Yoga for the Ages

by Sura Wood

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday March 9, 2014

One doesn't have to a be a yogi, a devotee of same, or a seeker of spiritual enlightenment and a better body to enjoy "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," the latest exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. But it does help to possess an inclination toward the subject, if not a fundamental understanding of it, and some familiarity with the basic concepts and terminology.

The show bypasses the trendy aspects of the practice and attendant fashion controversies, as well as its appropriation by pop culture and new age cults. Instead, it delves into a surprisingly rich 2,500-year history that reaches from 100 CE through the 1940s, exploring Yoga's origins and centrality in India, its underlying philosophical tenets, and its role in Jain, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi religious traditions.

Even a dabbler can appreciate the exhibition's illuminating historical perspective as well as the paintings, illustrated manuscripts, old photographs and especially the sculptures. My own experience with Yoga is limited to exercises picked up in dance classes over the years, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the art it engendered and the historical narrative expertly amplified by the curators.

Filtering down through the ages - its key precepts and vocabulary were well established as early as the 7th century - and transmuted by Western and South Asian cultures, Yoga as we know it today is a comparatively tame, diluted version of its ancient antecedents. The first gallery and the strongest of the three sections that comprise the exhibition is where goddesses, or Yoginis, as fierce as they are voluptuous, reign. These lithe, full-breasted deities, whose loose-flowing hair connoted female rage - some were believed to fly after nightfall - were not to be tangled with.

Three life-sized granite statues that once graced a 10th-century South India temple line a wall, looking like a menacing celestial chorus line. Illustrating duality, they're voluptuous yet spiritual, auspicious and benevolent, though they wouldn't give a second thought to eating you alive if the spirit moved them. One divine four-armed creature, seated on an owl and brandishing a sword, pulls her mouth open and bares her jagged teeth, enabling her to emit a piercing cry. Another spectacular figure, swathed in an armor of writhing cobras and wielding a club and shield, is perched atop a pedestal engraved with the image of a headless corpse, a reference to Tantric ritual cremation grounds she stalked. Combining both healing and threatening powers, a third yogini with a jar is a sky traveler, an ability prized by Tantric practitioners and hatha yogis. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, one could find up to 100 of these goddesses occupying a single temple. What a sight that must have been to behold.

Near to this unholy trio sits a stone sculpture of the four-headed Brahmani (approx. 875-950), one of seven mother-goddesses equipped with four heads, including one conveniently located at the back. The quality and quantity of sculptural detail achieved by artists who made these ethereal beings materialize are impressive. Take, for example, the Shiva as Bhairava (1200-1300), who guarded the inner sanctum of the temple. With red paste smeared over its third eye, snakes slithering through its orifices, and its head and body adorned with elaborate ornamentation carved into the stone, it's a horrifying yet uncannily human apparition.

The Hindu deity Vishnu, seen in an imposing bronze from the same era, is shown meditating and transcending the suffering endemic to human existence in his incarnation as half-man/half-lion. Replete with a leonine ruff and mane, he wears a conical headdress and a strap across his knees to maintain stillness; a pair of extra hands proffers flaming chakras.

Awash in cerulean blue and gold, a beautiful watercolor portrait depicts the universe embodied by Vishnu (approx. 1800-1820) in his cosmic form. Standing on a multi-headed serpent, he has a sun and moon for eyes, a mouth that breathes fire, a golden halo populated with tiny faces, four hands holding a discus, conch, lotus and mace, a cluster of gods painted on his upper torso, and seven netherworlds residing in his legs.

A gallery dealing with differing cultural perceptions of Yoga contains curiosity photographs of naked or nearly naked yogis taken by Europeans, pictures which say more about the vulgarity of a Western market hungry for exoticism than the ostensible subjects. The spectacle of lying on a bed of nails had its appeal, as did staged photos like that of a group of yogis in the 1880s gathered in a studio in front of a fake jungle backdrop and surrounded by potted plants. Evidently, a lack of authenticity was no barrier.

Then there are shocking images of mortification of the flesh, like those of an ascetic with a steel grid locked around his neck from which there's no visible means of escape, or another snapshot of a man with his genitals padlocked posed next to a yogi with a ring on his penis, the latter suggesting a mastery of sexual desire.

You may never think of the lotus position the same way again.

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