About 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, according to a survey by
The exhibit debuted in October in
"But it had to go to
At the museum, the story is told through sculpture and painting, manuscripts and film.
Watercolors are brushed with ground gold to shimmering effect. Sculptures of sages and divine figures have hips that appear to sway alluringly. One 13th-century figure drips with snakes that fool the eye; they look more like vines heavy with blossoms, intricately carved. And protruding from his lips are two deadly fangs.
"And just look at this beautiful bejeweled woman," said
This yogini -- part mortal, part goddess -- sits spread-legged on an owl and is about to take flight. Her pointer fingers are inserted into her mouth as she prepares to emit a war whistle. Historically, yoga has not been only about peace; ancient Indian kings called upon yoginis -- embodiments of secret yogic powers -- to wage battle and expand their kingdoms, according to legend and belief.
Yes, yoga holds out the promise of individual transformation, whether through blissful enlightenment or a beautiful body. But yoga itself has transformed through history, with shifting emphases and meanings.
As today's practitioners bicker over yoga styles -- Iyengar versus Bikram or Ashtanga -- they re-enact a historic debate: "In modern yoga, there's a lot of criticism: 'Oh, this isn't authentic yoga,' "
Yoga has moved across borders and religions. It is closely identified with Hinduism, but it has been adapted by Sufi Islam, Jainism and Buddhism. The exhibit's most ancient sculpture -- about 1,900 years old -- is Buddhist.
The first illustrated treatise of yoga postures dates to 1600-04, commissioned by a Muslim Indian emperor. Titled "Ocean of Life" and published in Persian, its pages stretch across a wall at the museum. In one image, a yogi performs a rock-solid headstand. In another, a yogi sits in lotus position. He is long-haired and bearded, and he looks something like Jesus -- probably not a coincidence, as the emperor's liberal court welcomed Jesuit missionaries.
The exhibit's 130 artifacts stretch into this century. A 1938 film of T. Krishnamacharya, sometimes called the "father of modern yoga," shows him gliding through pretzel-like poses. Eat your heart out, watching, if you do yoga.
In a clip from the 1941 movie "You're the One," a jazz singer performs with a big band while a goofy, mustachioed swami squats in front of a crystal ball. The tune has lyrics by
There was a yogi who lost his willpower
He met a dancing girl and fell in love.
He couldn't concentrate or lie on broken glass.
He could only sit and wait for her to pass.
The film clip typifies the patronizing attitudes toward yoga that once were common in the West. But yoga, as the exhibit demonstrates, has had the last word, spreading to all corners of the planet. Recent permutations include yoga on the slack line (imagine headstands on a tightrope), aerial yoga (think flying trapeze) and acro-yoga (think acrobatics).
On Friday evening at the museum,
'Yoga: The Art of Transformation'
Also: See details on related workshops, panel discussions, dance, music and family events at www.asianart.org/yoga
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