Whether the goal is awakening, enlightenment, power or merely good health, people practice yoga today for many different reasons. Yet few understand its tangled Indian roots. Originating more than 2,000 years ago as an offshoot of Hinduism by a group of ascetics who renounced society in order to end suffering, yoga gradually cross-pollinated with Buddhism, Sufi Islam and Jainism before flowering into what we know it as today.
Among its 133 artifacts (including sculpture, paintings, manuscripts, photographs, books, film clips and other materials), the exhibition contains many depictions of the practice that contradict the contemporary stereotype of yoga. Just saying the word now evokes a cliched image of a blissed-out hipster doing a downward dog on an expensive yoga mat.
Take one of the very first objects to greet visitors. The stunning 13th-century schist carving of Shiva Bhairava — one of the Hindu god Shiva’s many manifestations and the deity that tantric yogis believed they themselves would literally become — depicts a gracefully posed male form. Although his relaxed stance doesn’t reflect the fierceness for which that aspect of the god is known, his elaborate costume and accessories include a staff crowned by a grotesque and grimacing human skull. Even more frightful is the snake slithering in and out of the skull’s eye sockets.
That’s nothing compared to a 17th-century watercolor of Bhairava’s consort Bhairavi, a form of the goddess Devi. She’s wild-eyed and red-skinned, wearing a necklace of human skulls. Her lap also is full of them, and she’s sitting, in the lotus position, on a headless human corpse, one of several dismembered bodies scattered about the landscape, through which cadaver-eating jackals roam.
Tantric yogis did frequent cremation grounds, where they would smear themselves with ashes before meditating. (This practice is not unheard of even today.) Shiva also appears in the picture, naked and ash-covered, in the form of a tantric yogi.
As art, these morbid images are an effective metaphor for the transience of life, a perfectly palatable tenet of yoga, as well as many other belief systems. Yet their horror-movie style is startling.
So are several other points the exhibition makes. Smartly organized by Debra Diamond, the museum’s associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art, “Yoga” informs us that, historically, yogis made excellent spies, sometimes carried weapons and were occasionally hired by Muslim princes to advise them on the most auspicious time to go to war.
So much for the link between yoga and pacifism.
“Yoga is more than you know,” Diamond says during a press tour of the exhibition, emphasizing each word slowly. And how.
Among the show’s more expected objects are 10 folio pages from “Ocean of Life,” an Indian treatise from 1600-1604 that is the first known work to systematically illustrate yoga postures, or asanas. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word “asana” means “seat,” or “the act of sitting,” indicating that the positions in this book were primarily thought of as a way to facilitate meditation, not exercise. The routine of modern postural, or hatha, yoga as a form of physical conditioning is something else entirely. The dynamic sequence of movements known as the sun salutation, as the show points out, is entirely modern.
Although there are many fascinating and beautiful objects in the show, its last two sections, which explore the concept of yoga and yogis in the Indian and international imagination, are among the most intriguing. These galleries include ethnographic photos of “exotic” yogis, one of whom has elaborately pierced — and, quite frankly, painful-looking — genitalia. Some of the photos, of course, may have been staged or exaggerated to the point of cliche, as with several renderings of a yogi lying on a bed of nails.
Creating a full circle, the show begins and ends with images of real yoga teachers. First is the venerable guru Vidyashiva, rendered in a carved stone portrait from the 11th or 12th century. Depicted in the guise of a god, he probably lived a few generations before the portrait was made. A video closes the show, featuring T. Krishnamacharya, the resident teacher in the 20th-century court of the maharajah of Mysore, a city in India. Filmed in 1938, it shows the man thought of as the grandfather of modern yoga demonstrating several asanas — combining techniques of hatha yoga, calisthenics, gymnastics and wrestling — along with exercises by his equally famous pupil, B.K.S. Iyengar.
In these clips, some might see a glimpse of the narcissism, embodied by the pursuit of physical perfection, that has been associated with contemporary yoga. Is this a perversion of something pure, a corruption of the one true yogic path?
Hardly. What we call yoga today is, like Shiva, expressed through many forms. As “The Art of Transformation” makes clear, the ancient practice is still evolving.