Group of Yogis. Colin Murray for Bourne & Shepherd, ca. 1880s. This photo exoticized yogis for westerners.

Yoga Narasimha, Vishnu in His Man-Lion Avatar. India, Tamil Nadu, ca. 1250. Bronze. The deity Vishnu is depicted here as half-man, half lion, meditating with a yogi band around his crossed legs.

Yogini with Mynah. India, Karnataka, Bijapur, ca. 1603–4. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. In the 17th century, Indo-Islamic rulers of Bijapur considered yoginis agents of otherworldly powers who could help them win battles.

“Mystery girl: why can’t she be killed?” Look Magazine, September 28, 1937. Koringa, a magicienne of the 1930s, referenced the yogi aesthetic in her alluring act.

Siddha Pratima Yantra. Western India, dated 1333. Yoga transforms body and mind. The negative space cut from a sheet of copper represents a Jain practitioner who has achieved disembodied enlightenment through yoga's transformational effects on body and mind.

The Chakras of the Subtle Body. Chakras are energy centers along the central channel of the body. This yogi's eyes cross in inward meditation.

Satcakranirupanacitram, By Swami Hamsvarupa. Trikutvilas Press, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India. This textbook illustration from 1903 illustrates the chakras and channels of the subtle body.

Bifolio from the Gulshan Album, India, Mughal dynasty, first quarter of the 17th century. Watercolor and gold on paper. This opening from the great Gulshan album of the Mughal emperor Jahangir represents yogis against brilliantly colored landscapes.

Misbah the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House, a watercolor from the Mughal dynasty in 1570. Since the second century, ascetics often moonlighted as spies for Indic rulers.

Battle at Thaneshwar, a watercolor from the Mughal dynasty in 1590, shatters the stereotype of yogis as perfectly peaceful: it depicts bands of armed yogis battling over bathing rights at a sacred river.

Vishnu Vishvarupa, India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800–1820. This divine yogi master merges with the cosmos.

Today, yoga is usually associated with a series of physical poses called asanas. This watercolor is from one of the first folios that illustrated those poses. Garbhasana (Persian, gharbasana), folio from the Bahr al-Hayat (Ocean of Life). India, Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad, 1600–1604.

The Prince in Danger from the Mrigavati, Attributed to Haribans. India, Mughal dynasty, 1603–4. A painted illustration from a book of Sufi poetry, describing the adventures of a prince-turned-yogi.

Three Aspects of the Absolute , by Bulaki. India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823. This folio depicts creation according to the Naths, a sectarian order associated with hatha yoga.

T. Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga, in T. Krishnamacharya Asanas a film that helped popularize yoga as it's known in the west today. India, Mysore, 1938. Digital copy of a lost black-and-white, 57 min.

Co.Design

A Visual History Of Yoga

The world's first exhibition devoted to yoga-inspired art is at the Smithsonian. Turns out fierce, flying yoginis didn't wear stretch pants.

Long before the rise of Lululemon stretch pants and Om-symbol T-shirts, the ancient spiritual practice of yoga was steeped in a rich artistic tradition. “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is the world’s first exhibit on the art of yoga, featuring over 130 objects dating from the third to the 20th century. With three massive stone yogini goddesses from a 10th-century South Indian temple and Thomas Edison’s 1906 film Hindoo Fahkir, the first movie produced about India, the exhibition enlightens visitors as to what Downward Facing Dog is really all about.

“These works of art allow us to trace, often for the first time, yoga’s meanings across the diverse social landscapes of India," Debra Diamond, the museum’s curator of South Asian art, said in a statement. "United for the first time, they not only invite aesthetic wonder, but also unlock the past--opening a portal onto yoga’s surprisingly down-to-earth aspects over 2,000 years."

This visual history shatters some stereotypes: we usually think of yogis as peaceful, but the Battle at Thaneshwar, a watercolor from India dating from 1590, depicts bands of armed yogis brawling over bathing rights at a sacred river. The flying yogini goddess bares her teeth and clutches a sword. And in Misbah the Grocer Brings the Spy Parran to his House, we learn that since the second century, many yogis freelanced as spies.

It also clears up confusion about the infinite universe of yoga and the countless styles, from Tantra to Bhakti to Hatha, as well as yoga’s philosophical underpinnings in Jain, Buddhist, Sufi, and Hindu traditions.

In-gallery yoga classes are being held twice a week, giving visitors the rare chance to attempt crow pose in front of fierce life-sized yogini goddesses. Gazing upon a bronze sculpture from the year 1250 of Vishnu in his Man-Lion Avatar, you can’t help but wonder what he’d make of the millions of modern yogis squeezing rubber mats into sweaty classrooms, clutching Smart Waters, and sighing to Enya.

“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” is on view until January 26th.

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