Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.


[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

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