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DEBRA DIAMOND (Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler Galleries): It’s an incredibly malleable term, yoga. Which, you know, in Sanskrit means union, but it’s been interpreted by many teachers over millennia.

Yoga-post01The earliest images of yogic practitioners or enlightened beings who were transformed through the practices of meditation and austerities were made in devotional contexts, whether they were Jain, Hindu, or Buddhist.

The first illustrated treatise of yoga postures was only made in 1600, and that the text itself is a Persian translation, written by a Sufi, made from a Sanskrit Hindu group of texts. This illustrated Ocean of Life is exciting today because so many people in the United States associate yoga with postures.

There’s probably no single practice that is in every single yoga tradition, but maybe the most constant has been meditation—stilling the mind in order to correctly perceive reality. It’s that shift in perception that enables the transcendence of suffering.

Goals can be enlightenment, they can be immortality, they can be a better body. I mean, these are radically different goals. And then, of course, there are also Hindus who live in India who think that every aspect of their life is an act of yoga.

Yoga’s techniques and goals move in and through and outside of religion in very interesting and complex ways.

The Meaning of Yoga

Yoga: The Art of Transformation is a visually rich art exhibit presenting the spiritual origins and historical manifestations of yoga. Having debuted at the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C., the exhibit is now being shown at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, followed by the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Yoga’s techniques and goals move in and through and outside of religion in very interesting and complex ways,” says Debra Diamond, an associate curator of south and southeast Asian art for the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler galleries. “There are also Hindus who live in India who think that every aspect of their life is an act of yoga.”