The BBC goes with the ‘killer yogi’ angle on Smithsonian exhibit — whom to blame?

It would seem that coverage of the Smithsonian’s yoga exhibit officially has taken a turn for the dark. Or spooky. Maybe it works heading into Halloween, but we might be seeing the media latch on to a storyline that muddles things.

I bring this up for a few reasons. The first is that over at the Namarupa blog I saw that Robert Moses had posted this about the exhibit: “Though beautiful this exhibit may create more delusion and confusion as another western minded attempt to ossify, control and classify but probably has hidden gems that may be well worth seeing if one has the leisure.”

We’ve already posted about the U.S. News & World Report angle on the exhibit as featuring “sinister yogis.” Now, the BBC has a a 2:30 video report on the exhibit that latches on to similar ideas. A particularly nice part is when the reporter says, essentially, “I wouldn’t expect yoga to be so violent.” (Another is during the shot of Alec Baldwin and his wife entering — I think that’s Ashtangi Peg Mulqueen they talk to, as we mentioned in an earlier post. [Good job not cow-towing to them and getting up, Peg! I kid.])

You can view the video here (I don’t see a way to embed it). The blurb along with it gives you a sense of the direction:

The world’s first exhibition exploring the visual art of yoga showcases 130 objects from 25 museums and private collections around the world. Many have never been seen in public, while others are known masterpieces.

Together they mark the start of a new field of study – how yoga’s visual culture can shed light on its mysteries and hidden meanings.

I think the tendency here will be to “blame” the media for focusing on the more sensationalistic aspects of the exhibit and yoga, in general. As a former journalist, doing so makes me a little nervous. It is a bit too easy.

And, I’m here to conjecture, it may be unfair in this case. Because it sure seems like the exhibitors, judging from the BBC report (and other coverage) are emphasizing these, as well. The media can only report what they are given. (We could now segue off into a whole media criticism piece about what it means to report, but I’ll spare you. For a quick-hit story like this, it is unreasonable to expect a reporter to be a greater expert than the experts he/she interviews.)

Which makes sense. Their goal is, after all, to get people in the door. And I think magic-powered sinister yogis is a lot more compelling than other ways of pitching the exhibit.

From that thinking, though, and considering what Robert wrote, I wonder if there is any underlying misunderstanding that is pervasive in the whole show.

I’m sure someone could find something wrong if they really wanted to; that will be true of any generalized gloss on a subject. The complexities will be lost. But what I’m thinking about is something fundamental that comes through without having to pull at it very hard.

Wondering about that is why I’m anxious to see what some more informed yogis think about the exhibit. A first one, from the already mentioned Peg Mulqueen, went up at YogaDork on Friday.

It’s a very good read — a solid Q&A with the show’s curator, Debra Diamond. And in some ways it reinforces what I’m wondering or worrying about. See this exchange:

PM: I think I’m a super-power kind of girl. Actually, The US News sensationalized their exhibit review with a teaser headline: Sinister Yogis: The Dark Side of Yoga Art. Like some magical version of yogis behaving badly.

DD: You know the Yoga Sutras has that whole chapter on super natural powers. Well, they used them! I mean, they were King-makers. Of course, not all yogis, but some yogis, and certainly in medieval India. So you find them in all of these legends in the formations of kingdoms.

They could be great teachers and they could be hailers but you know, if they got angry, they could also burn down your city. They were scary. They were figures who could be understood as very dangerous but also really positive.

My reading of that is that Peg tried to get Diamond to back off the sensationalization — but she goes with it. At the same time, the counterpoint perhaps is represented in this part:

PM: I am so in awe of you, that you had this vision thirteen years ago before yoga had even become mainstream.

DD: You’re saying that, but you began your practice how many years ago?

PM: Twelve.

DD: It’s the same. Same thing. So twelve years ago, did you know that you would be an important teacher? Did you know that you would’ve changed and impacted the lives of people or be writing about it? It’s just part of the texture of your life.

It’s a journey. And I don’t know how to talk about it without using trippy, new-age words … Like, you don’t go for mastery at this point. It’s not mastery, right? I love when yoga teachers say, “I’m a student. I’m always a student.” That’s how I feel. For every new thing I learn, the topic gets bigger. I know less and I love that part of it. It’s the best part of it.

Of course, it is a lot harder to “sell” a topic to the public that “gets bigger” than one that is scary and dangerous. Not to mention we’re talking about an art exhibit — not exactly your Hollywood blockbuster. So, I get what they’re doing. But I can see why some folks would be concerned about how the depth and complexity of yoga gets portrayed.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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