Yoga for the Ages
One doesn’t have to a be a yogi, a devotee of same, or a seeker of spiritual enlightenment and a better body to enjoy "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," the latest exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. But it does help to possess an inclination toward the subject, if not a fundamental understanding of it, and some familiarity with the basic concepts and terminology.
The show bypasses the trendy aspects of the practice and attendant fashion controversies, as well as its appropriation by pop culture and new age cults. Instead, it delves into a surprisingly rich 2,500-year history that reaches from 100 CE through the 1940s, exploring Yoga’s origins and centrality in India, its underlying philosophical tenets, and its role in Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi religious traditions.
Even a dabbler can appreciate the exhibition’s illuminating historical perspective as well as the paintings, illustrated manuscripts, old photographs and especially the sculptures. My own experience with Yoga is limited to exercises picked up in dance classes over the years, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the art it engendered and the historical narrative expertly amplified by the curators.
Filtering down through the ages - its key precepts and vocabulary were well established as early as the 7th century - and transmuted by Western and South Asian cultures, Yoga as we know it today is a comparatively tame, diluted version of its ancient antecedents. The first gallery and the strongest of the three sections that comprise the exhibition is where goddesses, or Yoginis, as fierce as they are voluptuous, reign. These lithe, full-breasted deities, whose loose-flowing hair connoted female rage - some were believed to fly after nightfall - were not to be tangled with.
Three life-sized granite statues that once graced a 10th-century South India temple line a wall, looking like a menacing celestial chorus line. Illustrating duality, they’re voluptuous yet spiritual, auspicious and benevolent, though they wouldn’t give a second thought to eating you alive if the spirit moved them. One divine four-armed creature, seated on an owl and brandishing a sword, pulls her mouth open and bares her jagged teeth, enabling her to emit a piercing cry. Another spectacular figure, swathed in an armor of writhing cobras and wielding a club and shield, is perched atop a pedestal engraved with the image of a headless corpse, a reference to Tantric ritual cremation grounds she stalked. Combining both healing and threatening powers, a third yogini with a jar is a sky traveler, an ability prized by Tantric practitioners and hatha yogis. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, one could find up to 100 of these goddesses occupying a single temple. What a sight that must have been to behold.