Yoga Sculptures

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 16 November 2019

Yoga is an antique practice which combines a spiritual quest with the control of body muscles for a holistic well-being. It originated in India in ancient times and is today known all over the world in different forms. This post presents representations of Yoga in art through the medium of sculptures from different parts of the world.

Yognarayan meditation sculpture from Khajuraho, India

Let me start this post with a beautiful 10th century sculpture of Chandela period from Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh, India), which is known more for its erotic sculptures. This sculpture has a meditating Vishnu, also known as Yoganarayan, or the God of Yoga. It represents the meditation aspect of Yoga. I saw this sculpture in the national museum in Delhi and fell in love with it.

Origins of Yoga

The word "Yoga" is from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit and means "unity" or "joining of forces". It signifies the unity between the mind and the body or between the realm of mind and the world of senses.

One of the earliest examples of Yoga in sculpture comes from the Pashupati seal with the Pashupati Shiva sitting in the familiar Yoga posture surrounded by animals. It is from Indus Valley and is more than 4000 years old.

The idea of Yoga is mentioned in Rigveda, the oldest of the 4 ancient books of Hinduism. These books are called "Shrutis", which literally means, "which were heard". Some persons consider this as a sign of divine origin of these books, however, I think that these represent the oral traditions of ancient India which were passed through generations before there was writing.

Many historians believe that Indo-Europeans arrived in India from central Asia. However, the ideas of Yoga seem to have developed only in India. Thus, I wonder, was it something in India which helped them to develop such a sophisticated system of spiritual thought expressed through Yoga? Why don't we find any ideas similar to Yoga in other Indo-European populations?

It is said that Yoga was perfected by ascetics called Rishi who lived in the forests. The word Rishi literally means seeing through the spirit or seeing beyond the world of the senses. The image below is detail from a 7th century rock sculpture in Mahabalipuram in south India, showing a Rishi teaching to a group of group of students. In India the spiritual is often mixed with humour and irony and this sculpture is no exception - to the right of the students studying Yoga, you can see a cat busy doing Vrikshasana, the tree position of Yoga, while the mice seem to be celebrating this spiritual conversion of their hunter.

Rishi and the cat yoga sculpture from Mahabalipuram, India

I think that this is a tongue-in-cheek criticism of those who show off their capability of knowing different Yoga positions, without really understanding the importance of mind-control part of Yoga.

Twin Components of Yoga

The essential practice of Yoga has 2 components - meditation and physical exercises. Both these components have been expressed through sculptures, and should be seen as a continuum, each is incomplete without the other.

I will first present the sculptures related to meditation and then those showing the Yogasanas or the Yoga exercises.

Contemplation, Meditation and Samadhi

Meditation is a process of turning inwards, gently focusing the attention on our interior world and observing it which leads to the quietening the mind. The final stage of meditation, when one loses the concept of time is called Samadhi, where all body processes slow down to the minimum. Ancient India is full of sculptures showing meditation.

The next image shows Buddha in different stages of meditation. It is from the 2000 years old Kanheri caves in the periphery of Bombay (Maharashtra, India).

Meditation of Buddha sculpture from Kanheri, India

Finally the third image of meditation is from an 800 years old Jain temple in Halebidu in Karnataka, south India, which has Jain Tirthankars in the meditation pose.

Jain Tirthankar meditation sculpture from Halebidu, India

Along with Buddhism, these Yoga traditions reached China, Japan and Korea, where they developed in different ways, such as Qigong, Zen and Gwanhwa. In more recent times, Yoga meditation has developed new pathways such as, transcendental, Vipassana and mindfulness.

Yogasana or the Yoga Exercises

While the sculptures of meditation are mainly from India and the east, Yogasana are a popular theme in modern sculptures around the world. Let me start with the 7th century sculpture of a Yogi standing in penance in the Vrikshasana (the tree pose) from Mahabalipuram, south of Chennai in Tamilnadu (India). He is supposed to be Arjun from the ancient epic poem of Mahabharat, doing Tapasya (a severe kind meditation which includes deprivation of food and comforts), as a penance for the persons he had killed in the war. The earlier image of the Rishi teaching yoga is a part of same sculpture.

Arjun Penance Yogasana sculpture from Mahabalipuram, India

The next two images are from Delhi International Airport depicting the sequence of body positions known as "Suryanamaskar" (Salutations to the Sun), which is one of the most important Yoga exercises.

Suryanamaskar Yogasana sculpture from Delhi airport, India Suryanamaskar Yogasana sculpture from Delhi airport, India

The next 2 Yogasana images from India are from Calicut (Kozhikode) and Kochi in Kerala, which have strange poses, a kind of jumping frog, which can be considered as a ardh-shirshasana.

Strange Yogasana sculpture from Calicut, India Strange Yogasana sculpture from Kochi biennale, India

The next image is from the contemporary art museum of Prague in Czeck republic. It has a woman who seems to be swimming in the air, in some ways similar to the boy from Calicut above.

Yogasana sculpture from Prague, Czeck Republic

Next is the turn of a sculpture by the Serbian artist Biljana Petrovic, which expresses a sense of search for unity expressed through the intertwined fingers, which is the basis of Yoga.

Biljana Petrovic Yogasana sculpture from Bologna, Italy

The next image is from Manchester (UK) which had a series of colourful female forms perched on high frames, engaged in Yogasanas.

Yogasana sculptures from Manchester, UK

The next sculpture is once again of Vrikshasana by the American artist Dedecker and is from Santa Fe in New Mexico, USA.

Dedecker Yogasana sculpture from Santa Fe, USA

The next 2 images from Venice Biennale and both of them are about Shirshasana, the upside down pose of Yoga and seem to be transmitting very different emotions.

Yogasana sculpture from Venice Biennale, Italy Yogasana sculpture from Venice Biennale, Italy

Conclusions

Yoga sculptures can be about stillness, both of the body and of the mind. They can also be about movement, with the body frozen in an impossible looking position. At the end, both kinds of sculptures are about discipline and self-control. Let me conclude this post with a sculpture by the well-known British artist Marc Quinn. I had seen it in an exhibition in Verona in Italy. I think that it expresses the ideas of stillness, movement, self-control and discipline, very effectively.

Yogasana sculpture by Marc Quinn in Verona, Italy

The most common Yogasanas for the sculptures seem to be upside-down pose of Shirshasana and the tree pose of Vrikshasana.  I love these Yoga sculptures. I like the playfulness in the modern sculptures about Yogasanas. If you have other images of Yoga sculptures that you like, do share them on the facebook page of this blog!

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This is a trilingual blog, it also has some posts in Italian and Hindi. Each section is independent, which means that the majority of the posts in Italian and Hindi are not translations of the English language posts, they are on different subjects.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com