If you want to view a comprehensive history of yoga which is not only the first of its kind in DC, but also in the entire United States, you had better hurry. You only have one week to take in Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Freer and Sackler Gallery.
There you can view devotional sculpture, intriguing art, colonial photographs, and early film and posters that trace yoga from its origins in ancient India to the 20th Century.
The 6 galleries, containing more than 130 works of art, demonstrate how Yogis (and their lesser-known female counterparts called Yoginis) have been imagined and understood over the centuries.
Today, yoga is practiced worldwide. For example, in the United States, an estimated 2 million residents are engaged in some form of the discipline which is recognized as a source of health and spiritual insight.
"It makes you have peace of mind - physical, spiritual, and mental," says Walter Choi, who has been offering guided talks of the exhibition. "Yoga practice can be done by anyone and anyone can benefit from it."
The exhibit opens with a series of statues that reflect the purity of meditation. Many of the statues feature beings with multiple hands which symbolize the multiple attributes of yoga. Others contain a 3rd eye which is symbolic of the all-seeing idea of pure knowledge.
Even from its earliest times, in addition to growing spiritually and mentally, yoga also featured fitness components. "A healthy body is very important for your mental elevation," Choi explained. Yogis have long been known for being able to contort their bodies and assume strange seated body postures known as asanans for extraordinary periods of time.
From the 16th to the 19th century, Asian art depicted yogis as alternately wise sages, witty spies, evil wizards, and brave heroes.
With the arrival of photography in the 1840s, Europeans were captivated by these exotict often near-naked ascetics with long matted locks. Many were brought to European stages to perform as magic act curiosities.
The interest with yoga in the United States originated in the late 1800s with speaking engagements by Swami Vivekonadra. The guru extolled the virtues of yoga, claiming that "every individual can realize their supreme self or their god-self within."
In 1902, Thomas Edison filmed the stage act of an Indian magician for one of his earliest short movies.