An interview with Andrea R. Jain who wrote Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture lays down some pretty heavy timber on pop analysis of yoga’s introduction into American mainstream culture and even the sniping from India about Western yoga being a bastardization of yoga’s true essence:
Fake, Evil, Spiritual, Commodified; What’s the Truth About Popular Yoga? | Religion Dispatches. The key message for Selling Yoga’s readers is that yoga has been perpetually context-sensitive, so there is no “legitimate,” “authentic,” “orthodox,” or “original” tradition, only contextualized ideas and practices organized around the term yoga. In other words, the innovations unique to pop culture yoga do not de-authenticate them simply because they represent products of consumer culture.
Postural yoga is a transnational product of yoga’s encounter with global processes, particularly the rise and dominance of market capitalism, industrialization, globalization, and the consequent diffusion of consumer culture. To reduce its innovations to borrowings from, or the mere commodification of, otherwise authentic religious wares, however, would undermine the narrative and ritual functions and meanings of yoga for many of the practitioners I engage with in my study—the insiders to modern postural yoga.
This means I’m going to have to buy another yoga book on Amazon for my Kindle. At least, it will not crowd my bookshelves or weigh down my shoulder bag. It was published in December
Holland Cotter, the New York Times staff art critic, published an article about the “Yoga – The Art of Transformation” exhibit at the Sackler Gallery on the DC Mall (only until January 26). He liked it:
NYTimes.comEons Before the Yoga Mat Became Trendy
The fact is, yoga was always rational, and more so in its old, extremist forms than in its present domesticated version. How else would you characterize a spiritual discipline that directly and boldly addressed life’s most intractable problem, the persistence of suffering, and took practical, but radical steps to do something about it? To alter the rules of the existential game, it redefined the possible. What’s great about the Sackler show, apart from the pleasures of its images, is that it not only lets us see the history of that practice in action, but understand how radical it was — and is — and take that seriously.
Cotter has a good eye for revealing details and incarnate contradictions, which he sprinkles throughout his article. This was not a fly-by snapshot that he fit in between New York galleries and major artists: he saw the art and let it affect him.
There was so much information saturating us during the yoga symposium that I’ve barely had an opportunity to review my notes and impressions. One of the things that came up was that several people noticed that many of the Indian temples showed figures of yoginis (female demi-gods, not the current use as female yogis) using yoga straps (yogapatta) to bind their legs in cross-legged position, leaving their knees raised off the ground. I did a quick search through the PDFs of the Yoga: The Art of Transformation catalog (page 146 for one reference) and found at least three illustrations that demonstrated using a strap to hold a seated posture:
The Freer-Sackler Gallery has put up a special page for the extraordinary catalog that they produced for the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit currently showing in Washington, DC, through January 25, 2014. As I mentioned before, this book is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in the history and evolution of yoga into a worldwide phenomenon. I had been unable to find a dedicated page on the site before today so it must have gone up yesterday or early today.
In an exceptional gesture, the Gallery is making a substantial part of the catalog available in PDF format. The Gallery is in effect foregoing catalog sales in order to promote wider availability and access. My judgment would be to buy the book as well as getting the PDFs: Continue reading Art of Yoga Exhibit catalog now available online→
The second day of the “Yoga and Visual Culture: An Interdisciplinary Symposium” culminates a long process that began in the summer of 2009 when the Gallery brought together scholars for two interdisciplinary colloquia, which is a break from precedent for most Smithsonian initiatives. So in a sense, the exhibit/symposium had several exploratory discussions and then an extended period of research, planning, writing, editing, peer review and then execution of the physical display and the catalog.
Meanwhile, outside the scholarly confines of the Smithsonian Institutes, yoga as expressed in mainstream culture (North America, Europe and even newer frontiers in Asia) has been growing. In the United States, its spread has taken on the trappings of snake-oil salesmen (“Yoga can cure diabetes and bad posture!”). Among Hindus, both in India and here in the United States, there has been deepening despair that yoga has been cut loose from its historical moorings. In addition, many American yogis have had their eyes opened to the flaws in their one-dimensional vision of yoga as a 2000-year-old, immutable practice that taps into transcendental truths. Continue reading Symposium drives home message: yoga is more than vogue→
Hidden away in the Freer-Sackler Gallery website is the following jewel, combining photography, historical watercolor paintings, and archival research:
Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation by James Mallinson:
The earliest textual descriptions of yogic techniques date to the last few centuries BCE and show their practitioners to have been ascetics who had turned their backs on ordinary society. These renouncers have been considered practitioners of yoga par excellence throughout Indian history. While ascetics, including some seated in meditative yoga postures, have been represented in Indian statuary since that early period, the first detailed depictions of Indian ascetics are not found until circa 1560 in paintings produced under the patronage of Mughal Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) and his successors. These wonderfully naturalistic and precise images illuminate not only Mughal manuscripts and albums but also our understanding of the history of yogis and their sects. Scholars have argued for these paintings’ value as historical documents; their usefulness in establishing the history of Indian ascetic orders bears this out. The consistency of their depictions and the astonishing detail they reveal allow us to flesh out—and, sometimes, rewrite—the incomplete and partisan history that can be surmised from Sanskrit and vernacular texts, travelers’ reports, hagiography, and ethnography.