Ascetics bathe before the shrine of the goddess. From a 19th century manuscript, loaned from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Most San Franciscans think of yoga as mostly a lot of deep breathing, downward dog positions, and stretchy clothes in solid colors. The Asian Art Museum's new exhibition "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," opening February 21, points out that yoga isn't just exercise routines for California Gen Xers. It's a religious and philosophical toolkit for everything from spiritual enlightenment to political acumen. This 2,500 year legacy is illustrated with artworks drawn from 25 collections, spanning everything from ancient temples to silent films.
Debra Diamond, an associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian who compiled the exhibition, walked us through a few points you probably didn't know the first time you struck your mountain pose:
1. Ancient yoga means roughing it: Yogis did congregate at the immaculate temples we usually imagine them in, but artworks also show them immersed in mountain rivers and sacred baths, posing in caves and trackless forests, and even meditating around sacred bonfires. That downward dog is probably trickier in a flooding stream instead of a studio with hardwood floors.
2. Yoga has a dark side: On display are three 10th century statues of Yogini, divine female yoga masters who rewarded the faithful—and punished the impertinent. "If you don't approach them right, they might just eat you," says Diamond. The sacred chalices they carry could be filled with either liquor or blood. Try finding that at the co-op.
3. Yoga brings power and glory: Yoga was thought to enable auspicious wartime victories and even grant the power to directly smite enemies. Some ancient art depicts yogis fighting over particularly good temples or natural spaces, and the knowledge yoga revealed made you a better strategist and political leader. "Yogis were the power brokers of medieval India," Diamond says.
4. Yoga teaches you magic: Or at least, people thought it did. Yoga masters supposedly warded off demons, unraveled the secrets of the universe, and manifested mystical abilities like flying or summoning floods. Yoga-associated musical traditions even had the power to attract rain, a tune we could all use in California about now.
5. You may know more advanced positions than you think: Reels from the 1938 film "T. Krishnamacharya" depict a famed yogi (then 50 years old) in a series of limb-bending contortions, including one you may recognize from your own grade-school days: rolling his tongue. Diamond explains that this maneuver is thought to cool the body. You may not be able to fit your ankles behind your neck, but if you can just fold your tongue you may be one small step closer to your physical and spiritual peak.
"Yoga: The Art of Transformation" displays through May 25 at the Asian Art Museum.
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