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Yogini (detail)

Yogini (detail). India, Uttar Pradesh, Kannauj, first half of the 11th century; Sandstone, 86.4 x 43.8 x 24.8 cm; San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with the John and Karen McFarlin Fund and Asian Art Challenge Fund, 90.92.

Yoga and Visual Culture: An Interdisciplinary Symposium


Yoga as Architecture
Michael W. Meister, University of Pennsylvania
The body and body-discipline have marked sacred images in India from an early period. Breath and body are pulse and dimension of the material universe. Cosmogonic speculations in South Asia map the world as body, and on these sites build altars for sacrificial exchange and temples to shelter divinities manifesting within this creation. Is the temple a “box” for divinity, or rather a “space within the heart” of creation? This paper will attempt to lay out a visual background for yogic thinking, but not an outline or history of yogic practice. Not all disciplined bodies are associated with  “yoga,” yet many divinities have been labeled as “masters of yoga,” articulated in sculpture through bodily discipline. Does yoga express the control of space and breath as creation and time? And is the temple’s proliferation also the expression of yogic power? “Mind” sages begin the world; as rishis they proliferate through Indian history. Are their topknots the towers of Indic temples, a sacred clustering of yogic control? Are yoga and the temple—as structured perceptions of the unstructured divine—still relevant as a regimen, both as program and therapy, today?

The Medieval Indian Yoga Studio: Locating Places of Practice through Architecture, Image, and Text
Tamara I. Sears, Yale University
Approaches to the history of yoga have long centered on the body of the practitioner. However the first requirement for any aspirant was to find a suitable place for yogic practice. Looking to textual, visual, and architectural sources from around the turn of the first millennium, this presentation lays out a variety of types of locations that may have been considered particularly conducive for achieving success in yoga and cultivating a perfected yogic body. In addition to investigating resonances between literary and visual representations, it looks to real spaces, including natural caves, rivers, and mountain landscapes, as well as human creations, such as the monasteries and hermitages that developed in conjunction with agrarian settlements and urbanizing centers. Whereas images and text reveal cultural assumptions about how yoga was taught and practiced, real spaces may retain sometimes-indexical traces of yogicperformance.

Bhakti as Yoga: Traces of Devotional Transformation in Seventeenth-century Bengal
Pika Ghosh, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Gaudiya Vaishnava devotional movement, inspired by the Bengali saint Chaitanya as it swept North India, is best known for passionate singing and exuberant dance, intended to cultivate an intensely personal relationship with Krishna. Alongside such expressive practices, a repositioning of the role and goal of yoga and meditation was proposed in related visual imagery and verses. In particular, the terra cotta imagery of the Keshta Ray/Jor Bangla Temple at Bishnupur (1655) displays multiple paths for yoking oneself to Krishna. However, it is in the relative location of these images on the temple walls that we can begin to discern consonance with the theological and devotional prioritization of prema bhakti. While the longstanding value of self-abnegation was not denied, it is reoriented to uphold the passionate love of the gopis for Krishna, and their yearning to be with him, as the ultimate yogic practice. Thus Gaudiya reorientation of yoga does not deny the potency of ascetic practices of renunciation, but rather offers bhakti yoga as a path whereby all could potentially embrace Krishna.

Holiness, Heat, and Hunger: Sculpting States of Mind
Robert DeCaroli, George Mason University
It is difficult to trace the practices of yoga in the art of South Asia’s early periods (second century BCE–second century CE). The oldest textual sources on yogaemphasize the inner processes of the mind rather than external actions, and such refined mental states are understandably difficult to identify in the plastic arts. However, a closer look at concepts of yogic exertion, self-privation, and the production of tapas, or heat, reveals them to be a way of visually signifying purity. Individuals undergoing periods of fasting are described as having attained a godlike state by burning off mortal imperfections. The artistic representation of exceptional self-discipline may, therefore, evoke notions of divinity. For the emaciated Buddha images from Gandhara, the Buddha’s weakened physical state may have, paradoxically, offered assurances of his spiritual power.

The Buddha as the Yogin: The Making of a Nationalist Art History
Sugata Ray, University of California, Berkeley
This paper tracks the modes through which a metonymic coherence was given to the idea of the Buddha as the yogin. Its point of departure is a 1916 essay by Ananda Coomaraswamy, published in The Burlington Magazine. Here, tracing the origins of the seated Buddha image to the archetypal figure of the yogin, Coomaraswamy polemically asserted that the “national spirit” of India laid not in the Greco-Roman Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara but in the yogic Buddha figure that emerged in first-century North and Central India. As a parable of India’s civilizational value, this palimpsest soon became a crucial site of national redemption, for it brought together asceticism and aestheticism into a singular discursive field. Thus, foregrounding the impact of Coomaraswamy’s essay on early twentieth-century museological displays, curatorial practices, and art history, Ray unravels the intersecting registers through which the idea of the Buddha as a yogin gained sustained efficacy.

Yogi, Jackal, and Goddess in Hindu Tantric Yoga
David Gordon White, University of California, Santa Barbara
A circa 1630 CE Mughal miniature depicts a yogi uttering spells before a heavily armed, sexually alluring goddess whose pointed ears (made of arrow points) mimic those of the jackals in the painting’s foreground. The dynamic relationship between these three figured—yogi, divinized yogini, and jackal—encapsulates Hindu Tantric yoga. Through his use of controlling mantras and visualization practice, the Tantric yogi compels the ravening denizens of the cremation ground—the jackals, who are identified with yoginis in this tradition—to reveal their divine nature and become his sexual consorts. He becomes the “darling of the yoginis” and so realizes his identity with the supreme yogi Siva, represented in this image by the glow of the crescent moon surrounding the yogi’s head. In this presentation, White will contextualize this image through references to cognate images and textual references from the eighth to the twentieth century.

The Yoga of the Yoginīs: Mapping the Goddesses’ Powers in Text and Image
Shaman Hatley, Concordia University, Montreal
Although yoga is popularly associated with meditation, asceticism, and corporeal manipulation, recent scholarship has emphasized the extraordinary powers that have been equally constitutive of the category in Indic tradition. This presentation argues that the figure of the yoginī embodies precisely this conception of yoga as numinous power. Taxonomies of yoginīs in Tantric texts emphasize powers such as shape-shifting, flight, unfettered movement, entry into the bodies of others, martial victory, and custodianship of esoteric knowledge; pursuit of such powers was central to their veneration. Beginning with an archaeology of the category yoginī and analysis of explanations for the designation, Hatley will seek to map, diachronically, the powers constituting their yoga, as described in seventh to thirteenth century literature and iconography. Analyzing statuary from circa tenth- to thirteenth-century yoginītemples, he will argue that particular image sets embody distinctive, though intersecting, visions of yoginīs’ nature and power, which he will contextualize with their representations in texts.

From Tapas to Hard Yoga: The History of the Āsanas of Haṭhayoga
James Mallinson, University of Oxford
The practice of complex, non-seated physical postures, or āsanas, is often assumed to be an ancient part of yoga. Combining analysis of artistic representations of yoga practice up to the early nineteenth century with data from textual sources, the reports of medieval travelers, and ethnography, this paper will posit that such techniques were originally distinct from yoga per se, whose early practices required only simple seated postures for meditation. Non-seated physical postures were methods of accumulating tapas, or ascetic power. The earliest evidence for them is in the textual descriptions of the practices of the śramaṇa ascetic traditions contemporaneous with the Buddha. They first came to be part of yoga in its haṭha formulations codified during the eleventh through fifteenth century, with which such practices ceased to be the preserve of ascetics and were opened up to the wider world. From the fifteenth century onwards they were a key part of yoga practice.

A Case Study of Bahr al-hayat
Carl W. Ernst, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
One of the earliest detailed documents on yogic practices is the Persian Bahr al-hayat by the prominent Shattari Sufi master Muhammad Ghawth (died 1563). This text is preserved in several manuscripts featuring 21 illustrations of yogic postures. A new translation of the fourth chapter, based on close study of half a dozen manuscripts, reveals that an entire folio is missing from the Chester Beatty manuscript; the text actually contains 22 postures, and it describes them by emphasizing verbal formulas (shabda/zikr) rather than physical positions. This paper reevaluates the depiction and description of yogic practices in Bahr al-hayat in the context of the hatha yoga tradition as well as related Arabic and Persian Sufi texts dealing with yoga.

Strange and Wondrous: Early Modern European Views of Yogis
Robert J. Del Bontà
The first Europeans that visited India were interested in religious practices, struck by those that suggested a link with Christianity and by others that were surprisingly different. One particular spot caught their attention: a banyan tree at Surat that was a popular meeting place for yogis. The most famous depiction of this religious site was an engraving by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, which was published in 1675 and became the basis of other prints for centuries. Bernard Picart engraved the most famous copy in 1729. Picart also collected most of the available visual and textual evidence and offered as thorough an understanding of Indian religions as possible in the early eighteenth century. By looking at early visual material, we get an interesting picture not only of India, but also of the way Europeans were digesting the evidence—sometimes with judgmental prejudice, but often with honest respect.

Austerity and Excess: Framing Contradiction in the Figure of the Indian Yogi
Hope Marie Childers, Alfred University
This paper examines a familiar character in Indian visual culture: the drug-consuming yogi. For centuries, art has played a constitutive role in fashioning a rich narrative around the holy men of India and their radical rejection of social norms, conveyed through modes of dress and behavior. The close juxtaposition of the contradictory extremes of austerity and excess underpins the enduring fascination with such figures. This presentation will show how the representation of yogis can point to shifting social and moral values, and thus to the social status of the yogi himself. Such transformations, viewed through a select range of Indian, Mughal, and Company School paintings as well as colonial-era photographs, serve to remind us that the yogi in art has never been a fixed character or type, but a mirror of society’s expectations and understanding of the social value of antisocial ways.

Nath Yogis in Mughal and Rajasthani Painting
Rosemary Crill, Victoria and Albert Museum
There is a large repertoire of Mughal and Rajasthani paintings from the late sixteenth to the nineteenth century, depicting both Muslim and Hindu holy men in various settings. This paper focuses on one specific group within this genre, and explores Mughal and Rajput patrons’ enduring fascination with the Nath or kanpatha sect of yogis. In particular, it looks at the transmission and transformation of a scene of Nath yogis in a landscape, which has its origins in documentary paintings done for the Mughal emperor Akbar to illustrate the memoirs of his grandfather Babur. This image transformed via late Mughal painting into a generic scene of nobles and ladies visiting holy men, and continued to appear in paintings in Rajasthan into the nineteenth century. These specific images will be placed in the context of other paintings of groups of yogis over more than 200 years.

The Yogi, the Magician, and the Scientist: Discourses of Modernity in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Representations of Yoga and Stage Magic
Patton Burchett, New York University
The Indian yogi regularly served as the foil for Western notions of a rational, scientific modernity. In this respect, yogis served much the same role as Western stage magicians, whose “entertainment” served simultaneously to inspire wonder and affirm scientific/rational attitudes. This presentation will look at nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western representations of Indian yogis and other ascetics, in combination with representations of stage magic and with displays of science and modernity. It will consider the blend of awe, wonder, skepticism, and dismissal that characterized attitudes toward yoga in an age when Western discourses of science and rationality became dominant.

Photographing the Modern Yoga Body
Mark Singleton, St. John’s College, Santa Fe
The twentieth-century transnational phenomenon of modern postural yoga was extensively shaped by the medium of photography. As well as making the physical body apparent in an unprecedented, self-evident way, photography rendered the subtle, constructed, ritual body of pre-modern haṭha yoga effectively invisible and, for many, irrelevant. Like the analogous situation in modern Indian art, yoga was refashioned to suit the realistic, photographic tastes of the age. The mystical body of haṭha yoga remains an ambivalent reference point for some modern yoga practitioners, and sits in an uneasy relationship with scientific and anatomical naturalism. Modern yoga occurs in the friction-filled space between these two opposing interpretative paradigms. This paper will trace the emergence of the photographic, realist body of modern postural yoga in relation to the older, symbolic order of Tantric yoga from which it draws its potency and mystique.

Visions of Patañjali as an Authority on Yoga
Gudrun Bühnemann, University of Wisconsin-Madison
In his paper “The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Constructive Orientalism” (2008), Mark Singleton analyzed how Patañjali (to whom the Yoga Sūtras are ascribed) became the figurehead of modern yoga. He is often invoked at the beginning of yoga classes, especially in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition of Pattabhi Jois and in Iyengar Yoga, and his statues are installed in yoga studios. The well-known yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar inaugurated the first Patañjali temple in his native village of Bellur in South India in 2004. The popularity of the Yoga Sūtras and of schools of modern yoga has created a demand for visual representations of Patañjali as an authority on yoga, which are often sold through websites. This presentation will trace the development of the iconography of Patañjali, starting with the earliest representations, which portrayed him as a half-human, half-serpentine devotee of Śiva in the tradition of the Cidambaram Temple in South India. It will then look at the more recent iconography of Patañjali as a siddha, or an accomplished being, absorbed in meditation. Finally, it will examine images of Patañjali that combine traditional elements and experimental new forms.

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