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

This likely is the story most people will see about the Smithsonian’s yoga exhibit

Quick U.S. journalism lesson: While papers like the New York Times and the Wall St. Journal set the agenda for TV news and coverage by other, smaller and regional papers, to a great extent it is still Associated Press stories that enjoy the highest readership.

That readership isn’t large in any one paper, but added up in all the many small — 5,000 circulation here, 15,000 circulation there — papers and AP stories get lots of eyes.

So the AP’s story on the Smithsonian’s yoga exhibit is worth noting because it likely will be the way the most people in America hear about the exhibit. A link (to the Washington Post’s site, which I hope doesn’t mean the Post isn’t doing its own coverage/review) is right here. And a key excerpt:

First the exhibit examines the concepts and practices of yoga traditions, including meditation and postures found in Indian art dating back hundreds of years. The first piece is an 11th century sculpture representing a yoga teacher, seated in the lotus posture with legs crossed to signify enlightenment.

Such sculptures were displayed in Hindu temples so people could see the teacher and “understand yoga’s transformative potential,” Diamond said. [Note: She’s the curator.]

Three life-size sculptures of yogini goddesses from Hindu temples illustrate the belief that female powers could be used to allow practitioners to achieve divine powers and enlightenment.

Later galleries examine how the idea of yoga was circulated worldwide, Diamond said. Early American posters depict yogis as magicians or “fakirs” performing acts, along with a 1902 film by Thomas Edison.

Perceptions of yoga helped determine how the tradition developed, and knowing that background is important for how Americans think about yoga today, Diamond said.

Seems like a pretty good encapsulation. Now we’re waiting on an intrepid yogi in the D.C. area to get a review up online.

Posted by Steve


The problem with yoga being too flaky and New Agey

It turns off men, basically.

Now, you probably know this already. But it’s still a good story for the mainstream media. And the Washington Post is the latest to touch in on the female-to-male ratio of yoga practitioners in the West. (After all, as the Post notes, that fairly famous Yoga Journal survey in 2012 found that of 20.4 million yoga practitioners in the U.S., just 18% are men.

Although the story isn’t explicitly tied to the Smithsonian’s yoga art exhibit, I’m going to assume that the opening last weekend is the implicit reason the Post published a fairly lengthy piece on this topic. Yoga on the brain, if you will.

Link to the story is here. A few of the more interesting parts:

Why don’t men do yoga?

“My husband said he felt bored,” said Praneetha Akula, a 36-year-old Silver Spring resident who was visiting the studio on a day off. “He didn’t let himself enjoy it.”

Akula is like many women who do yoga and want their spouse or partner to give it a try. But the many myths about yoga stand in their way: Yoga isn’t a decent workout; it’s too touchy-feely; you have to be flexible to do it; men’s bodies just aren’t built for pretzellike poses.


Fishman has written several books on using yoga as a supplement for rather than as a substitute for medicine. He has studied yoga since the early 1970s and noted that the practice was developed centuries ago by men in India. But its modern form has become feminized.

“There’s been a flip,” Fishman said in a telephone interview. “When it came to the United States, yoga became a sort of gentle gym, a noncompetitive, non-confrontational thing that’s good for you. Yoga has this distinctive passive air to it. You get into the pose and stay there.”


Poole decided to drop some of the elements of a traditional yoga class that could turn off guys: no chanting, no Sanskrit terms for poses, no music, no headstands or handstands that are difficult and prone to causing injury. “I keep it easy and gentle, and I avoid trying to make the client not look good,” he said. [Steve’s note: Surely that quotation will claim some yoga teachers’ attention.]


When men say they are bored with yoga, Poole thinks there may be something else going on.

“Our egos are deflated because we can’t do some of the poses,” he said.

That’s a pretty common attitude among some men at the Flow Yoga Center in the District, according to co-owner Ian Mishalove. He suggests that men look for a beginner class, talk with the teacher beforehand about any past injuries or physical limitations, and don’t insist on trying to do every pose.


The spiritual side of yoga can inspire some people, while it’s a New Age nightmare for others. That’s particularly true for many men, according to Mishalove.

“If it’s flaky and too New Agey, soft or touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff unless it’s explained in a way that is understandable to a male audience,” he said. Mishalove says that men often respond better if yoga is presented as a way to relieve stress rather than a way to find spiritual contentment, for example.

The piece ends, of course, the way approximately 89% of stories of this ilk do: With a guy saying he goes to yoga class because that’s where the women are. Of course.

And lest you be concerned: Yes, the story does mention William Broad’s book about yoga and injuries. (I suppose it was about more than that, but in the end, that’s all it’s about effectively.)

I won’t leave you on such a low note, though. U.S. News & World Report has the best rundown of the Smithsonian show that I’ve encountered.


A link to the story is here, and from the piece:

“There hasn’t been much work done on this visual culture and our understanding of yoga’s manifestation in history is also quite spotty,” explains exhibit curator Debra Diamond. “It’s like a whole other archive that hadn’t been used before.”

The exhibit tracks the way yoga practices and teachings were disseminated throughout the Indian subcontinent. “We know that at least as early as the 5th century B.C. that there’s this huge shift in Indian soteriological thought,” Diamond says. “There’s this notion that we, ourselves – through our own bodies and minds – have the power to get out of this horrible cycle of death-rebirth.”


However, the exhibit also uncovers a dark side to how yoga inhabited the Indian imagination. “There’s definitely always a strand of evil, sinister yogis, at least in the imagination,” Diamond says. This includes paintings and illustrations of fictional yogis who doubled as spies, incinerated cities and engaged in other forms of taboo acts.

“How can you show that kind of thing? Obviously, their scariness wouldn’t show if they were sculpted in the context of a temple. You have the trope of the sinister yogi in popular stories for two millennium,” Diamond says.

Yes, the story kind of runs with the “sinister yogis” idea. Anything to get feet in the door. It still is the best description of the show I’ve seen.

Posted by Steve

What you’re doing is ‘complex yoga stretches,’ says the Washington Post

We were going to put up a Friday asana aid, but then we realized: It’s a Moonday. So let’s chill.

Instead, we’ll offer up the Washington Post’s Style section coverage of the Smithsonian yoga exhibit gala, complete with an encounter between Alex Baldwin and an unnamed yogi who was demonstrating the practice.

A little bit of “investigative reporting” by us — aka happening upon something on Facebook — turns up that the unnamed yogi is Peg Mulqueen.

Here you go, and it all seriousness, it sounds like the Smithsonian exhibit is well worth it if you can make it. (We’ll keep our eyes out for any reviews.) From the Post:

Paparazzi cameras  – the bane of her volatile husband’s existence – were poised Thursday night as the A-list couple, married last summer, arrived for the museum’s “Some Enlightened Evening” fundraiser at the Mellon Auditorium.

After submitting to a brief TV interview, Baldwin got distracted by a woman performing complex yoga stretches on the ground – one of the many performers on mats around the giant ballroom. “Have you met my wife, Hilaria?” he asked her, guiding his spouse away from the cameras.

And really, what could be a better way to end this stressful week in Washington than an evening celebrating the art of staying calm? The black-tie, $1,000-a ticket evening (relocated from the gallery to the Mellon because of the shutdown) celebrated the debut of the Sackler Gallery’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit, which opens Saturday.

Because there was no time to move the gala back to the museum after the government reopened, photos of sculptures and paintings from the exhibit were shown on video screens on the wall of the dimly lighted room, which piped in soothing, dreamy music throughout the night.

Several hundred guests showed up to the event, which raised about $450,000 – though a rep said that amount could change because of the last-minute venue switch. VIPs included the museum’s Jillian Sackler, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao.

The Baldwins, you might suspect, get a lot of the focus, and they donated an undisclosed amount as part of chairing the gala, so good for them. (Baldwin did a hilarious promo a few years back for our local NPR station during its pledge week, too.)

But to note: The event raised $450,000.

The Post story ends with this:

In response to what yoga position he would recommend for members of Congress to avoid another shutdown, Baldwin was initially stumped. But he later said: “My wife came up with a brilliant idea.” The position: bed of nails.

True enough. Or just put them through Primary, right?

Posted by Steve and Bobbie

Smithsonian yoga exhibit, Baldwin-led opening gala both ready to go

As we noted, the now-ended U.S. government shutdown threatened to postpone (at least) the Smithsonian’s high-profile yoga in art show, which is set to open Sat., Oct. 19. But all is set and back ready to go — although the shutdown did force some changes to the show’s big opening gala tonight and pre-opening events on Friday.

While buried under the shutdown, organizers kept moving ahead, as this McClatchy news story from Wednesday notes:

Breathing deeply, the organizers of a first-ever yoga art exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, part of the shuttered Smithsonian Institution, found a way to mount a gala Thursday night and a round of programs Friday, all without losing their composure.

The celebration goes on off-site from the Smithsonian property, even as government workers anticipate finally being able to go back to work as Congress appears close to reopening the federal government.

A local alternative paper in Washington details the who, what and where a little bit more (back pre-end-of-shutdown):
And with no speedy solution in sight, museum officials put contingency plans in motion by transferring several special events slotted for this week to alternative venues. A major benefit gala—whose chairs includeHilaria and Alec Baldwin; Her Excellency Nirupama Rao, ambassador of India to the U.S.; and His Highness Gaj Singh II, Maharajah of Jodhpur-Marwar, among others—was moved to the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium this past week. Lectures on subjects ranging from mommy yoga to military yoga were rescheduled for NPR’s new headquarters on North Capitol Street. The Freer/Sackler still hopes to put bodies into “Yoga” for a preview on Friday—but if House Republicans don’t accommodate this week, then the museum will feed B-roll and images to the international news crews it’s depending on for coverage.

You can see why there might have been some heavy breathing among gala organizers, and I’m not talking Ujjayi breathing here.

I can’t find anything about those lectures, but there is a promised screening of a film about the Kumbh Mela.

We have some emails out to friends in the D.C. area and hope (and expect!) to have some on-site reporting for you on Friday or during the weekend.

Posted by Steve

Here’s what you’ll see at the Smithsonian yoga exhibit — if …

You know what that “if” is, right? If our ongoing government shutdown ends.

Word is, though, that our wonderful, thoughtful and insightful leaders within the U.S. government might be getting close to a deal to avoid a credit default and get the government back up and running. (For those who care.)

And that would mean that the planned opening of the “first-ever” art exhibit on yoga’s visual history at the Smithsonian would happen as planned. Although, right now, there’s still this warning at the site:

“Some Enlightened Evening” Gala, Transcendance soiree, and select events on Thursday, October 17, Friday, October 18 and Saturday, October 19 have been relocated to new venues. Due to the federal government shutdown, the Freer and Sackler Galleries is closed; all daytime and evening events at the museum are also canceled. For additional information please contact

We previewed the Smithsonian’s show a whole year ago here, and followed its Kickstarter campaign more recently. That campaign easily topped its goal of $125,000 — still not enough to avoid the shutdown-related closure, obviously.

If the government doesn’t end the shutdown, or you just can’t get to Washington for the show, the slideshow is worth a look. You can see something, at least, whether the government stays shuttered.

Posted by Steve

Smithsonian yoga exhibit beats its crowdsourcing goal, nets $170,000

I guess people like this yoga thing.

The people behind the fall exhibit on art and yoga at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries far exceeded their crowdsourcing goal of $125,000 — topping out at $170,000. There were more than 600 donors, including Whole Foods — which dropped $70,000 (and thus has gotten some nice press, including here). Sounds like the money will go toward all the shipping of different pieces, which are being brought in from private collections around the world.

I’d say you can expect to see similar efforts by museums — especially publicly funded ones — in the future.

We’ve written about this exhibit a few times — going back into last year.

Here’s a reminder of what the exhibit is about:

Yoga is more than you know.
Yoga is a global phenomenon practiced by millions of people seeking spiritual insight and better health. Few, however, are aware of yoga’s dynamic history. Opening this fall at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is Yoga: The Art of Transformation, the world’s first exhibition of yogic art. Temple sculptures, devotional icons, vibrant manuscripts, and court paintings created in India over 2000 years—as well as early modern photographs, books, and films—reveal yoga’s mysteries and illuminate its profound meanings.

There’s this piece, in particular, that sounds worth a trip to DC: “ten folios from the first illustrated compilation of asanas (yogic postures), made for a Mughal emperor in 1602, which have never before been exhibited together.”

It runs Oct. 19 to Jan. 26.

Posted by Steve