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.