because of the way it’s carved, the contours, it’s also alert at the same time. You will recognize with your body what’s going on in that dynamic. It’s beautiful. I love him.

And then there’s this yogini goddess, who’s fierce and … oh, it’s ALL so good. There’s a whole bunch to go through.

So I change. I have crushes! I think it would be better if you go and pick your crushes and then I’ll tell you why I think they’re wonderful.

PM: Deal!

Of course, I’m not going to tell you, the reader, which were my favorites either. Instead, I’ll beg you to visit and choose your own. This amazing exhibition is on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through January 26, 2014. You come!

Peg Mulqueen: DC Ashtanga teacher and complete yoga dork: pegmulqueen.com



Good News: Smithsonian Yoga Exhibit Will Open This Weekend as Scheduled

6 comments… add one
  • therese

    Does anyone know if this exhibit will travel anywhere else? I don’t think I will be in DC in the near future and would love to see it.

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