Symposium drives home message: yoga is more than vogue

Photo: entrance of museum with large banners
Freer-Sackler Gallery organized the first major exhibit of yoga-inspired art.

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.

Given the ambitions of this project and the global tug-of-wars taking place around yoga, the exhibit, catalog and symposium can serve as a pathfinder’s mapping of yoga’s transformation over the centuries . It’s beyond my grasp to provide a definitive summary of any of the project’s three major outputs, but I want to point out a few things that became clear to me this weekend.

  1. The greatest success has been to focus on the visual: just tracing the artifacts over the centuries allows us to understand some fundamentals that might get lost in the translation from Sanskrit or whatever language of the outside observer.  The visual is not confined to “high art,” but also includes the minutiae of common life. We are just scratching the surface of the visual motherlode.
  2. Yoga has often wrestled with other world views: the incursion of Islam in India and the  establishment of the Mughal Empire, the European (military and commercial) powers and the eventual imposition of a colonial regime, the technologies and sciences that alter the lenses through which yoga is examined and projected. Studying these exchanges can give insight into
  3. From the speakers at the symposium, it was clear that 20 minutes was insufficient to channel the torrent of data, trends and analysis that is starting to change the study of the socio-cultural phenomenon of yoga. Interdisciplinary also means that there’s a lot “more noise in the signal.”
  4. The symposium started out on Thursday evening with the keynote lecture by B.N. Goswamy of Punjab University, Chandaigarh, on “inward Journeys: Yoga and Pilgrimage.” He was introduced by Vidya Dehejia of Columbia University. I did not attend that session, but I am sure that it served as a recognition that any scholarly achievement by Westerners owes much to their Indian peers. Deference, not condescension.
  5. Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection is a separate exhibit that will run through January 5, 2014. It illustrates the distortions and sensitivities that Westerns (travelers, merchants, tourists and missionaries) injected into their “snapshots” of Indian culture, including yogis and ascetics. It is the counterpoint to the yoga exhibit.
  6. The exhibit shows the video  of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya practicing a vinyasa flow sequence that is probably closer to the way that Americans would understand as hatha yoga, but an audacious break from what was the historical norm of the preceding centuries. For me, it encapsulates the “transformation” of yoga into something dramatically more transcendental than the austerities of ascetics trying to purify their bodies.
  7. Patanjali as the living, breathing sage who authored the Yoga Sutras, considered by many as the sacred text of yoga, probably never existed.  Stay tuned for news from the Roots of Yoga: A Source Book from the Indian Traditions project being led by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.

The Freer-Sackler Gallery will be putting video of the symposium presentations online so you should check back regularly to see what else has earned a spot of the web site. The exhibit will be available until January 25, when it goes on a road trip.

Photo Gallery of Discussion Panels

For more information about the program and lecturers, please see the symposium information. Panel discussion are difficult to photograph because I don’t have a zoom lens that can overcome the distance between me and the subjects, the angles are limited, the lighting problematic and I am disrupting the presentation by getting in the line of sight. The panel shots seemed the best solution, rather than individual shots of the speakers.

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