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What the Ghent Altarpiece and the Surya Namaskara may have in common
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Restorations of much loved works invariably arouse controversy, as in the furor organized against the removal of grime from the Sistine Chapel frescoes between 1980 and 1994. Quite apart from a reasonable wariness of paint loss, sheer loyalty to the wonted look of a work, dirt and all, prejudices many.
The experts all tell the story of how, in the thirties, at the Franz Hals Museum in Haarlem, in the Netherlands, restorers stripped yellow varnish from some of the paintings. Visitors were so distraught at the change that the museum’s director issued them yellow-tinted glasses.
There are also academics who militate against the removal of retouches and even of over-paintings, holding that they embody history in themselves.
Peter Schjeldahl, The Flip Side. The New Yorker, 11/29/10
It’s slowly dawning on the practice community that yoga may not have originally looked the way we’ve been thinking it did. The evidence is hardly new, it’s been banging on the pipes for years, and recent books are bringing the knowledge of yoga studies to the everyday practitioners of yoga.
The idea that the exact postures we practice as yoga today aren’t necessarily 5,000 or even 1,000 years old gives some of us a case of severe reactivity or total disillusionment. In response to ever more clarification of history and culture, there are those of us who beat a hasty retreat to the one untenable position of which we as a community ought to be most wary: that practicing postural yoga isn’t “real” yoga.
A great deal of what scholars today are revealing from the texts we revere and from others to which we as non-Sanskritists are only now being well introduced, boils down to one “shocking” thing: oversimplification.
A revelation, for example, that yoga is not Buddhism, even if Buddhists practice yoga.
People have always done what they found to be effective
What we find is there are many forms of yoga. Not just styles of yoga like vinyasa or Iynegar, but actual practices that may bear little resemblance, either in their purpose or in how they’re done, to those we have studied, or to what was thought meaningful to America in the mid nineteenth century.
This flowering of forms and revelation of diverse antecedents does nothing to dilute the power or validity of what we do practice in studios, gyms or home practice on our own. Even in India, in Tibet, or anywhere in South Asia, there have been many practices, many forms.
It does take the wind out of the sails of fundamentalism.
What you need first of all is a perfect vehicle: your body
What these forms have in common is yoga as something done with the body. Yoga is as physical as having a mind or a self is physical. A body is required, not as a background to the play, but as the theatre, action and actors all at once.
Andre Padoux, in his very useful study of mudrās, describes this form of yoga:
Mudrās appear in ritual as actions which combine bodily postures or gestures and mental or spiritual elements: as bodily actions which at the same time are moments of religious and/or mystical experience.
This complexity, this holistic nature, of mudrās is underscored in Amṛtānanda’s Dīpikā on YH [Yoginihrdayam]: he explains the mudrās in terms which do not separate the bodily gesture and its cosmic meaning.
The two are dealt with together in the same sentence as if they were the same thing, or, to put it differently, as if they were two faces of the same indissoluble reality.
Andre Padoux, The body in tantric ritual: the case of the mudrās
The Sanskrit Tradition and Tantrism, Teun Goudriaan, editor.
What’s breathtaking about “bodily actions that are at the same time mystical experience,” and what’s truly liberating about 21st century yoga studies, is the scraping away of a few centuries of mind/ body polarity – an opposition that, like the varnish which may have once been the very best there was to offer in art restoration, is a conceptualization that turns out not to stand up very well to what actually happens or what we have learned over time.
Once we cease to defend the yellow patina of age as the original thing itself, we are swiftly caught up with freshly revealed and compelling mysteries.
Two faces of the same indissoluble reality
The practice we have come to love isn’t, as Schjeldahl says of the Ghent Altarpiece, the painting “Van Eyck saw when he finished painting and nothing that he didn’t.” From some perspectives, the art of The Ghent Altarpiece is more than the painting Van Eyck made with his brushes.
When Schjeldahl expresses his passionate opinion stripping down to what’s left of the original paint is the right thing to do, the curators with whom he’s speaking roll their eyes. He writes, “They all gave me a variant of the same weary look.”
Dubois later told me the process would require “extreme concentration, without losing a view of the ensemble.” It is “not for the faint hearted nor the hurried.”
There are those of us who are rightly wary of what is actually lost and destroyed of the original when we take away what has been added over time.
Others who protest, as Schjeldahl points out, are in the throes of “sheer loyalty,” not to what the painting was when it was made, but to the grime and misuse that makes its age palpable.
Some art lovers feel deeply attached to the fact of the painting looking like it was made a long time ago. So much so, that when the damaging restorations of the past are removed, they beg to be given yellow glasses through which to see the same art they have always loved.
The life the practice has lived is ours too
The academics who rally in support of the dull effects of the preservation techniques that have been applied over time are making the case that the art is inseparable from the life the painting has lived.
We can love the patina of age because it embodies all that has come before without mistaking the yellow varnish as the original color. We can study what people did and called it yoga thousands of years ago, and yet remain most loyal to our feelings about what yoga has become over the course of its life.
Either way, what we know simply and incontrovertibly is not true is that the way it looks today is the way it looked thousands of years ago. Yoga has changed and continues to change, often in pursuit of preserving its original truths. It’s just the preserving and the practices and the truths are different things, and that’s complex.
When we study yoga in an effort to understand how it has come to be the forms we choose to practice, we do ourselves a favor as well as honor yoga to step back and invest in an effort to take in the whole question.
We’ll be coming to terms with why we do what we do as we grapple with what constitutes meaning, culture and history.
It’s not for the faint hearted, nor those in a hurry.
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