The much hyped Smithsonian exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, is packing up to move from its primary residence in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC to spring at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and summer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. My colleague Sheetal Shah and I trekked down to DC to see it earlier this winter. Honestly, we went with fairly low expectations, because of our experiences with the yoga “industry” and also because I served as a community-based advisor of sorts, which in my experience can be a mixed bag. You see, working with academics as a community advisor is a little bit like getting a haircut from a well-seasoned stylist — you know your hair so you tell her what you’d like. She listens, but ultimately cuts and styles it in the way she has always done hair, and the end product is usually about 25 percent of you wanted and 75 percent of what she did. With the yoga exhibit, the experience was similar — I found that some of the concerns I raised during pre-exhibit conversations were taken to heart, while others not as much.
The reason I went with Sheetal is because she is a student of Ashtanga yoga, but more importantly, she is one of my cohorts behind Hindu American Foundation’s Take Back Yoga Project – Bringing to Light Yoga’s Hindu Roots (TBY). TBY is a project the Foundation launched in 2010 after someone at Yoga Journal confirmed that the editors intentionally avoided the term “Hindu” in describing things that were, well, Hindu, because “Yah, you know, Hinduism has a lot of baggage.” The aim of the project is at getting the millions of folks who say they “do yoga” to appreciate that 1) yoga is not just asana; and 2) while yoga does not proselytize or require conversion to reap its physical and psycho-spiritual benefits, it refers to spiritual practices that are essential to the understanding and practice of Hinduism. On the whole, we found that Yoga: The Art of Transformation aligned with the two-fold goal of the TBY.
Visually stunning and simultaneously soothing, the exhibit has a quietness about it. It weaves through time, taking the visitor from a prehistoric era of self-study, that continues to baffle scholars and laypeople alike as to its depth and timelessness, to an age where yoga studios are as prolific as Starbucks. Stone sculptures, silk paintings, photographs, and live video footage offer visitors a feast for the eyes and mind. What was impressive also was the attention paid to providing the rich symbolism of Hindu gods and goddesses and the various aspects of form, a task that too often is exoticized or eroticized by museums (and academics). At the end of it all, one definitely cannot leave without having at least a basic understanding of the deep historical connection between yoga and Hinduism, and the realization that yoga is far more than just asana.
I met the curator, Dr. Debra Diamond, several years ago on a separate visit to the Smithsonian organized by the Interfaith Alliance to connect representatives of different faiths with the Institute to dialogue on how issues of religion could be handled with respect and sensitivity. At the time, the yoga exhibit was still in the planning phase. Debra was familiar with TBY, but seemed to have already formulated an opinion about it. I found her summation to be similar to one we often face with academics — an almost instinctual labeling of “nationalist” or “fundamentalist” to anything vocally or politically Hindu. Accustomed to this, our team decided to continue engaging. Over time, we explained our concerns with the industry’s some times concerted and other times unintentional delinking of yoga from Hinduism, and the cost this delinking has on Hindus who lose the opportunity to have acknowledged one of our civilization’s greatest contributions to the world.
As the exhibit drew closer to opening, I, on behalf of HAF, was invited by Debra to join an advisory group. While we didn’t have an opportunity to view the exhibit (we saw a slide show and the plans) or the descriptive placards (they weren’t written yet), she mentioned to me that after our initial meeting and several interactions thereafter, she felt compelled to revisit TBY with an “open mind”, and while there were points in our argument that she did not agree with, she had a renewed understanding of the motivation behind TBY and appreciated HAF’s intentions. She resonated with our concerns for both Hindus around the globe facing discrimination and hate because of their religious identity as well as Hindu belief and practice continuing to be widely misunderstood due to exoticized portrayals and “caste, cows and karma” caricatures.
During the small group session with a diverse set of advisors that included yoga teachers, yoga practitioners, yoga researchers, and others, it was indeed interesting to hear the various perspectives of what each sought from the exhibit. Some were curious about the aesthetics and flow, others were interested in the supplementary programming, while others wanted to ensure that the science behind yoga was emphasized. For me, I wanted to drive home three main points: 1) the importance of using the word “Hindu,” as opposed to favored industry codewords like “Indian,” “Indic,” “Sanskrit,” or “Vedic” (none of which are inaccurate, by the way) as a descriptor where appropriate; 2) when it came to describing the unknown — be it origins, dates, or sources — that a certain humility be present in the descriptors, ie. “Some scholars believe…” or “The origins are unknown, but…”; and 3) where aspects of yoga’s history were still contested or debated or differed from emic Hindu perspectives, that the multiples views be honored and given space.
There is no doubt that my first concern was addressed, and to some extent, even the second. The third was, I believe, not addressed adequately. One example of not fully acknowledging an ongoing debate is in the dating of the Vedas. While the conventionally accepted date is around 1200 BCE or the second millennium, these dates, which also happen to be intertwined with the dating of the Indus Valley Civilization, are argued to be much earlier by leading scholars in a variety of fields, including religious studies, linguistics, archaeology, and even genetics. A nod to the ongoing debate would serve visitors well. Another example is with the dating of the emergence of meditation “as a means for transcending suffering at 500 BCE.” There are references to meditation and different states of consciousness in the oldest Upanishads, which most scholars date back to earlier than 500 BCE. There’s also the understanding amongst Hindus that the Rig Veda and Vedas as a whole, were Truths that the ancient Rishis came to through deep meditations.
Another issue we had, in the otherwise well curated exhibit, was the distinct sense of deja vu you get reading the placards on asana — especially if you’re familiar with Mark Singleton’s work on the history of modern postural yoga. He was an academic consultant, so perhaps that should come as no surprise. For those who may not be familiar, Singleton has made the claim that contemporary postural yoga was invented in the 19th century as an “unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA.” Many scholars have been highly critical of his work saying he has selectively ignored the complex history of classical yoga and the non-textual and rich physical traditions found in India’s visual and performing arts and architecture, all of which were flourishing before being destroyed or suppressed during Mughal expansion and by the Victorian mores of Colonial Britain. Interestingly and contradicting Singleton’s premise, the exhibit itself presents 10 folios from the Bahr al-hayat from the 17th century, which the descriptor claims is one of “the earliest known treatises to illustrate yoga postures systematically.”
Our last point of contention is not so much with the exhibit, but with its catalogue. While stunning and a beautiful addition to any coffee table, its coverage of the four goals of life prescribed in Hindu teachings, or the purusharthas, seems to place a heavy emphasis on the lesser goals of artha (material pursuit) and kama (physical pleasure), and not as much on the higher ones of dharma (righteous living) and moksha (spiritual liberation). As one yoga expert friend put it, “And what happens when you leave off dharma and moksha [from Hinduism]? All you have left is sex, violence, and money.”
I’m glad the Smithsonian provided the platform for Debra Diamond to follow through on her vision and genuine desire to educate the public on something that so many “do,” but don’t fully understand. If you’re in the San Francisco bay area this spring or Cleveland in the summer, it’s definitely worth experiencing.