YOGA: The Art of Transformation at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco provides a rare and gracefully concise glimpse into the early foundations of the yoga practice. This leads to a revealing look at how we use the practice today.
Yoga class has increasingly become a staple in the daily schedules of health conscious Westerners. As we throw our yoga mat in the back seat and grab a coffee on the way to the studio, we are about to practice an ancient art that has withstood 2,500 years of transformation.
Whether a serious practitioner or simply flirting with a down dog, it is of value to go beyond the postures and refine your knowledge of the history of yoga. YOGA: The Art of Transformation provides over 130 gems of Indian art borrowed from 25 museums and collections around the world from the second to 20th centuries. It is the only West Coast showing of this exhibition.
Walking through this selection of art reminds us that yoga began as a way to transcend the suffering inherent in human existence; Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were written to support this journey.
A selection of statues and paintings shows Tantrikas, Jainas, and Hatha yogis practicing austerities in order to reach the state of Samadhi, where the seer and seen are one. Alongside them are statues of the enlightened beings they aspired to become, from Jinas of the Jain religion to Yoginis, fierce flying goddesses. With a combination of auspicious and dangerous symbols commonly found in images of yoginis, the fiery figures uphold an air of both intimidation and veneration.
It’s eye-opening to see these early depictions of the intense self-control the practitioner must endure to reach the state these deities held, where you are one with the absolute and there is no death. In order to achieve this, practitioners would undergo extreme physical disciplines, detoxifications and devotions. A statue of Buddha in this exhibit is not smiling, chubby or carefree as he can sometimes be depicted, but shown starved and broken in an intense internal quest before he accomplished freedom from the material world. It implies a cruelty to one’s physical body that one must endure and overcome as the tool to enlightenment, as compared to the physical well-being we celebrate in modern day practice.
In addition to the ancient art shown on display are a selection of early illustrations and explanations of yoga asana, pranayama, and the subtle bodies. We also see a 17th century collection of caricatures of yogis as sly impostors created during conflict with British colonization in India. Finally, we have the opportunity to observe the first American films about India, produced early in the 20th century that depict yogis with the personas of psychics and magicians.
Once I saw the beautiful and authentic traditions that gave birth to yoga in the beginning of the exhibit and later viewed the interpretations from the 17th to 20th centuries, I felt a sense of responsibility to uphold the original intent of the practice; to perceive the Universe within oneself.
The San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s YOGA: The Art of Transformation offers a revelation that will surely give you a new and inspirational layer next time you unroll your mat. It’s an exciting reminder that as we continue to practice yoga we become part of its history and evolution.
The Asian Art Museum’s exhibit of YOGA: The Art of Transformation in San Francisco is currently on view until May 25, 2014. www.asianart.org
Olivia Kvitne is a yoga instructor and Assistant Editor for LA YOGA and the Bliss Network. She specializes in teaching trauma-sensitive yoga to veterans and first responders. She has taught workshops for LAPD and weekly classes for LAFD as well as free yoga workshops for veterans and military, Yoga for Heroes. Olivia is a proud member of Actors Equity Association and a professional dancer. Her most recent credit is the short musical comedy film, Waiting in the Wings The Musical Movie starring Lee Meriwether, Sally Struthers, Shirley Jones and Jeffrey Johns.