Yoga: the art of transformation exhibition

What is billed as the world’s first yogic art exhibition has opened in Washington DC, America. “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” is on until January in the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museums of Asian Art and features items from over 25 museums and private collections from around the world.

The exhibition visually traces yoga’s development and global dissemination. It features around 130 items including folios which have never been shown in the United States before, temple sculptures, devotional icons, illustrated manuscripts, court paintings, photographs, books and films. According to the exhibition blurb, highlights include “an installation that reunites for the first time three monumental stone yogini goddesses from a tenth-century Chola temple; ten folios from the first illustrated compilation of asanas (yogic postures), made for a Mughal emperor in 1602, which have never before been exhibited together; and Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir (1906), the first movie ever produced about India.”

Fortunately, although America is far too far away to go for one exhibition, the website has a range of digital images of the items with accompanying information, as well as an interactive map showing the location of the pieces and an extensive bibliography. There are also pictures in the online Smithsonian newsletter.

The BBC has also covered the exhibition and its glitzy opening. I like the BBC piece for some of its descriptions: “[there] are flying goddesses who attained divinity by practising tantric yoga. They sit in audacious poses, baring their sharpened teeth and voluptuous breasts, their loose hair marking them as wild women.” And, contrary to what we generally perceive as the peaceful yogi: “By the 18th Century the yogi sects are so powerful and so big that we have reports of huge pitched battles at these festivals where thousands and thousands of these yogis get killed.” And, the article also discusses how the exhibition reflects on the European and Western perception and presentation of the yogi, particularly in the last couple of centuries: “Yogis were seen as quite sinister and dubious figures. … They claimed to have worldly or supernatural powers, they were scantily dressed or naked, which was very upsetting to 19th Century sensibilities. They wandered around and often smoked dope. They became reviled as the stereotype of everything that was decadent about India.”

The yoga I practise and teach is very different to this – no nakedness or flying goddesses. But discovering more about its 5000 year traditions is fascinating.

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