Curator Connections: A Look at Yoga: The Art of Transformation

Years ago, in my previous curatorial post, I heard from my colleague Dr. Debra Diamond, the curator of South Asian art at the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, that she was planning an exhibition on yoga. I was struck with admiration for this brilliant idea. Arguably, no other topic or concept from India is more readily recognized in present-day America than yoga. What better way for the public to access a deep cross-section of art from India than through this ostensibly familiar theme? I am thrilled to have the opportunity to present the award-winning exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation to audiences at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The extraordinary assemblage of more than 100 masterworks plus rare publications include a wide variety of media, span the first to twentieth century, and have been lent by thirty-four institutions and private collections from the U.S., Europe, and India. The scholarly achievements published in the lavishly illustrated 328-page catalogue are reflected throughout the labels in the exhibition. 


Fasting Buddha, 700s. India, Kashmir. Ivory; 12.4 x 9.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1986.70

Today, there are numerous types of yoga and a wide array of goals ranging from improved physical fitness to ultimate religious salvation. Works of art in the exhibition reveal that in ancient India, there were also many groups who practiced different forms of yoga for the sake of achieving a wide range of goals, both worldly and salvific. Groups of practitioners disagreed on the degree of physical discipline and self-mortification that was necessary to reach enlightenment, which would result, upon death, in final liberation from the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth that are fundamental to the Indic worldview. The central image of an 8th-century ivory carving from Kashmir depicts the Buddha in a scene from his life story. The Buddha had grown up as a prince who decided to renounce society to seek enlightenment, or an understanding of the causes of suffering and the means to finding freedom from it. He moved from one teacher to the next, some of whom taught that in order to reach final liberation, he must engage in strict austerities, severe fasting, and long periods of meditation. He is shown seated in the earliest documented yogic asana, or posture, the full-lotus, which was thought to be the most conducive for keeping alert for extended meditative sessions. His hands are in the mudra, or gesture, of meditation, with one hand lying atop the other, with elbows out to the side, spine straight, and eyes focused just beyond the tip of the nose. His figure is offset by a network of tormenters who attempt to distract him without success. He was an exemplary follower of the most radical forms of asceticism, working until his bones and veins were visible, but still failing by these means to reach enlightenment.  The scene to the right shows him sitting up, eating sweet rice and milk offered by the villager Sujata. That night, he would at last reach enlightenment and become a Buddha. This carving conveys the commentary that, according to the Buddhists, some ascetical groups were too fanatic, and it reveals the conflicting opinions regarding the practices of yoga and austerities. 

The posture of the figure of the Buddha-to-be on the left side of the plaque seems to foreshadow an asana known as the “womb posture” (garbhasna), depicted in a painting from the earliest known illustrated text describing a series of various yogic asanas, created around 1600 for a Mughal prince. The text was written in Persian in 1550 for members of a Sufi branch of Islam who adopted the practice of yoga to reach their goal of unification with Allah. As seen in this painting, yogis practiced in the wilderness, away from the distractions of society, on a mat in front of a grass hut, surrounded by only simple accoutrements. In the womb posture, the practitioner must place “the left foot on the right foot, holding the buttocks on both feet, holding the head evenly between the two knees, placing both elbows under the ribs, putting the hands over the ears, [and] bringing the navel toward the spine.” This text is a precursor of the how-to yoga manuals that became popular during the mid-twentieth century in the West. 

Many works in the exhibition focus not only on the practitioners of yoga, but also on images of deities who model the practice of yoga and provide the visual depiction of the goal for the practice. For many yogis their practice is to imitate the Hindu god Shiva. A joyous painting probably made to be a focus for meditation by a Hindu practitioner, shows the powerful four-armed Shiva and the personification of his shakti, or female creative energy, floating in rapture through the rainclouds. They are seated on an elephant skin, flayed from the demon that personifies unbridled lust and passions—the physical body out of control—conquered by the powerful yogi, Shiva. He is white because he is smeared with ashes from cremation grounds and adorned with a string of severed heads and poisonous serpents, indicating that he has no fear of death. Human yogis who follow Shiva do the same in order to become closer to him and reach their goal of reunification with him. 

Some practices and methods of reaching liberation are described in texts that are recorded as having been revealed by powerful female emanations of shakti, called Yoginis, to high-level practitioners in yogic visions. Three celebrated life-size Yogini sculptures from South India have been reunited for the first time in this exhibition. Alluringly feminine, their lithe but voluptuous bodies are presented in a looser yogic posture, perhaps suggestive of deviations from strictly traditional practices, and they all have four arms, connoting their superhuman status. 

Aspects of Yoginis were appropriated and capitalized upon by modern circus performers, such as the French Koringa. The 10th-century stone sculpture of a Yogini wears mismatched earrings: one poisonous snake and one crocodile. Koringa too purportedly can tame ferocious crocodiles through her powers achieved through yogic discipline and mystical trances. Like the stone sculptures depicting Yoginis, Koringa’s hair flies out wild and unkempt like a halo behind her head. Koringa wears a leopard pelt, reminiscent of the one worn by Shiva, and she has applied a large red dot at the location of Shiva’s third eye of true knowledge. Her image on a magazine cover and the popularity of her traveling act indicate that in the 1930s there was a market in the West for seeing the exotic and erotic as achieved through the practice of yoga, and perhaps there still is. 

Yoga: The Art of Transformation opens Sunday, June 22 at the Cleveland Museum of Art! 

(Members see it first: This article was first published in the Cleveland Museum of Art's Member Magazine.) 


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