Yoga: The Art of Transformation

When the Freer Sackler first approached us with the idea of creating an exhibition of yoga-oriented art, I was intrigued, but had lots of questions. What role did art play in the formation of yoga traditions? Did art inform philosophy and practice, or vice versa? And did the imagery of the yoga tradition change over time in response to historical and social circumstances? As I have learned, the answers to these questions can be very surprising.

For example, I had wondered when the full spectrum of yoga postures, asana in Sanskrit, was first depicted. Like many other yoga enthusiasts, I had assumed that they were present “from the beginning” of the tradition. But like so many of my preconceptions, this assumption was destined to be overturned. Far from emerging fully-formed, like Athena out of Zeus’ head in the famous Greek myth , many complex postures first appear in a 16th century treatise called the Bahr al-Hayat (“Ocean of Life”) – a millennium and a half after the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. And there were more surprises. As it turns out, the Bahr al-Hayat’s accompanying text is not penned in any Indian script; instead, it represents a translation from a Sanskrit original into Persian by a Sufi (Islamic mystic) scholar. In this exhibition, you’ll have a chance to examine the imagery of the Bahr al-Hayat in detail; some of the postures will be familiar, and other may present you with your own puzzles to decipher.

As the exhibition took shape, I began wondering about how traditions of yoga art would depict the invisible aspects of yoga experience. How, I wondered, might artists envision an abstract concept like the Brahman, the impersonal deity of the Hindu texts called Upanishads? I was just as curious about the tradition began to depict the so-called “subtle body,” the network of energy centers and channels that yogis manipulate. I had assumed that these key yoga ideas appeared very early in the development of the tradition – but again the art of yoga surprised me.

Several paintings from Man Singh’s Jodhpur court appear prominently in this exhibition. In the early 1800’s, the king of the Indian city of Jodhpur, Maharaja Man Singh, commissioned a large set of paintings that depict both invisible and subtle aspects of yoga; one of these paintings, Three aspects of the Absolute, depicts the Brahman directly as a shimmering field of undifferentiated gold. Another series of Jodhpur paintings reveals different configurations of the “subtle body,” the interior system of energy centers and channels that figures so prominently in contemporary hatha yoga thought. Almost life-size, these Jodhpur paintings make it easy to see how the subtle, energetic body might map onto the physical body. A third set of Jodhpur paintings show the transmission of these teachings from guru to student in the Nath order of yogis. Such teacher-student contact was essential to the continuity and thus legitimacy of a lineage of yoga practitioners.  A final set of paintings from Jodhpur reveal that Man Singh commissioned these paintings for simultaneously political and religious reasons: the king understood his seemingly miraculous ascension to the throne of Jodhpur as the direct result of Nath intervention in history. In this way, Man Singh positioned his secular as having the legitimacy of divine sanction.

Another question that intrigued me is how imagery focused on the “subtle body” was assimilated into Western discourse and culture. As I have learned, there are at least two ways this happened: through mysticism, and through medicine. Charles Leadbeater’s image of the chakras initially looks similar to the imagery on Man Singh’s “subtle body” paintings, but closer examination reveals that Leadbeater’s image derives from Western attempts to map the seven planets of the Ptolemaic universe onto, or perhaps into, the physical body. Perhaps because such images have a long history in European mysticism, they could serve as a bridge between two quite different kinds of mystical systems – yoga and astrology. Similarly, yoga entered western medical discourse by mapping the subtle body onto the anatomical body. One marvelous book, Chakras of the Subtle Body, contains an image that makes this equivalence explicit.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation has challenged my preconceptions about the relationship between art and yoga in many ways, but nowhere so much as regards the question of authenticity. I used to wonder: what is an authentic teaching or image, and what is spurious? Do lineages guarantee the integrity of a given teaching, or is there some other factor – maybe efficacy – at work? As with my other questions, the answer is often “yes” – in its transformations, the art of yoga can frequently be seen to occupy the middle ground between true and false, peaceful and violent, genuine and derivative. And it is that transformational zone between pairs of absolute opposites that I have come to recognize as the real homeland of this kaleidoscopic array of traditions we are pleased to call yoga.