More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, spending million of dollars on products and classes every year. That popularity could make “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” among the Asian Art Museum’s most well-attended exhibits ever.
On view through May 25, the show was organized by the Smithsonian, where it debuted before arriving in San Francisco, its only West Coast venue.
It’s a beautiful exhibition, with 135 sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, books and photographs that illustrate a spiritual tradition thousands of years old, one that has captivated people throughout the 1.7 million-square-mile Indian subcontinent.
Yet the show lacks a chronological approach with clear timelines and doesn’t always provide enough context for artifacts, especially in the first room, where the display is particularly amorphous.
Given that yoga traverses Buddhist, Hindu and Jainist traditions, a thematic, exploratory approach may seem appropriate, but the exhibit’s layout and wall text are scattered, leaving viewers more overwhelmed than informed.
In the first room, viewers encounter ascetics — people who deny themselves worldly pleasures in pursuit of enlightenment — in sculptures before they are described in context. Meanwhile, the significance of various gods and goddesses is not always clear. It also seems odd that, in an exhibition about an ancient tradition, the first prominent object, a painting, dates from 1823.
Today’s yoga classes offer a progression through various poses, or asanas, something the exhibit claims became a primary feature of yoga in the past 100 years. Yet that point is made after viewers already have seen 10 pages from a 17th-century illustrated manuscript called “Ocean of Life,” described as the earliest known attempt to systematically illustrate asanas.
“Ocean of Life” was composed by Muslim Sufi master Muhammad Ghwath Gwaliyari, a commission ordered by future Mughal emperor Prince Salim, an interesting aspect of Indian history the exhibit could have explored more.
The images show bare-chested men in front of a fire in recognizable meditation poses. The original Persian text accompanying the headstand pose claims the exercise can create “a kind of fire that burns up all impurities,” perhaps the “feel the burn” of the 17th century.
Several lush landscape paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries are highlights of the exhibition. Indian art is high on saturated jewel tones, and the magenta, teal green and indigo pigments, often infused with real metal, make the images sparkle.
Bold 19th-century compositions by Amardas Bhatti, including a flood depicted by a lightning bolt of a river, are almost jazzy.
IF YOU GO
Yoga: The Art of Transformation
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (except until 9 p.m. Thursdays); closes May 25
Admission: $8 to $12