A groundbreaking art exhibit mines yoga's mythic past for clues about its vibrant present
VISUAL ART/YOGA I attended my first yoga class in 2000, at the Mindful Body on California Street. I'd arrived by way of much prodding from a journalism colleague who thought yoga might help with an increasingly debilitating chronic pain condition I'd mysteriously developed. A Brooklyn-raised fiery gym rat in my early 20s, I had just moved to San Francisco and simply couldn't fathom doing this New-Agey exercise routine. I'd also recently been to India (to see the country — not to learn yoga), and I'd resented the hippie Westerners who seemed to be eagerly consuming yoga study, but staying clear of the places where starvation and disease had riddled the practice's homeland.
With all of this emotional baggage — and an additional few suitcases that I'll leave unpacked for the moment — I put on a pair of old blue leggings and an oversized T-shirt, and dragged myself to yoga class. And then I went back again.
It was a good workout. But, more significantly, by the time each class was midway through, my pain would temporarily disappear. Plus, the practice made me feel a way no native New Yorker ever expects to feel: peaceful. I committed myself to yoga harder and faster than I had to anything in years. It was doing something to me, changing me in some way.
Now it's 2014; I've become a yoga teacher. And tonight I'm at the opening party for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco's "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," the first ever comprehensive art exhibit on yoga's history. Upstairs, yoga teacher-rapper-celebrity-activist MC Yogi is performing his signature ditty "Ganesh is Fresh" to a crowd of fans, some dressed in colorful spandex yoga clothes, others in traditional Indian garb, and still others in contemporary SF duds. Downstairs, some people are engaged in high-level philosophical discussion about the winding path of yoga history, while others are learning AcroYoga maneuvers, drinking "all-natural, gluten-free" margaritas, or striking yoga poses for Instagram-able photos in the museum entranceway.
From an anthropological perspective, it's quite the scene. And though I'm intimate with my own personal trajectory, there's a bigger question at hand. How did we all get here?
Though many of us have been taught (or have simply assumed) that ancient Indian sages were waking up at dawn to do sun salutations, we now know that this was likely not the case. Recent scholarly research tell us that the yoga we practice today in our heated, hard wood-floored, lavender-smelling classrooms is a new breed of practice, most of which was developed in the last century. So, what is the origin of this practice?
In town until May 25, this gorgeous 135-piece sprawling exhibit — which includes towering Tantric stone goddesses, colorful renderings of intricate yogic energy systems, and exciting film footage of 1930s yoga masters — offers some answers. Originally created by art historian Debra Diamond for the Sackler and Freer Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the exhibit's just arrived to town amid great enthusiasm. "San Francisco has such a long rich history with yoga," says Qamar Adamjee, in a recent phone conversation, who, along with Jeff Durham, curated the local presentation of the exhibit. "It was a no-brainer to bring the exhibit here."