We all know that art is good for the mind, but is it also good for the body? As an art critic might say, it depends on how you look at it.
An upcoming program at the Phillips Collection – “Slow Moving and Mindful Viewing” — aims to guide visitors through some of the museum’s best-known works in a way that promotes wellness. The mantra: “Think less, feel more.”
The “big objective,” says Elizabeth Lakshmi Kanter, a yoga therapist who helped develop the program, is “connecting people more intentionally with the restorative power of art.” The hope is that visitors will not only feel more relaxed and in the moment when looking at the art, but also be able to take that centered, peaceful feeling into the rest of their day.
The program, which will debut in a one-time live event Oct. 23 before becoming available to the general public in November, is grounded in mindful meditation and yoga practices — asking viewers to turn inward (even close their eyes), relax their muscles and pay attention to their bodies, especially to their breathing. But unlike a program at the Sackler Gallery last year, this one does not involve doing any actual yoga.
After its live premiere — when Kanter will lead participants through selected works — the program will be a cellphone-guided audio tour, free with admission, much like the one you can get to learn about the history of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or the works of modernist painter Arthur Dove. Except this time the voice-over is decidedly unconventional.
The narration, for example, that is planned to accompany Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” suggests that you “feel yourself absorbed into the painting, as if you were stepping into it” and asks you to “smell scents of this setting, taste flavors of this event, feel this scene’s air on your skin.” But it doesn’t tell you when it was painted or how it figured into the impressionist movement. (Much of that information can, of course, be found on the placard next to the painting.)
As with traditional yoga practice, the mindful viewing program focuses on breathing and its restorative power, says Kanter, who teaches at Yoga District in D.C. and Willow Street Yoga in Takoma Park. “Even just slowing down the breath, noticing and deepening the breath,” she says, can trigger “your relax-and-renew response. When you can mindfully attune to your breath and start to influence it, you trigger deep changes in your body. So that immediately has an impact on how you feel.”
Proponents of mindfulness have long emphasized the power of breath in managing stress. “It’s like we mimic the relaxed state by breathing more slowly,” says Klia Bassing, a mindfulness meditation instructor and founder of Visit Yourself at Work, a stress-reduction program based in the District. “It’s a state in which the body is more able to heal.” That shift, she says, can stay with you beyond the immediate experience, such as contemplating a work of art. “A body at rest will stay at rest,” says Bassing. “A body at nervousness will stay at nervousness.” (Does using a cellphone as a medium for mindfulness disrupt the mindful moment? Not necessarily, says Bassing: “It’s still effective in bringing the body and mind into a state of present awareness.”)
The Phillips is not the only museum to experiment with this kind of contemplative tour. The Frye Museum in Seattle, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum in Hanover, N.H., have hosted similar meditative art events. But Kanter says the Phillips’s program was inspired less by programs like those than by her own response to the works at the museum, where she had previously taught yoga to staff as part of a corporate wellness program.
In a recent preview of the Phillips program, Ryan Nearman, a 27-year-old architect from San Francisco, said Kanter’s words offered a welcome new perspective on Mark Rothko’s works. “It was good to slow down and kind of take in the paintings more than I normally would,” said Nearman, who does not practice yoga.
I felt similarly calmed and engaged when I “stepped inside” Rothko’s abstract expressionist works, Renoir’s iconic painting and Wolfgang Laib’s “Wax Room” (a 6-by-7-by-10-foot space whose walls are covered in fragrant beeswax), three of the works that viewers can experience on the contempletative tour. I easily tuned into Kanter’s gentle voice, focusing more on both the art and myself. This was especially true in the wax room, whose small space, illuminated by a single light bulb, might have otherwise made me feel claustrophobic. Instead, I was intoxicated by the sweet smell of the walls, and even tempted to touch or even lick them as if I were Charlie in the chocolate factory.
As I stood alone, surrounded by the yellow glow, it was almost as if Kanter were intuiting my thoughts as she read a draft of the audio script: “Imagine how the walls would feel if you could touch them. Imagine the flavor of the walls if you could taste them.” (Alas, it is against museum rules to touch the walls in the wax room.) And then she asked me to close my eyes and “breathe this space” into my body — before reminding me, as her narration was drawing to a close, to “remember that you can feel the richness of the world around you, of the space around you, with each of your senses, in any moment, and in any place.” The narration ended with the ringing of a bell.
Coming out from Kanter’s spell, I felt more at ease, as I might after a gentle yoga class, and perhaps slightly less stressed about having to write about the experience.
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