Review of Smithsonian yoga exhibit: It will really open your eyes

The Washington Post finally has a review of the Smithsonian’s big yoga exhibit.

Read it all here. A few (kind of lengthy) excerpts:

Whether the goal is awakening, enlightenment, power or merely good health, people practice yoga today for many different reasons. Yet few understand its tangled Indian roots. Originating more than 2,000 years ago as an offshoot of Hinduism by a group of ascetics who renounced society in order to end suffering, yoga gradually cross-pollinated with Buddhism, Sufi Islam and Jainism before flowering into what we know it as today.



Take one of the very first objects to greet visitors. The stunning 13th-century schist carving of Shiva Bhairava — one of the Hindu god Shiva’s many manifestations and the deity that tantric yogis believed they themselves would literally become — depicts a gracefully posed male form. Although his relaxed stance doesn’t reflect the fierceness for which that aspect of the god is known, his elaborate costume and accessories include a staff crowned by a grotesque and grimacing human skull. Even more frightful is the snake slithering in and out of the skull’s eye sockets.

That’s nothing compared to a 17th-century watercolor of Bhairava’s consort Bhairavi, a form of the goddess Devi. She’s wild-eyed and red-skinned, wearing a necklace of human skulls. Her lap also is full of them, and she’s sitting, in the lotus position, on a headless human corpse, one of several dismembered bodies scattered about the landscape, through which cadaver-eating jackals roam.


Smartly organized by Debra Diamond, the museum’s associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art, “Yoga” informs us that, historically, yogis made excellent spies, sometimes carried weapons and were occasionally hired by Muslim princes to advise them on the most auspicious time to go to war.

So much for the link between yoga and pacifism.

“Yoga is more than you know,” Diamond says during a press tour of the exhibition, emphasizing each word slowly. And how.


Creating a full circle, the show begins and ends with images of real yoga teachers. First is the venerable guru Vidyashiva, rendered in a carved stone portrait from the 11th or 12th century. Depicted in the guise of a god, he probably lived a few generations before the portrait was made. A video closes the show, featuring T. Krishnamacharya, the resident teacher in the 20th-century court of the maharajah of Mysore, a city in India. Filmed in 1938, it shows the man thought of as the grandfather of modern yoga demonstrating several asanas — combining techniques of hatha yoga, calisthenics, gymnastics and wrestling — along with exercises by his equally famous pupil, B.K.S. Iyengar.

The issue I’ve highlighted before — that the show has a bit of the spooky/sensationalist to it — comes through here, too, but it comes across more as though the exhibit is trying to shift people’s preconceived ideas of yoga: that it’s all peace and love and something inherently “exotic.”

That sounds like a worthwhile goal.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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