Yoga: The Art of Transformation 

with Debra Diamond

In this video, Debra Diamond of the Freer | Sackler Gallery talks about the upcoming Smithsonian Exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” which traces the visual history of yoga.

The exhibition is scheduled to open at the Freer | Sackler Gallery on October 19th. Unfortunately the gallery and all of its events are currently closed during the federal government shutdown and the opening may be postponed indefinitely if the government shutdown continues. The exhibit will also travel to San Francisco and Cleveland in 2014. For the time being, Yoga Alliance members can enjoy Debra's engaging and informative presentation.

As leaders in the yoga business community, studio owners and teachers participate and preserve a practice that has a long and diverse history.

"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" is the first exhibition of its kind. The exhibit traces the visual history of yoga, using objects never shown in the U.S. before, such as folios from the first illustrated compilation of asanas. It focuses on how the practice of yoga has transformed over the past 2,000 years into a widely celebrated regimen for health, balance and spirituality.

Debra introduced the exhibition by describing that most knowledge of yoga comes from Sanskrit texts, sectarian traditions and individuals’ experiences while practicing. "Yoga: The Art of Transformation" pulls from visual culture, a relatively untapped resource, to shed light on yoga’s history. Spanning the third century through the 1940s, the exhibition uses sculptures, court paintings and videos to explore various manifestations of yoga throughout history in both the East and West. Yoga’s history is too diverse and nuanced to fit neatly into a definitive, all-inclusive single narrative. Instead of featuring “one story,” as Debra originally intended, the exhibition ended up reflecting “more like 100 stories,” teased out from yoga’s rich visual culture.

Yogini, India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, ca. 1000–1050 
Sandstone, 86.4 x 43.8 x 24.8 cm 
San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with the John and Karen McFarlin Fund and Asian Art Challenge Fund, 90.92
Seated with her legs audaciously akimbo on an owl vehicle, this flying yogini has the weapons and bared teeth of a fierce deity and the voluptuous body of a benign goddess. Magnificently carved, it is the only surviving trace of a temple that would have housed 42, 64, 81 or 108 yoginis of similar size.

Diverse Traditions

Some objects reveal elements of yoga’s history, which may seem inconsistent with our present-day conception of the practice. For example, Debra had not expected to encounter militaristic depictions of yoginis, although she joked that these could be “a precursor to power yoga.” Other objects in the exhibition portray concepts more familiar to the modern yogi, such as praman and its relation to the body. Debra displayed a 14th-century Jain shrine that depicts “a siddah, an advanced practitioner” and explained that the artist cut the figure out of the shrine so that the figure’s “presence is his absence.” The shrine shows an artist’s rendering of what Debra described as the “unbounded nature of the yogic body, of enlightenment when you’ve become everything and are no longer contained in this [one]” –something that as yogis we still aspire to today.

Siddha Pratima Yantra, Western India, dated 1333 (Samvat 1390) 
Bronze, 21.9 x 13.1 x 8.9 cm. 
Freer Gallery of Art, F1997.33
Debra Diamond is the Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Debra Diamond received her PhD in South Asian art history from Columbia University (2000) and has published numerous articles on Indian and contemporary Asian art. A specialist in Indian court painting, Debra has curated numerous exhibitions at the Sackler Gallery. In 2010, Debra received the Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prize for the Gardens and Cosmos: Royal Painting of Jodhpur exhibition catalogue.

To hear more about works from "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," watch the full-length session. Also be sure to check out the exhibition trailer and the exhibition page on the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ website.   
Copyright 2014 by Yoga Alliance