Last weekend I headed down to DC for the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit . If you haven't heard yet, the Freer | Sackler Museum at the Smithsonian put together a “leitmotif” of two thousand years of yoga art.
The exhibit is amazingly great, with weathered sculpture from ancient temples to miniature paintings from the medieval era to post-structuralist reinterpretations of the colonial-era photos of costumed-up ascetics. If you’re a yogi with a bent for art or history, be sure to catch it.
For me personally one of the key insights of the exhibition and its supporting scholarship was how instrumental photography and film have been in the development of “modern yoga”. Few of us probably know that the modern, postural yoga we practice today was developed only in the 1930 - 50s, by Krishnamacharya and his successors. Fewer still probably know the extent to which these pioneers relied on photography and film not just to popularize their redefinition yoga but also to develop it.
Prior to the 1930s, there were some seated postures and austerities described in ancient texts and performed by ascetics, often for Imperial observers, but nothing like the flowing, aerobic sequences taught by Krishnamacharya and Jois. When pre-modern artists weren’t depicting deities, they would draw the body conceptually, as a map of the universe or subtle energy channels, like the Chakras and Nadis.
It would take Imperial Britain and the spread of Western-style fitness and gymnastics programs through photo-rich magazines for Krishnamacharya to synthesize the latter with Tantric and Hatha traditions and lay the foundation of modern yoga. Photography and film both informed Krishnamacharya’s work in adapting Western-style weightlifting and acrobatic exercises into his yoga teaching and enabled the widespread distribution of that teaching.
As yoga researcher Mark Singleton writes, “The phenomenon of international posture-based yoga would not have occurred without the rapid expansion of print technology and the cheap, ready availability of photography. Furthermore, yoga’s expression through such media fundamentally changed the perception of the yoga body and the perceived function of yoga practice.”
Depictions of the “yoga body” went from conceptual to realistic with the rise of photography in the 20th century. As a result, Singleton argues, yoga’s transition from a classical, primarily spiritual basis to modern, primarily athletic practice accelerated.
So, today, when the New York Times roils the yoga community by asking if Instagram selfies remain “true to the spirit of yoga”, let’s remember that yoga, as we know it now, began with self-styled photography and video, including this YouTube of Krishnamacharya from 1938, perhaps the very first yoga video.