Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Our Yoga Ancestors

Yogini, 1000-1050
India; Kannauj
Uttar Pradesh state.
Yoga The Art of Transformation is currently on exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through May 25.  It is an easy ride on Bart and well worth the time and effort.  Yoko and I made our way there recently.  I came away from the exhibit with the visual experience of the richly diverse history of what we now causally call yoga and often think exercise.  Not to diminish the physically therapeutic value that our modern yoga practices have become.  I partake of them and earn a living from helping others partake of the clear benefits the postures (asana) and breathing practices (pranayama) have to offer. I am also intrigued by the multitude of ancestors, the interesting things they did and the motivations for their practices that this exhibit gives us glimpses of.

Scholars Mark Singleton and Elizabeth De Michelis have raised questions about claiming any continuity between what we practice and call yoga today with the historical practices also called yoga causing some discomfort for those of us who might like to think there is an authenticity to what we do because it is connected to something much older, something that has been practiced and refined for such a long time.  It must be worthwhile if it has endured so long.  I confess to having some of these sentiments myself and to my own squirmy feelings when reading these two authors who have done such clear and careful research.

My Yoga Ancestors: This collage symbolizes for me the bringing
 together of the ancestors and the modern, and the reverance
that can be present in all forms of practice.
And yet…I am drawn to the images and the bits of information we have about the lives of this variety of people who practiced yoga and I want to claim them as my ancestors.  There is a lovely series of paintings from the oldest known manual on asana. I do not remember the date. It is, interestingly, written not in Sanskrit but in Arabic.  The author and artist is a Muslim Sufi.  Each image shows a man practicing some kind of asana (seated) on a small platform with a little hut and some mountains behind him.  Each hut is slightly different and each landscape has its own particular mountain and clouds and sky.  I can imagine some small thread running from my own practice on a platform with mountains in the background and my rather larger -- though not enormous by modern standards -- hut. 

Although by the time of Krischamacharya bringing asana into the modern world, women were not initially allowed to practice, I am pleased by the images of yogini’s such as the one above, sword in one hand, sitting on an owl. I am pleased to find women among the images. Much of the symbolism is a mystery to me but I love the multiple arms in many of the images and the magenta mountains and scenes of animals you have to look closely to find.  The magnifying glasses they provide are helpful.  It seems the painters must have used a brush with one hair.   The artist in me is fascinated and the yoga practitioner is inspired.  Here, they are not separate.

It seems to me as I view this exhibit that I am viewing sacred art.  What makes something sacred and something else mundane?  My Iphone dictionary defines sacred as “dedicated or set apart for the worship of a deity; entitled to reverence and respect” and mundane as “dull or ordinary, commonplace.”  Perhaps all art is sacred and yet I am not quite sure.  These depictions of those who were so deeply committed to transforming themselves, whatever we might think of their chosen method, calls to some deep part of my being powerfully.  Is it not possible that these ancient yoga practitioners have somehow gifted our modern world with a vast and varied sacred foundation from which we can draw from, if we choose to, whether or not the connective thread is externally visible? 

The exhibit makes the historical connections through Yoganandra and Krischamacharya, both of whom were instrumental in bringing some form of yoga to the West.  Yogananda interestingly, downplayed asana because of its association with extreme practices such as laying on a bed of nails or standing on one foot for years.  Krischamacharya developed the modern asana practice we are familiar with.

In one large painting that includes many different yogis doing many different practices with mountains and animals in the background, the yogis who are practicing pranayama are levitating.  I am reminded again of the mystery of breath.  It is mundane and it is sacred.