Yoga and the Body, Yoga and Power, Yoga and Science
The exhibition’s 131 works, grouped into three themed galleries, shed light on the history of yoga art, the practice’s significance within Indian culture and religion, its movements across communities, and the genius of artists who transformed profound concepts into material form.
Key elements of yoga and the body, both the physical and subtle, are explored in the first theme.
We then look at the role of teachers, the importance of place in yoga practice, and the associations between yoga and power. The artworks also show ways yoga practitioners (yogis) have been understood and imagined in Indian and Western popular cultures.
Yoga and science are the subjects in our third theme. Through the works of Indian philosophers, medical practitioners, and yoga teachers, we locate the origins of many features of modern yoga as a regimen for health, fitness, and spiritual well-being.
Yoga and the Body
One section of the exhibition focuses on the body — both the physical and the subtle, metaphysical bodies — as they appear in the art of yoga. One example, the Bahr al-Hayat, or Ocean of Life is likely the first illustrated yoga textbook ever created. Written in the early 17th century, its illustrations depict seated postures (asana) that were designed for meditation.
Other images reveal the subtle body. In yoga, the subtle body comprises a series of centers called chakras, which are connected by a series of channels called nadis. Two paintings from Jodhpur depict the cosmic and individual aspects of this subtle body.
Yoga and Power
Yoga had complex and ambiguous relationships with power: military, political, and spiritual. Images from a 16th-century manuscript of the Mughal chronicle “Akbar-nama” depict battles between different groups of yogis for prime bathing spots on the Ganges. The Mughal emperor Akbar himself was both inquisitive and respectful of Hindu knowledge; another painting in this section depicts his grandfather Babur’s imagined visit to the monastery of Gor Khatri.
Created two centuries later, paintings from Jodhpur reveal an alliance between the Nath order of yogis and the dynasty of Maharaja Man Singh. In it, the sage Jallandharnath uses powers gained through yoga practice to fly through the air; Jallandharnath’s spiritual authority would become an important source of Man Singh’s political legitimacy.
Yoga and Science
Perhaps the single most important moment in the development of contemporary yoga was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions; here, Swami Vivekananda began a career that three years later would produce his groundbreaking “Raja Yoga.” In this book, Swami Vivekananda emphasizes yoga philosophy and meditation; however, he marginalizes hatha-practicing yogis.
At the other end of the spectrum, a film of Shri Krishnamacharya reveals a diametrically opposed attitude towards hatha practice; his student Pattabhi K. Jois famously remarked in this connection that “yoga is 99% practice and 10% theory.”
At the same time, western mystics from the Theosophical Society were forging a composite east-west tradition. One of the most interesting products of their enterprise appears in an image that conflates the chakras of the yoga tradition with the “interior stars” of western astrology and alchemy.
Main image: Three aspects of the Absolute, page 1 from a manuscript of the Nath Charit (detail), 1823, by Bulaki (Indian, active early 1800s). India; Rajasthan state, former kingdom of Marwar, Jodhpur. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, RJS 2399.
Organizers & Sponsors
Yoga: The Art of Transformation was organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution with support from the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne and the Ebrahimi Family Foundation.
Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible with the generous support of Helen and Rajnikant Desai, The Bernard Osher Foundation, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Kumar and Vijaya Malavalli, Society for Asian Art, and Walter & Elise Haas Fund.