Yoga, in this instance, is not a matter of meditation mats and Whole Foods Wellness Clubs. It’s a shattering personal revolution. It’s about leaving home, going naked, fasting for years, freezing in winter, roasting in summer, being shunned by the living and lying down with the dead. It’s about perfecting your body in order to lose it, loosening your mind till the cosmos floods in. Whether, in the end, you glow like a god or blow away like an ash, pain and pleasure will be a thousand yesterdays in the past.
The origins of the ideas and actions we call yoga are obscure, and the visual history all but unstudied. The Sackler show is the first major art survey in the United States to tackle the subject. There is evidence that religious ascetics were wandering North India as early as the fifth century B.C., practicing meditation and breath control in pursuit of mind-over-matter transcendence. By the second century A.D. their methods had long since been absorbed into Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and were codified in the Yoga Sutras, a philosophical treatise that doubled as a user’s manual and is attributed to a sage named Patanjali.
Patanjali was a pragmatist, not a mystic. He gives step-by-step instructions — sit still, keep clean, stay celibate, study scripture — on how to free the soul from the aching and twitchy body. He also implied that yoga could have other attractive benefits. If you got good at it, you might be able to read people’s minds, revisit the past, learn how to fly.
Superhuman power is always a great lure, and the form of yoga based on a spiritual system called tantra, promised even more of it. It said you could attain immortality, become divine, though this took hard work. It required mastery of concentration-sharpening tools — visual ones called mandalas and aural ones called mantras — and living a life that many people, including other yogis, considered uncouth.
You had to camp out on cremation grounds, picking at bones, drinking blood, eating flesh. There you kept rough company with deities like Bhairava (literally “horrid”), a ferocious form of Shiva, and packs of dangerous goddesses called yoginis. Your outré and antisocial lifestyle had a purpose. By charging into it full-tilt, you broke through human normality and its taboos and came out on the other side, beyond restrictions of caste and religion, beyond caring what the world thought. Being beyond care made you free.
The Sackler show, organized by Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, provides visual equivalents for yoga’s complex, often perverse and paradoxical ideas. How can the great savior god Shiva be at once ethereal and frightful? A 13th-century stone Bhairava from Karnataka, in southern India, gives an answer. His gently swaying body is the last word in sculptural delicacy, dripping with ornamentation like a rose bush laden with flowers. His face is equally fine-cut, though with one peculiarity: small sharp fangs protrude from his lips.
A life-size 10th-century stone image of a yogini from a temple in Tamil Nadu has comparable surprises. Youthful and full-figured, she’s a beauty. But she too has fangs and holds a sliced-off top of a skull demurely in one hand. There’s nothing demure at all about a second, sandstone yogini from Uttar Pradesh. Fabulously carved and furiously scowling, she rides, spread-legged on the back of an owl, straight toward us, raising a sword and shield in two of her four hands while using the others to deliver a two-fingered warning whistle.
Much early yogic art feels aggressive and unruly, though there are tranquil interludes in images associated with Jainism. Jain scripture includes some of the first known references to yoga. But as befits a faith uncompromisingly committed to nonviolence and anti-materialism, the Jain visual ideal of a yogi is spectacularly calm and plain: a smooth-skinned nude figure, usually of a Jain saint, carved from white marble, seated in meditation. They’re like miniature mountains, snowy and unperturbable, letting the wild world spin around them.
“It hurts in a good way,” said Stephen Vinez, who is serving a 20-year sentence for a manslaughter conviction.
The class was the fourth that Jim Freeman, a lawyer turned yogi and the founder of Conviction Yoga, has led at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Powledge Unit in East Texas. For the inmates, the weekly two-hour sessions offer a reprieve from their cells and the boredom of prison life, along with physical and mental health benefits. And the Powledge chaplain said corrections officers saw better behavior from inmates who took part in spiritual programs that gave them a chance to exercise.
Mr. Freeman, 48, who started the volunteer yoga classes this summer, hopes to expand the program to all 109 Texas prison units. But there are financial and administrative challenges. Mr. Freeman spends about $300 a week driving to four rural prisons from his Austin home. And the criminal justice department classifies yoga as a religious offering, he said, so at some prison units, only inmates who identify themselves as practitioners of Eastern religions like Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism are allowed to attend .
Mr. Freeman said he was determined to bring the transformative value he had found in yoga to as many prisoners as possible.
“I just see them as men,” he said of the inmates, “and men that are starving for something.”
Tuesday’s session was Bobby Husband’s first experience with yoga. Mr. Husband, who is serving 15 years for aggravated assault, grimaced as he moved through what Mr. Freeman called a “sun cell-utation,” a version of the traditional series of poses, modified to be done in a narrow cell.
Later, as Mr. Husband struggled to move from the downward-facing-dog posture to a lunging pose, Mr. Freeman offered encouragement.
“That was perfect,” he said, leading the men in applause as Mr. Husband achieved the lunging pose. “I’m excited you did that. It’s tough.”
Sweat beaded on Mr. Freeman’s bald head as he urged the inmates to connect their breath and movements and focus on the sensations of the stretching. At 6 feet and 230 pounds, Mr. Freeman has been told that he looks more like an inmate than a yoga instructor. That could be one reason the men respond so positively; at most of the units, he said, participation is growing.
Mr. Freeman, who struggled with addiction in the past, said yoga changed his life after he used it for post-surgical rehabilitation in 2011. For the first time, he said, he felt true compassion.
Yoga in prison is a growing trend, and more than a dozen correctional facilities offer classes through the California-based Prison Yoga Project. Mr. Freeman started Conviction Yoga after attending a seminar hosted by James Fox, the founder of the California program.
Denise Veres, a clinical researcher and yoga instructor, is founder and executive director of the Shanthi Project, a prison yoga program in Pennsylvania. The program began in youth detention centers, where Ms. Veres gathered data about the boys’ responses.
“They felt calmer, less stressed, less anxious,” she said.
Mr. Freeman hopes that if prison officials here recognize those benefits, he will be able to offer more classes, he said. He also aims to raise funds to hire more instructors and envisions offering yoga at all prisons, including Texas’ death row.
“I hope to be 70 years old in prison teaching yoga,” he said.
Are you the kind of person who will develop back problems? Take this easy test.
l. Are you alive?
2. Are you getting older?
3. Do you ever pick things up?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, back problems are probably in your future. (Eighty percent of adults experience them at some point.)
“But I’m not the kind of person who has back problems!” you protest.
That’s what everyone says. Right up until the moment his or her back goes out.
What did mine in was decades of library work. Hours spent lifting small weights (books). And heavier weights (reference books). Not to mention carrying carton after carton of donated books from the vestibule where patrons dropped them off into the storage room. All of which I handled with the casual assumption that I was, and would always be, Superwoman.
I thought nothing of stooping, hoisting up a mammoth box of books, then lugging it the length of the library.
People tried to warn me. “Watch your back!” a patron would caution as I staggered by with a large box.
“Thanks!” I would respond, while thinking: “Back problems? Me? Not a chance.”
Then one morning I got out of bed and I couldn’t stand up. My back refused to bear my weight. I hit the floor, then crawled back into bed and phoned my sister, who has coped with back problems for years.
“I’ll be right there with a heating pad,” she said. “First, you need to heat it. Then you need to ice it. And then you need Michele.”
Michele is her (and now my) physical therapist.
After working with Michele, and dutifully doing my exercises each morning, I’ve gotten to the point where I can function again.
But I’ll never be the same. I can no longer sit for any length of time before the pain starts creeping in. Or lift anything heavier than a Yorkiepoo. Which is say, five pounds. That’s two library books. (Unless you’re talking about the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography, which, at close to 800 pages is closer to a Bichon.)
As my co-workers zip around with big stacks of books, I’ve learned to limit myself to two, one in each hand.
Or else I use a book cart, which is what I should have done in the first place. (My boss used to pester me to use a book cart. Naturally, I ignored her. You hate to think that your boss could be right about anything.)
I know what you’re thinking: “There’s nothing wrong with MY back!”
Nonsense. You’re just one sports injury, crazy dance move or well-intentioned offer to help a pal carry that armoire up to the attic from Broke-Back Boomer.
When your back does, inevitably, go out, here’s my advice: Do your exercises. Never lift heavy objects. And, most important, channel Nancy Reagan: Learn to “Just Say No.”
I used to be the first one to pitch in to get the job done.
Help move your ex-boyfriend’s marimba out to the curb? I’d love to. Hold those six bags of groceries for a moment while you get the front door open? No problem. Hoist Voldemort, your labradoodle, into the mud room sink for a paw wash after he comes in from a backyard romp? Easily done!
But now, if it needs to be picked up, lifted, carried or moved, I’m no longer available.
And don’t even think of asking me to go with you to Ikea.
My man just became a grandpa for the first time. He can hold baby Brock for hours. I can hold him for, at most, 10 minutes.
By the time my son places my own first grandchild in my arms, I want to be able to hold him. Easily. For a good long time.
So I’ll continue to do back-strengthening exercises. And to refrain, however much I want to, from helping you lift that fallen tree limb off your Toyota. Not only that, but, for the sake of my back, I’ve done two things I thought I would never do.
Practice yoga. And acquire wheeled luggage.
I always thought people with rolling suitcases looked rather silly, like grown-up toddlers with a pull-toy. Now I’m the proud owner of a sky blue Samsonite Lift Easy with multidirectional spinner wheels. And while I’m way too impatient by nature to actually want to slow down, breathe deeply and assume the Upside Down Turtle or Backward Facing Squirrel, you’ll find me on the mat every Monday and Wednesday for “Gentle Yoga With Georgette.”
Should I have accepted these changes more gracefully? You bet. After all, I’m pushing 60. Nobody expected my Grandmother to hoist large objects at this age. If she needed something moved, she thought nothing of asking for help. And we were always happy to lend a hand.
But I’m a boomer. Forever young. And a feminist. (I am Woman! Hear me Roar! Then watch me lift this heavy box!)
Even so, the strength I really need now is the strength to cope with my own limitations. To ask for help when I need it. (And to refrain from hollering “Watch your back, you idiot!” every time I see you go by carrying anything heavier than a Yorkiepoo.)
“Other studios were very unhappy about it because they didn’t want the carpet either — it’s pretty stinky,” said Ted Grand, 45, a Toronto-based environmental activist who with his partner Jessica Robertson, 36, replaced the required floor with sustainably harvested cork more in keeping with their beliefs. (Mr. Grand had first taught himself Bikram in the 1990s while living without electricity in the mountains of British Columbia, squinting at a photocopied fax of the 26 postures.)
Gregg Williams, a Bikram yoga spokesman, said that the founder Bikram Choudhury was a traditionalist and that the carpet, used in his first studio in 1971, was a branding issue.
“It’s like the guy at your corner McDonald’s who doesn’t want to use the M that way,” said Mr. Williams, a former studio owner. “What would McDonald’s say? They’d say absolutely not.” (Mr. Williams said wood floors plus sweat could lead to a lawsuit should someone slip. Besides, he added, wood is too expensive to require.)
So in 2004 Mr. Grand and Ms. Robertson left Bikram to create their brand of hot yoga, a reaction to all that frustrated them about their former discipline. There would be 40 postures and classes of varying length and format taught with no script, with the temperature set at just below 100 degrees rather than Bikram’s “torture chamber” (Mr. Choudhury’s description). Students are encouraged to drink water; Bikram suggests holding off as much as possible. And studios are to be of green construction from top to bottom. The selected name is Moksha, which is Sanskrit for freedom or liberation.
Moksha is not the first Bikram breakaway, but it is perhaps the most successful. Today there are 64 studios, and another 15 are to open next year.
In the United States, where the name Moksha already has been used by multiple Indian restaurants, a Las Vegas jam band and unrelated yoga studios, the studio owners in October voted to christen themselves Modo, a made-up word that stands for “the way or the path.” Bikram, whose founder publicly has referred to teachers of all other types of yoga as “clowns,” has some 500 studios worldwide. Mr. Williams said demand is showing no signs of cooling. (He dismissed years of published reports claiming at least 1,000 studios as “exaggerated.”)
Modo’s Manhattan location — students wearing recycled-bottle-cap capri pants can chaturanga on recycled-tire floors between vine-covered recycled denim walls — opened in a former D.J. school in the West Village in 2012. The freewheeling upstart yoga quickly has become a favorite of models, performers and fashion types, who praise its ability to strengthen, reduce stress and detoxify without the boredom (or time commitment) of Bikram.
Jenni Quilter, 33, said she had been to too many New York studios where “yoga just feels masochistic, like self-purification slash punishment, where no one’s eaten for five months and everyone’s in Lululemon.” She thought Bikram was too cultish, and was wary of Modo, but promptly bought a membership after her first class.
“I loved it,” said Ms. Quilter, an arts writer with a tattoo of a 17th-century pottery mark on her left arm. She said she was stronger from her practice, though she had yet to see the much-vaunted skin benefits of her now-daily sweat. “Maybe if I didn’t reward myself with wine so often,” she said.
The actress Katie Holmes has been spotted here, as has the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Sarah Neufeld, 34, one of the studio’s four owners and the violinist for the indie rock band Arcade Fire, sometimes plays live for special Friday-night karma classes along with her childhood friend and a co-owner, Rebecca Foon, 34, a cellist for the modern chamber-music group Esmerine. The two curate music for classes where it’s offered and also teach, which Ms. Neufeld sometimes has done straight off a plane from touring (“I’m maybe not the most present,” she said ruefully). Music is forbidden in Bikram; it’s played in roughly half of Modo’s New York classes.