The time-honored principle of yoga, according to Feuerstein, has been to create a deep transformation in an individual through the transcendence of the ego. A 2012 study on yoga shows that approximately 20.4 million individuals practice yoga in the United States.
There is a new major art exhibition about the ancient practice of yoga and its history, the first of its kind. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is presenting Yoga: The Art of Transformation until May 25, 2014, the only West Coast venue. The exhibit explores yoga through art, manuscripts, film and photography, casting light on its 2,500-year history.
While yoga on a personal level promises individual transformation – whether through enlightenment or body – the practice of yoga has transformed throughout history in its meaning and emphasis. With more than 120 works starting from the third century to the turn of the 20th century, this exhibit presents a visual culture and surveys the function that yoginis and yogis had in Indian society.
While its true origins are unclear, yoga is understood to be from India. The country has pursued yogic disciplines, texts and artistic interpretation for centuries. According to Qamar Adamjee, the museum’s South Asian art curator, yoga was established between 500 to 200 B.C. by several “wandering ascetics.” Even though yoga practices were associated with Hinduism, it is also linked to Jainism, Sufi Islam and Buddhism. Artistically speaking, with yoga’s diverse influences and interpretations, there is no doubt that the yoga exhibit is a “visual feast.”
One of the first works that visitors to the museum witness is a 19th century watercolor triptych called Three Aspects of the Absolute by Bulaki. The first panel begins in a wash of auric gold, then progresses to a formless “enlightened being” with its aura. Lastly, the triptych depicts the being in a yoga pose settled on land. This 1823 watercolor represents creation according to the Nath sect, which illustrates that out of nothingness, mindfulness comes to light and evolves.
Also on display are the first pictorial folios of yoga postures from the turn of the 17th century. Published in Persian, the illustrated Ocean of Life is one of three manuscripts commissioned by Prince Salim. The treatise, written by a prominent Sufi spiritual master, has never been on view in the United States before.
Throughout the extensive exhibit, visitors will discover rich, opaque watercolors rubbed in ground gold, temple sculptures, terracotta tiles with impressed figures, devotional icons and court paintings. Bronze statues such as the 1250 Yoga Narasimha, Vishnu in His Man-Lion, and the 1160 Jina in marble are also on view. The first sculpture is the portrayal of sages during mediation that conveys spiritual attainment. The exhibit also includes folios of Asana yoga, the earliest known papers on yoga poses.
Yet, the exhibition does not just highlight the harmony and balance of yoga. It moves from bejeweled women to works depicting war and battle, as seen in the 1590 watercolor, Battle at Thaneswar. The drawing illustrates armed yogis with shields and swords in battle over “bathing rights” at a sacred river. Since there is combat, it sometimes follows that there must be spies. The 1570 watercolor, Misbah the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House, illustrates a narrative featuring a yogi spy.
The exhibit’s name, Yoga: Through the Art of Transformation, is also pertinent to the 21st century. Just one glance at a yoga studio schedule, and an individual can discover a range of types from the “purest yoga” to prenatal and restorative without any secular context. Should the classic forms of yoga prove too conventional, the practice has undertaken yet more transformations since its inception: yoga boxing, aerial yoga, yoga karate and acro-yoga, to name a few.
This upcoming exhibit appeals to the most fundamental yogini and the unconventional acro-yoga enthusiast as it explores yoga over history, and the artists who transformed philosophical beliefs into a visual art form.
By Dawn Levesque