From ancient India to the modern West, the practice of yoga has inspired artists, as the first exhibition devoted to the subject makes abundantly clear.
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Before it was a fashionable form of physical fitness, before it was an international pop-culture phenomenon, Yoga was, as defined by its classic textbook, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written in Sanskrit around 400 A.D., “the restriction of the modifications of mind.” In other words, it was a process for stilling one’s thoughts in order to make one’s mind like a limpid pool through which eternal truth can be glimpsed, beyond the bounds of illusory existence. In its essence, Yoga is so inner-directed that it would seem to offer no material for art. But in fact, as an exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” (organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian and now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from June 22–September 7), makes clear, this mystical discipline has been the inspiration for a huge range of vivid visual works for centuries, from the sacred art of India to the not-so-sacred popular imagery of the 20th-century West.
One of the main reasons why Yoga yielded such a rich pictorial culture is that people practicing yoga were themselves so picturesque. Even the contemplative and philosophical Patanjali acknowledged bodily postures, or asanas, as aids to meditation, and early Indian artists found an irresistible subject in yogis twisting themselves into elaborate contortions. For any artist interested in painting or sculpting the human figure, postures such as the padmasana (lotus pose) or garbhasana (the embryo pose) were an inspiring challenge. In Hinduism, even the gods practiced yoga—one of the sculptures in this exhibition, a circa 1250 bronze from Tamil Nadu in South India, represents the god Vishnu as Narasimha, his incarnation as a man-lion, sitting in a meditation posture on a dais. The god’s legs are bound together by a yogapatta, a device used by yogis to keep them from falling out of their postures due to fatigue.
Other sculptures in the Cleveland show depict yoginis, or female yogis, such as a sandstone work made in Uttar Pradesh in North India during the first half of the 11th century. Intended for a royal temple, it shows a bare-breasted yogini crouching with knees apart, with a sword and a shield, decorated with owl feathers, inserting the fingers of both hands into her mouth to make a piercing noise. These attributes mark her as a tantric yogini, a follower of occult yogic practices whose intention was more the attainment of power than enlightenment. She is called a khecari or sky-traveler, and the power she sought was that of supernatural flight. Tantric yogis and yoginis alike were particularly attractive to artists because of their extreme, sometimes sexually oriented practices and sometimes astonishing personal styles—one school of tantric yogis, called Naths or lords in Sanskrit, chose graveyards as their place of meditation, covered themselves in ashes, and often wore human skulls as ornaments.
An essay in the exhibition’s catalogue summarizes the impression such practitioners made on the popular mind: “In the fantasy and adventure literature of medieval South Asia, the consorts of the Tantric yogis, often called yoginis, were cast as their lovers, with their rites described as wholesale orgies taking place on cremation grounds in the dead of night: ‘Yogis, drunk with alcohol, fall upon the bosoms of women; the Yoginis, reeling with liquor, fall upon the chests of men.’ This was, however, a dangerous game, because, as the Tantric texts themselves unambiguously state, persons not empowered by Tantric initiations to consort with them generally became ‘food for the Yoginis.’ These yoginis were generally identified with the creatures of the charnel grounds—not human women at all, but carrion-feeding jackals and vultures that devoured the bodies of the dead, whose flesh fueled their powers of flight.”
After the advent of Islamic rule in India, artistic interest in yoga remained high. Mughal miniature painters loved to paint yogis; for example, a folio page from the Bahr al-Hayat or Ocean of Life, an early 17th-century treatise in Persian that is said to be the first to systematically illustrate yoga postures, shows an ascetic performing the garbhasana. Alone in front of his hut, he balances on one foot while twining his arms and other leg together, bending his head down and covering his ears to shut out external stimuli. One particularly astonishing Mughal painting, circa 1590, shows just how far astray the quest for power could take some yogis. Then as now, yogic gurus were charismatic figures who exerted power over crowds of followers, and in this illustration from the Akbarnama—a history of the reign of the Emperor Akbar (who was passionately interested in Hinduism, much to the dismay of his father)—two rival groups of yogis, egged on by their gurus, clash in a battle royal that devolves into utter chaos. In The Battle at Thaneshwar, the artist has skillfully thrown the colorful yogis together in a tangle of swords, spears, razor-sharp throwing-discs, and yogic ritual implements, while Akbar’s mounted soldiers intervene to try and quell the violence. This is a far cry from the serenity sought by today’s yoga enthusiasts.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this show is its emphasis on how yogic imagery entered the modern era and the West, as yoga broke free of the bounds of India and Hinduism and became the property of the whole world. For curious and uncomprehending European visitors to India such as the English photographer Colin Murray, yogis were freakish figures to gawk at, and some yogis were willing to play the role to the hilt: In Murray’s 1880s photo Group of Yogis, six wild-eyed men with matted hair, daubed with ritual paint and bedecked with beads, stare at the lens as if they could crack it with their meditation-enhanced powers of concentration. The camera could be also be used by adherents for the purpose of explaining and legitimizing yoga. The exhibition features a 1938 silent film made for the Maharaja of Mysore in South India in which the yogi T. Krishnamacharya demonstrates asana and other yogic bodily practices; in one memorable still he sticks his tongue out and rolls it while closing his eyes in meditation.
Yoga imagery also invaded the kitschy world of popular mass-produced lithography, which thrived in India during the late 19th century and in much of the 20th. Diagrams of the chakras, or subtle bodily centers arrayed along the spinal column, were a particularly common trope, and in fact can still be seen on the walls of yoga studios in the U.S. today in somewhat different form. The Cleveland show includes a circa 1903 illustration lithographed in Bihar, India, that shows these seven paraphysical plexuses in traditional style as colored geometrical designs or mandalas superimposed on a stylized human body, but then labels them, in Sanskrit, in the manner of a modern Western medical chart. West meets East, and East meets West, and the two continue to meet and mingle in a shared fascination for the art and practice of yoga, a discipline that set out to “restrict the modifications of the mind” but has ended up doing far more than that.