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A Review of ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’ at The Smithsonian

in Yoga Origins

YD SmithsonianBy Molly Beauchemin

The first thing you notice as you reach the bottom floor of the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery is that the mandala’s on the floor are made of light. The circular medallions that guide you to “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” are projected onto the wooden floor from the ceiling, and for those familiar with the practice of Yoga, this makes sense: the 8-fold “Path” and the “Path” to Enlightenment have long been themes within Yogic Practice, and the rhetorical significance of entering an art-history exhibit about Yoga by following a path of mandalas seems not only appropriate but slightly poetic. This, however, is also the point in the exhibit where those looking to learn about the “yoga” that they practice at the gym should turn around.

“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” looks at yoga with a historical perspective — which might disappoint those who go to the exhibit looking for insight on the modern practice. When the exhibit opened at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art on October 19th (it will run until January 26th, and admission is free to the public), this is what visitors may have had in mind.

Instead, the exhibit looks to examine the deep cultural roots of the Hindu religion that birthed yoga, focussing on temple sculptures, devotional icons, vibrant manuscripts, and Indian paintings said to have originated in the motherland as much as 2000 years ago. Through these and other photographs, texts, and relics from Hindu and Buddhist culture, the exhibit’s goal is to shed light on yoga’s “mysteries” and to “illuminate its profound meanings”.

The second thing you notice when you enter the exhibit is that one of the event sponsors is The Alec Baldwin Foundation, and if that doesn’t make your day, then we don’t know what will. (Between this partnership and the amazing cameo he made in his wife’s Yoga-For-Pregnancy video, Alec Baldwin is on his way to achieving Rinpoche-status, which I support wholeheartedly.)

The Yoga exhibit borrows works from twenty-five museums in India, Europe, and the United States, and as you follow the path from the stairs to the first room, you encounter an installation that reunites for the first time three monumental stone yogini goddesses from a tenth-century Chola temple. This is the kind of stuff that makes the exhibit worthwhile. The statues have literally and metaphorically stood the test of time, bearing very few of the stresses that the material must of enduring over the past few centuries. This aspect of the exhibit is very cool — the age of the art and the muted beauty of its symbology is pretty impressive.

Other works – like the long, painted scriptures housed in a subsequent room – decode from Hindi to English long translations of yogic ritual as it was practiced by the nobility in India, but there is little by way of demonstrating exactly how the asana practice that we all know and love developed. There are depictions of monks holding various yoga poses, but no explanation of why they were done– so you won’t be learning about how yoga has gone from the temple to Alec Baldwin’s nursery any time soon (at least not at this exhibit).

Naturally, the display is as much about India as it is about yogic practice. On display is Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir (1906), the first movie ever produced about India. There are also translations of Hindi texts that aim to explain the philosophies behind yoga (which is more useful if you are a curious newcomer rather than a practiced yogini) as well as examinations the various roles that yogis played in society, from sages to spies. (Think Mortal Kombat: Yoga edition.)

It can all get very intellectual, and at times you forget you are witnessing a “Yoga” exhibit and not an anthropological survey of India through the centuries. Of course, exactly why and how yoga developed the way it did is a function of what was happening in India at the time; the poverty and social uprisings, the ubiquity of disease, the shifting class system.

To understand the whole picture, something like the Smithsonian’s Yoga exhibit gives the viewer an appropriately-broad view of the subject. Westerners, however, might find something left to be desired: there is no mention of yoga’s transport across the sea to the shores of California, where Ravi Shankar and his music helped introduced the practice to San Francisco hippies during the “free love” zeitgeist in the 60’s; there are no references to the scientific studies that have subsequently proven yoga’s cognitive benefits for people seeking spiritual guidance or better health; and fewer still are the references to what, exactly, draws the modern person to practice the same physical movements and/or spirituality designed by sages centuries ago in a foreign land.

Most people who practice yoga intuitively know why they practice, and the answer is different for everyone, but Yoga’s history didn’t stop when it developed into its modern form. Yoga doesn’t end in India; yoga is practiced worldwide by millions of people on a daily basis, and while the exhibit mentions that fact (once, on a plaque, as if by mere obligation), there is still no physical evidence in the exhibit to prove it. (Think of all the imagery you could use! Think of all the modern interpretations of “yoga” that could be explored! Think of all the jokes we could have made about Lululemon!)

Instead, there are no attempts to demonstrate or quantify what it means to be a modern yogi or someone even superficially interested in making yoga a part of their life. “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” accomplishes what it sets out to do, but doesn’t take it any further. The exhibit gives insight on the rich legacy of yoga across history– but yoga also has a present and a future that the exhibit leaves unexplored. The real “art” of yoga is practiced daily, on a mat at the studio or in the privacy of our own homes. It would be nice to have that recognized.

The “Yoga: The Art of Transformation“ exhibit will be on view at the Sackler Gallery from October 19, 2013 to January 26, 2014. Following its Washington, D.C., debut, “The Art of Transformation” will travel to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum (Feb. 21–May 25, 2014) and the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 22–Sep. 7, 2014).

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2 comments… add one

  • Kelly

    Exciting! I hope I get to go and see it in time! I’m not disappointed by a lack of information on the more modern aspects of yoga and how it breached the walls of India to spread to the west. All of that is in the last ten minutes of human history, has been well documented in vast amounts of western literature if not in videos, and several of the most prolific instigators (or their primary students) of the worldwide phenomenon are still alive to just go and visit yourself. What is fascinating to me is how long mankind has been practicing any variation of these great teachings, what they focused on, what they chose to leave behind that has stood the test of time. The knowledge they held was probably greater than we can imagine, leaving behind only a museum full of remnants and a handful of traditions which flourished from the ashes of a hundred more. Just take for instance the yoga sutra’s description of the symptoms of an mind that is not thinking clearly – suffering, depression, shaky body limbs and ragged breath. Then it goes on to give a zillion ways to stop feeling like that and gain clarity. That great, practical, simple information has been available since before the sutras were compiled, and yet thousands of years later I still have trouble getting people to believe me that taking ten deep breaths when they are angry might really calm them down. Those little people sitting in siddhasana, carved into stone that has lasted a thousand lifetimes and will last many more beyond our own – they tracked the stars, read diseases in the pulse, deciphered the path out of suffering, and theorized the makeup of the physical universe with few tools aside from the concentration and stillness wrought from dharana and dhyana. So I think the chance to see their hand-me-downs on display all in one place is just astounding. It might be nice for it to wrap up with a little on what people are doing with it in the last ten years, but I feel that the present state of it is here, now, for us to enjoy and fashion into what we want it to become. I’m not disappointed at all to hear it is exactly what is is.

    Especially since it’s free, yo. hah. With few ads.

  • luisal

    It is an enticing article on this exhibition at the Smithsonian. I hope I could go to visit it. But to focus on the historic evolution of yoga not necessarily mean that what is yoga today is not considered. A historic approach might teach us (Westerners practitioners) what is timeless in yoga.

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