Yoga: The Art of Transformation – A Major New Show at the Smithsonian

Yoga The Art of TransformationCurrently on show at the Freer Sackler gallery, the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian Art, is the most exciting major shows ever attempted on yoga. From temple sculptures, icons, manuscripts and miniatures, as well as more modern materials such as archival film, Yoga the Art of Transformation makes a major attempt to situate the mysteries of this ancient practice in a cultural perspective. Sponsored in part by Yoga Journal this exhibition comes with a monumental catalogue – which we hope will become a book due to the superb collection of images and text, surely one of the most impressive modern tomes every gathered on yoga. In an age when yoga asana and philosophy is in grave danger of being utterly subsumed by a pop culture with little interest in the historical and spiritual origins of this mystical practice, this show comes as a breath of fresh air, with it’s exceptional source material, erudite catalogue, and lofty intent. It’s unlikely a better exhibition of Indian spiritual art will materialise for another couple of centuries so, if you’re on the East coast, get down to the Smithsonian immediately and feast your eyes.

If you can’t make it that far, you can enjoy some of the catalogue online here. Amongst the many superb contributions, writer David Gordon White, whose book Sinister Yogis we’ve reviewed elsewhere on theindiaphile, offers an insightful essay Yoga in Transformation, in which he traces the history of yoga through the earliest archaeological evidence, via Tantra and Hatha examinations of the subtle body, to the notion of the yogi as a powerful wandering figure in Indian culture, relics of which can still be found today.

“These works of art allow us to trace, often for the first time, yoga’s meanings across the diverse social landscapes of India,” said Debra Diamond, the museum’s curator of South Asian art. “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.”

I’ve been working on a yoga related art historical topic since the mid 1990’s so when I thought it was possible to sketch out a larger history of yoga through visual culture I proposed it to my museum very early in 2009… What I showed the scholars was my original digital archive of hundreds of images I’d collected over many many years and we began to shape them into an exhibition. We often had to consider ‘Is this yogic, or is this related to the yogic condition…. (Debra Diamond)

A Gallery View of Early Yogic Sculptures


Gallery View from Yoga: The Art of Transformation