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Many Americans who attend yoga classes are vaguely aware that the practice originated in India long ago. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian draws on paintings and sculptures from the 2,000-year history of yoga to reveal the evolution of the practice and the religious and spiritual role it played in societies through the centuries. Kojo explores what visual art tells us about yoga’s origins and how it became the practice we know today.
- Debra Diamond Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Images From “Yoga: The Art Of Transformation”
MR. MARK MCDONALDFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Mark McDonald, WAMU's program director sitting in for Kojo. From Down Dog to Chaturanga, yoga is incredibly popular today in the United States. With their feet resting on spongy mats, yoga practitioners move through myriad poses on the path to fitness and/or relaxation. But Yoga hasn't always focused on poses and flexibility. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery draws on masterpieces of Indian art to tell the 2000-year history of yoga and its evolution.
MR. MARK MCDONALDThere's a 1,000-year-old sculpture of a yoga teacher whose practice made him a god on earth and images of yogis through renounced worldly possessions to follow a guru in hopes of immortality. The exhibit explores how yoga changed as it spread from India to other parts of the world, and how it developed into the practice that we know today.
MR. MARK MCDONALDJoining us to talk about the exhibition and about yoga is Debra Diamond. She is associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Debra, welcome.
MS. DEBRA DIAMONDIt's great to be here.
MCDONALDWhat's the reaction been to the exhibition? It's been on a couple of weeks now, right?
DIAMONDOh, the reaction's been fabulous. I mean, there's huge numbers of visitors and media interest, lots of yoga groups and art lovers coming into the museum.
MCDONALDAnd you, listening at home or in the car or wherever you are, you can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can get in touch through Facebook or tweet us at @kojoshow. It's that curly at that I'm trying to refer to. Debra, tell us about your involvement in yoga and bringing the exhibit to Washington in the first place.
DIAMONDWell, I'm a South Asian art historian and I've been working on yoga topics in Indian art since the mid 1990s. But for this exhibition, which is the first holistic look at the visual culture of yoga, I worked with some 14 other scholars in many other disciplines, all indologists but some from the fields of religion or Sanskrit, anthropology and sociology.
MCDONALDAnd when you work together like that, is that across many nations or is the group together in Washington, D.C.?
DIAMONDNo, they're across many nations and we brought them in first on colloquia. And of course we did a lot of our work, you know, over email, passing images back and forth trying to figure out what they meant, how they fit into the story, how they revealed new things in the history of yoga.
MCDONALDSo what we've got here really is yoga or the ideas of yoga conveyed by art itself, by historic art.
DIAMONDWell, yoga was so important in so many different ways in Indian culture that sectarian orders, great kings, popular audiences had artists make representations of great teachers or yoga concepts all over this continent. And sometimes those images, sculptures, illustrated books or manuscripts tell us things about yoga that were lost to history.
DIAMONDWell, for example, one phenomena is that of militant asceticism. I mean, this is a major phenomena of the North Indian landscape between the 16th and the 19th century. And it's something that most people don't know about today because yogis were always associated with power, both spiritual power and worldly power. They could be quite fierce. And certainly by the 16th century they began to travel in armed bands to protect their fellow yogis.
DIAMONDAnd then by the 18th century they became mercenaries and they were hired out by Hindu rulers, Muslim rulers and the French and the British. And that phenomena has totally undid, and we think today of yogis as very, very peaceful. But it is a part of the story, the history of yoga.
MCDONALDAnd it sounds like this exhibit really is for yoga historians or, you know, the origin of the thought is in history.
DIAMONDWell, one audience clearly is people who do yoga who want to know more about its meanings or its philosophical constructs in history. But another audience is people who love art. I mean, we're able to tell the story by pulling together extraordinary masterpieces of sculpture and painting. And they're incredibly beautiful and that does make this exhibition quite special.
DIAMONDThere was a great philosopher named Abhinavagupta who lived in the 10th century. And he wrote that the experience of seeing a great work of art, a great play for example, gave the sensitive viewer a feeling of bliss, a sense of losing time and place, forgetting, you know, all your troubles because you were so involved in that piece of art. And he said that that bliss is like the bliss. It's akin of the bliss of enlightenment. So he made this connection between viewing great art, being moved by great art and the goal of enlightenment in yoga.
MCDONALDSo, in other words, in a traditional art gallery where a painting might bring you one of those moments, if you're standing observing a painting brings you joy, brings you peace, brings you a sideways thought, this also brings you into the mentality of the yoga practice.
DIAMONDAnd that is what one of the greatest philosophers of the Indian tradition said in the 10th century. And I think it's true. I mean, he called it a feeling of melting and expansion and radiance.
MCDONALDWe were lucky here also to get a copy of the really lavish catalog of the pictures you have. Could you just describe some of your favorite works in this exhibit?
DIAMONDWell, an extraordinary work that you'll see right when you come into the first gallery is a sculpture of a (word?), an enlightened being from the (word?) tradition. He's about two-and-a-half foot high made of this luminous white marble. And this enlightened being, that is a human who went through a set of practices and transcended suffering, transcended, you know, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and moved into a blissful immortal space. He's sitting with his arms on his lap crossed in -- and his legs are crossed in the lotus posture.
DIAMONDI mean, when most of us envision Indian art, I mean, the thing that we can call to mind in fact is a great sage seated in the lotus posture. And that posture conveys, you know, enlightenment. And this piece is very still, very symmetrical but at the same time is quite lively and alert. And it's -- I walk into the gallery every single day. And each time I look at this I stop and feel a sense of kind of calm joy.
MCDONALDWhat's your second favorite piece?
DIAMONDWell, there's another sculpture also created around the same time, but in another part of India. And it's made of a dark stone and it depicts a fierce deity named Pirava (sp?) who's quite charming looking and sensuously sort of swaying as he stands. But he also has fangs and he carries this incredible skull staff. And there's a snake crawling in and out of the orifices, you know, of it. It's so macabre. I mean, it's really quite like a scary Halloween sculpture. And it's both beautiful and frightening.
DIAMONDAnd this -- you know, Pirava revealed a tradition of yoga in which the goal was immortality and supernatural powers. So it gives us a very different sense of, you know, what yoga could be. And so you have this -- the very peaceful and the kind of really fierce and dangerous.
MCDONALDI wish the listeners could see Debra now because she's illustrating everything she's saying with her hand movements, which is -- it's just a great sort of artistic hand movements. And I should say, we've got some of these photos of the artwork along with the catalog from the exhibit on our website kojosho.org. So you can take a look at some of the works there. Better still, go to the exhibition, right. We'll get to that later.
MCDONALDYou can also call us at 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com if you have a question or a point. If you've seen the exhibit, if you want to see it, what do you think about it, what was your favorite piece and what contemporary art will tell a story of today's yoga traditions. I wonder if there's a credibility issue here with the sort of yoga neophytes. You know, is there a -- are you converting people to yoga, people who are coming into the exhibit who do not practice yoga who are then enlivened by it?
DIAMONDWell, I hope that we're converting people to having, like, a deep appreciation and wonder at Indian art and culture more broadly. But for both yoga practitioners and yoga neophytes, we also have a program where we have yoga classes right in the galleries. So three times a week, a docent and a yoga teacher together lead a tour and look at specific artworks from their different perspectives, one the individual embodied perspective of a teacher and the other the more sort of historical or art historical approach of a docent. And then the teacher goes on to lead a class in the galleries.
MCDONALDAnd that happens how often did you say?
DIAMONDThree times a week on Wednesdays and Sundays. And some classes are for teens and some are for families and others are for adults.
MCDONALDAnd are they -- the people that take part are they typically beginners or practitioners?
DIAMONDThere's a whole range. There's an entire range for some newbies. The museum is, you know, kind of a safe place to try it out. And for those who are really avid yoga practitioners doing it in the galleries near those works of art is, well, as they've told me, a blissful experience.
MCDONALDI notice this well that -- and I have to mention this -- there's a picture of the Beatles in there.
DIAMONDThat's a picture of the Beatles in the catalog, right.
MCDONALDYeah, all their garnishes and sitting with the Maharaja there. And there's also a picture of Marilyn Monroe.
DIAMONDWell, the exhibition actually ends at 1940 but in the catalog our authors go all the way up to the present. So they're trying to sort of understand how the practice that had been pretty much limited to the subcontinent of South Asia became, you know, today something that's practiced by 20 million Americans. And, of course, you know, Marilyn Monroe images doing asanas, doing postures are just quite fabulous. And the Beatles were really important in beginning to engrain yoga more fully, you know, in American life.
DIAMONDBut, of course, you can go back to the 19th century and Thoreau, for example, who said, at times even I am a yogi.
MCDONALDIs it -- does the book kind of become more westernized as you go through the years? I mean, it starts really with the origins in India. Are the pictures derivative more from western cultures later on?
DIAMONDWell, we go through 1940 so the last gallery that we have is called Modern Transformations. And we look at the development of modern yoga. That's a yoga that's democratic and open to everybody, regardless of gender or where you're from. But we look at that movement through visionary teachers in India, because that's where it really happens. And, you know, we wanted to tell that story very much because many of the yoga practices that we do today on kind of a global scale are different than they were in the past.
DIAMONDI mean, the most obvious difference is that anyone, you know, can walk into any yoga studio. One doesn't have to become a renouncer or sign up with a guru, and you can sample in a different way. So that's probably the biggest change. But another change is in terms of goals. So if traditionally renouncers and yogis practiced for enlightenment, heightened consciousness or immortality and supernatural powers like flying. Today many people practice for a kind of holistic wellbeing or for a better body.
MCDONALDWhat is your own personal connection to yoga? How did it get started for you and how did you then get interested in the visual art in particular?
DIAMONDWell, when I was a kid I first learned and did yoga off of television. There was a TV shows called Lillia's Yoga and You. But I really became interested in it as a topic because I'm an art historian. And when I began looking at yoga-related images, I found that what I could learn from text, from scholars didn't match up with what I could see. And so it became clear that sculptures and paintings and illustrated manuscripts were this incredible archive that hadn't been looked at before.
MCDONALDYou talked a little bit ago about the -- you know, where we are now in the modern day with yoga. Talk about those early days, I mean, 2,000 years ago and what those goals were. I know we touched on that via the pictures but...
DIAMONDWell, Yoga -- I mean, our best knowledge -- you know, the best information that we have, the most secure knowledge we have of the origins of yoga lies around 500 BCE when renouncers who were both men and women in North India, get this radical idea that their own minds and bodies contain the potential to transcend suffering by correctly perceiving reality that is understanding that theirselves and, you know, all being and all time, you know, the cosmos are one. They can opt out of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, which in Indian systems is considered inherently dissatisfactory.
DIAMONDSo that's a radical shift in practice. And out of that grew, you know, many yoga traditions. Some are Buddhist, some are Jane, most are Hindu. And other forms of yoga actually are practiced almost outside of, you know, religious spaces.
MCDONALDIs there a sense that, you know, you were going back into BC there that it was sort of an isolationist practice, that these people almost became wondrous. And now it's more a group activity in the United States.
DIAMONDThat's a really great question because, you know, we have this notion that yogis historically, you know, were on their own and that they live these isolated lives in caves in the Himalayas. But, in fact, there are so many collective spaces in traditional yoga. First of all, each student learned from a teacher and a guru could have many students. Spaces like ashrams, that just look sort of small hermitages or large monasteries. Again, we're collective spaces. So there's a lot of exchange between yogis and also between practitioners from different traditions.
DIAMONDSo, for example, you have quite a few works in the exhibition that are paintings that tell us about the engagements between yogis -- Hindu yogis and Sufis. Those are from the Islamic mystical tradition.
MCDONALDAnd I'm interested as well in the difference between the sexes in the exhibition as well, because there's the sort of different practices, right, between men and women. Describe how they differ.
DIAMONDWell, we have a lot less information about women historically, but we do have extraordinary life-size sculptures of yoganese. These were goddesses who revealed teachings of yoga and who were -- they were sculpted and sort of worshiped or interacted with in this really quite massive temples that would have from 42 to 108 goddesses within them. And we also have some images of yoga gurus who were women. But they show up less -- far less often than images of male practitioners.
MCDONALDRight. So is that just a reflection of the sexism of the times, the sexism that has been around since time in the immortal?
DIAMONDIt may indeed be a reflection of a kind of patriarchal culture in historical India. But it could also be that we've just done less work. There are so many un-translated texts. And maybe the text written by women or those historical teachers will come more to light.
MCDONALDIn the context of what you do in the gallery, where does this particular exhibition sit do you think, in all the work that you do in the gallery?
DIAMONDYou mean in terms of the exhibitions that I do?
DIAMONDOh well, this is...
MCDONALDIs this your favorite?
DIAMOND...this is a great -- this is great and fabulous and it's a huge project. It was really interesting on a couple of levels. One was deeply collaborative with all of those other scholars that we worked with, with our staff and our designers and editors. But also I worked with focus groups and advisory groups that were made up of yoga teachers because yoga is -- you know, at its core it is an individual embodied experience. And I really wanted to, you know, work with and learn from teachers and to think about how we can put those two experiences together in the gallery. How we can talk about something that is so internalized and make it be really meaningful.
MCDONALDI am astonished just at the weight of work there. I mean, is this one of the biggest exhibitions you've seen?
DIAMONDWell, I mean, this is the only exhibition, the art exhibition that there has been on yoga. And it has 133 objects but in truth, that is a drop in an ocean of images. I mean, yoga was so deeply imbedded in Indian society it's everywhere. So we could keep doing this and telling many different stories perhaps in the future.
MCDONALDSo it's on at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery until when?
DIAMONDUntil January 26. And actually that last weekend, January 25, 26, we have kind of closing events in celebration. So we'll have fabulous yogis in the galleries as well as classes for families and lots of tours. We'll go out with a splash.
MCDONALDSo we still have a good few weeks to go and see the exhibition at the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery. So Debra Diamond, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this. She's the associate creator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. My name is Mark McDonald. I'm here because Kojo's out for a few days. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5.
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