My short bio: Debra Diamond is the curator of “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” the first exhibition to explore yoga’s visual history. The show is on view at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, through January 26. Debra will answer questions from 10 am to 1 pm EST. #artofyoga

EDIT: Thanks to all who participated! Don't miss the Freer|Sackler's closing weekend celebration for "Yoga" on January 25 and 26, featuring demonstrations by master yogis, tours of the exhibition, family activities, and an opportunity to have Debra sign the catalogue.

My Proof:

Comments: 127 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

UC6hIngCKCjBt94NZ_qC9 karma

This is not a question at all, but I am literally about to walk out the door and go to this exhibit!Been meaning to do it for a while now, and today is my free day. Just thought that was awesome, :D

DebraDiamond4 karma

Enjoy! Drop us a note in the visitor sign in section to tell us how it was viewing the exhibition after being on Reddit.

cocksparrow8 karma

Is Kundalini yoga featured? Are different schools featured in general?

DebraDiamond10 karma

Thanks for your question! The Kundalini energy of the subtle/yogic body can be seen in some of the paintings the represent the physiology of the subtle body, such as the extraordinary scroll from Kashmir that is almost 30 feet long.

mirandagale7 karma

There seems to be a lot of unexpected macabre objects in the "Yoga" exhibition -- skulls, cups of blood, corpses, etc. Why are these a part of yoga's visual history?

DebraDiamond5 karma

One reason is that some yogis sought to transcend false/illusory dualities in order to experience ultimate reality. Yogis brave enough to take part in cremation ground practices (with skull cups etc) were transcending the distinctions between pure and polluted, between life and death.

eyeplaywithdirt7 karma

What is your opinion of the watered-down, oversimplified version of yoga that has become mainstream in the US?

Do you feel it is a disservice to the spiritual art that is the true yoga lifestyle? Or, are you please to see people incorporating even a fraction of the teachings into their daily life?

If you could change the average American's perspective on yoga, how would that be?

DebraDiamond11 karma

I think that everyone's practice begins somewhere, where they take it is up to them. Lots of visitors to the exhibition have said they found it inspiring and they learned a lot about yoga's more profound histories.

elliereynolds7 karma

Did you work on this exhibition alone or was it a collaborative project?

DebraDiamond10 karma

The exhibition and the catalogue were really collaborative. 15 scholars from different disciplines (including South Asian history, religion, art history), the extraordinary staff of the Freer and Sackler galleries, and many yoga teachers helped shape the project.

fsvisitorcomments6 karma

Another from the comment book: What would you like visitors to learn from this exhibition?

DebraDiamond3 karma

Indian art can be powerful, revelatory, moving. has rich (sometime surprising) traditions, profound goals and deep meanings.

demortum5 karma

Will any go this be traveling? I would love to see it but there is no way for me travel that far on a weekend. Or will any of it be displayed online?

DebraDiamond11 karma

Yup! I'm excited to tell you that it's going to San Francisco and Cleveland later this year.

San Francisco Asian Art Museum: Feb 22 - May 18, 2014 Cleveland Museum of Art: June 22 - September 7, 2014

ZeroCorp5 karma

Does the exhibit come alive at night?

DebraDiamond7 karma

I hope so! Good idea for a sequel - Yoga Night at the Museum...

cleo195 karma

Cool concept for an exhibition - how did you come up with the idea to create a show about yoga?

DebraDiamond10 karma

There are amazing sculptures and paintings, created over 2000 years, that shed new light on yogic practices and concepts. I was inspired to study this visual archive, borrow the greatest works, work with great scholars, to tell the stories of yoga through artworks and objects.

BoogerMcFee4 karma

How does one become a Smithsonian (or equivalent) curator?

DebraDiamond8 karma

Hi. Most art curators have PhDs in a particular area of art historical speciality. Mine, in South Asian art history, is from Columbia University.

Turtle_in_Texas4 karma

What's it like to work with such unique collections at the Smithsonian?

DebraDiamond5 karma

It is heaven.

fsvisitorcomments4 karma

Freer|Sackler here! We're sharing handwritten questions from the visitor comment book outside the exhibition. Such as: Have there been any other museum exhibitions focused on the art of yoga? Do you think that this show will inspire more in the future?

DebraDiamond6 karma

An amazing exhibition - The Body in Indian Art - curated by Naman Ahuja just finished up at the Europalia festival in Brussels. It will open in Delhi at the National Museum of India in March. It contains a great section on asceticism and yoga.

I think there will be other exhibitions too. There are an increasing number of art historians, curators, and graduate students thinking about the visual culture of yoga.

iliveyoga3 karma

I was lucky enough to stumble into this exhibit when I was visiting a friend in Washington for New Years. It was great - highly recommend people go check it out. Now if only I could have such beautiful sculptures and art in my home.. :)

DebraDiamond3 karma

Thank you! I feel lucky to work here at the museum so I can see them every day for these three months (til Jan 26).

hcho753 karma

What was the most surprising aspect of yoga that you discovered/learned during the exhibition research/planning process?

DebraDiamond6 karma

Some of the biggest surprises were forms of yoga that enabled practitioners to become greater than gods (referenced by the images of Bhairava in the exhibition), yogis who served as spies (like the wily spy in the Hamzanama folio) and the relationship between magic, yoga and early film (the Edison film).

SeanJ843 karma

What did you have(or planning on having) for lunch?

DebraDiamond3 karma

I noshed on hummus, grapes, almonds and something delicious called World Peas while answering reddits earlier today.

jamie795123 karma

My girlfriend is working towards her PhD in Art History, and her dream job is as a curator.

What kind of education and work experience did you have prior to becoming a curator?

And do you have any tips for her?

DebraDiamond4 karma

Learning how to be a curator is pretty artisanal. Besides the PhD, it's very valuable to get museum internships or projects working with curators on cataloguing or exhibitions.

lizptc3 karma

Was there a piece (or pieces) that particularly surprised or spoke to you when you curated the exhibition?

DebraDiamond12 karma

When we installed the three tenth-century yoginis - the life-size sculptures of Hindu goddesses that had been separated for centuries since their temple was destroyed - I actually cried because they were so beautiful together.

Yoginis are goddesses who revealed yogic teachings in the texts known as the Yogini Tantras.

SmithsonianAPA2 karma

We're so excited to be involved with this exhibition! Can you talk about how yoga culture in Asia has been affected by its spread to the US?

DebraDiamond5 karma

The roots of global yoga lie with Indian teachers of the late 19th and early 20th century. But I hear that a certain type of urban American yoga (with scheduled classes all day long, cafes with power drinks, chic boutiques and an emphasis on glowing physical health and beauty) has been adopted around the world.

kafow2 karma

Hi Debra - What is your favorite piece in the show and why?

DebraDiamond4 karma

They are all my favorites, I was very lucky because I was able to choose the artworks on view from hundreds and hundreds of potential loans. That said, check out the fasting ivory Buddha from 8th-century Kashmir. It's an exquisite, brilliantly carved tiny little shrine from the Cleveland Museum of Art. The artist was a genius.

Poetrywolf2 karma

Hi, I came to see the show and was surprised to see a section focused on negative western views of yoga. Why did you think it important to put so much emphasis on this?

DebraDiamond3 karma

Great question about the gallery called Yoga in the Transnational Imagination, 18th-20th Century.
I thought it was really important to show these prints, early photographs, and books for three reasons. One, the negative view of hatha yoga practicing ascetics (that had developed by the 19th century) had a huge impact on the development of modern forms of yoga. Two, a lot of scholars and curators and practitioners don't realize that many of the colonial photographs are staged images that are not reliable documents of history. So I wanted to help set that straight. Three, the best of these objects are quite powerful, visually compelling, objects.

TheSoundAurora2 karma

I'm a Buddhist and Yoga practitioner, I'll be coming to the exhibit soon. What are the chances that these two things cross at the exhibit?

DebraDiamond5 karma

The chances are great! One of the first works in the exhibition (in the section on origins) is a sculpted base from an image of the Buddha. It represents two gaunt ascetics who became his early followers.

jamiemya122 karma

Does the Western perception of Yoga bother you? I was an Eastern religion studies minor at school and my professor always preached about the misconception. Edit - spelling

DebraDiamond5 karma

Yes, sometimes it bothers me a lot. But I love the potential of history (and art history) to better illuminate the past.

I_Am_Not_Legend2 karma

Hi Debra, Thanks for taking the time to do this AMA! I understand modern yoga takes it's root in the 1800-1900's practices in India, what are the oldest artistic examples of Yoga in general and Asana in particular? Also, would you venture as guess as to what's next in terms of Yoga art, specifically as it becomes increasingly universal.

DebraDiamond3 karma

Hi. The earliest asanas to be represented in Indian art are padmasana (lotus posture with the legs crossed) and the standing posture that is often today called tadasana. Both generally indicate that the practitioners are enlightened beings. The marble Jina (from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) is an extraordinary representation of padmasana;the Jina is both utterly still and quite lively.

courtneyocallaghan2 karma

Did you practice yoga before you put together the exhibit? And if not, has the curation of this exhibit inspired you to try?

DebraDiamond1 karma

The exhibition reveals that yogic practice in history has been really diverse - ranging from meditation and extreme fasting to cremation ground rituals. On that scale, my practice lies closest to meditation. But Thoreau said, "To some extent and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi" and that inspires me.

alpal4301 karma

Thanks for doing this! I visited, and the show is beautiful, but why doesn’t it have more of a focus on yoga of today?

DebraDiamond8 karma

The exhibition goes up through 1940, when the lineaments of modern yoga were pretty well established. And we bring the contemporary and the experiential into the galleries through our yoga classes and demonstrations.

But it's a great idea for another exhibition! There's a lot of exciting stories still to be told.

stubble1 karma

Do you think there would be any possibility that this exhibition could tour Europe at all?

DebraDiamond2 karma

It would be great if the exhibition could have travelled to Europe -- and to India. We had three venues, spanning almost a year -- Oct 2013 to Set. 2014. It's a question of loans. Many museums and collectors don't want to part with their treasures for longer than that; also, the paintings and colonial photographs - are light sensitive.

elliereynolds1 karma

Why can't we photograph in the galleries?

DebraDiamond2 karma

I am happy to say that you can photograph (without a flash) any artwork that belongs to the Freer and Sackler Galleries. But most of the artworks in the Yoga exhibition were borrowed from other museums. Most of the lending museums did not give us permission to let their works be photographed, so alas we had to prohibit shooting in the exhibition.

kevlarbomb1 karma

Awesome work!

Any plans to make this a traveling exhibit? I'd love to check this out in southern California!!!

DebraDiamond2 karma

It will come pretty close to you when it is on view at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco between February 22 and May 18, 2014.

(I'll be speaking at the San Diego Museum of Art on Sunday, Feb 23 if that is closer to you....)

jane171 karma

Do all scholars agree on the artistic origins of yoga? Or are there different schools of thought?

DebraDiamond1 karma

There are a lot of scholarly debates/schools of thought on the origins and parameters of yoga. For the exhibition and catalogue, we were lucky to have an international team of 15 top South Asianists from different disciplines. They helped evaluate the different schools of thought in relation to the material evidence (sculptures, manuscripts, etc.)

lokisuavehp1 karma

I just took a yoga class for my MA in Religion, and we discussed that one of the issues with yoga is actually defining it, and with that comes the issue that there is no such thing as one type of yoga. Most Hindu (and this isn't even counting Jainism or Buddhism) practice can be considered "yogic." I have not been to the exhibit, but I am wondering how the exhibit was organized and what issues you weighed when coming to that decision. By organized, I mean thematically, geographically, or chronologically.

ALSO! Love that a lot of the exhibit can be viewed online, helps a lot of us who live out in Kansas.

DebraDiamond1 karma

Yes, I absolutely agree, one of the challenges is defining a tradition that has been and continues to be diverse in its goals, metaphysics and practices. The short answer is that the exhibition reveals that yoga has transformed in history and as it moved across boundaries (of religious and sectarian traditions, as well through courtly, popular, national, and commercial arenas). For more on organization, themes, geography, and chronology, please check out the catalogue; it also has great essays by lead scholars.

jane171 karma

As a writer, do you prefer working on books or exhibitions?

DebraDiamond1 karma

My true love is looking at art. So for me, books and exhibitions go together.

TSLOW1 karma

Have you been to India yourself ?

DebraDiamond1 karma

Yes, I've visited, studied and lived in India on and off over the last thirty years. I feel wistful writing this; I can't wait to get back there.

Captcha_Imagination1 karma

Amazing idea!

What styles of Yoga have you practiced? Which is your favorite and/or which do you practice now?

Can you provide a link to the travelling show? I would take a trip for this but will not make it to DC before Jan 26.

I would LOVE to see a NatGeo series on this topic. There is definitely enough material to cover an entire season. You should defintely pitch this as a show. It think it would be the best medium to educate the masses.

DebraDiamond1 karma

You are so right! There's enough material to cover an entire season of docs. In the meantime, we've got exhibiiton information, image jhighlights, and some scholarly materials on the Freer|Sackler website. Enter the portal through Check out this feature on the earliest extant treatise of yoga postures, the Ocean of Life, at And to learn about the clothing and attributes of yogis in the 16th - 19th century, see the illustrated article by the Sanskritist (and yogi) James Mallinson, at

You should also check the websites of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Cleveland Museum of Art -- they are building up their "Yoga: the Art of Transformation" websites and calendars of events as I write.

mbah_bugil1 karma

What's the impact on visitors? Do they start practicing yoga in the exhibit?

DebraDiamond1 karma

Many visitors comment on feeling exalted and inspired!

And our Diwali family day classes and our weekly exhibition tour+yoga class programs have been full from the start.

wallaceeffect1 karma

Hi Debra--I used to be a DC resident and I absolutely loved the Freer/Sackler. I'm a lay person, but I always liked that the gallery covered such a range of topics, media, geographic areas and time periods in such a small footprint. Can you give some insight into how exhibits are chosen, whether you actively try to "balance" representation in the museum, and so forth?

Thanks for your great work!

DebraDiamond1 karma

Thank you for your kind words! We pride ourselves on exhibitions that include both great artworks and produce new scholarship. We also seek to address many Asian cultures through exhibitions, special programs (concerts, film series, etc.) and publications. The processes vary. Our curators initiate some of the exhibitions (like Yoga: The Art of Transformation) but along with our director, Julian Raby, we also regularly review proposals sent by outside curators and museums.

elliereynolds1 karma

Do you have any fun activities planned for the closing weekend of the exhibition?

DebraDiamond3 karma

Yup! Docent and curator tours, amazing yogis demonstrating in the galleries, art making for families on the 25th and 26th. Check our website for details.

ZXRider1 karma

Will there be Yoga pants involved?

TheLighterDr-3 karma

And a mat. Exciting stuff right there.

DebraDiamond4 karma

Two of my favorite mats in the exhibition are:

-- The rolled up animal skin under the arms of a yogi in a Nicholas Brothers photograph from 1858; we borrowed this photograph from the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

-- The bed of nails in this terra-cotta figure from the 19th century, which we borrowed from Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I love it that the portable bed of nails was probably invented by an Indian yogi named Purn Puri and then became a huge trend because it was reproduced so often in images.

mhbrainerd1 karma

Concerning Yogini with Minah: Are you aware of any textual tradition that might provide insight into the bird's gazing at the woman? Her gaze is inward, though she also inclines her head toward the bird; is the bird's gaze, while turning toward her, also inward? Would the context allow attributing an inward gaze to a bird? -- Also, if the painting is part of a manuscript, or part of a depiction of a story, what's the story? Thank you!

DebraDiamond2 karma

Thank you for asking. I've looked for the answer to this intruiguing question for a few years. No luck yet linking the mynah to yogic or yogini stories (such as the power of yoginis to turn men into animals and birds) or concepts circulating in Bijapur (where the painting was created around 1600). Please join me in the search!

fsvisitorcomments1 karma

Here's a link to an image of that painting:

mhbrainerd1 karma

Are the white spots tears in the paper? Worm holes?

DebraDiamond2 karma

Those are insect holes. They look white because the photographer put white paper beneath the folio during the shoot.

Poetrywolf1 karma

I was surprised there wasn't more info in the exhibition on Patanjali, and only a translated copy of the Yoga Sutras. Considering Patanjali's level of impact on modern yoga and the influence of the Yoga Sutras, I was dismayed that there was only passing mention. Can you elaborate on this decision?

DebraDiamond1 karma

This art exhibition focuses on objects and images that illuminate lived as well as textual traditions. So the Yoga Sutras are acknowledged - an opening shloka (verse) of the Yoga Sutras appears, for example, in a supertitle in the first major gallery, The Path of Yoga. I found it exciting to consider aspects of yoga that didn't enter texts (such as sculptures that provide models for meditation or paintings that reveal that yogis were understood as the embodiments of certain classical music compositions).

mariselainez1 karma

So you said that you need a PhD to become a curator. I get that. I have a BA in History and Geography and have always liked the idea of working in a museum, I don't mind if I have to start at the bottom, but it seems like the only way to get into the industry is to either have a Master's, or to have at least 5 years of experience (which it seems like I can't get without a Master's). Do you have any recommendations as to what I could do to get into the field with my level of education and no prior experience? I can't really afford to go back to school right now...

DebraDiamond1 karma

What type of museum would you like to work in? What type of objects?

mariselainez1 karma

I always thought working at the Field Museum in Chicago would be amazing. As far as other fields, I've always just been interested in history in general but especially European history/Russian or Eastern European history/witchcraft and the supernatural/fairy tales and mythology.

DebraDiamond1 karma

Pick a few of your favorite museums (or a museum that makes exhibitions about some of your favorite historical periods). Learn about their exhibitions - and read the scholarly articles/books by their curators. Try to volunteer at those museums if they are close by. Or write to those curators and begin a dialogue. It's a perfect way to get started.

smitherinos1 karma

What do you find more refreshing, yoga or Lipton iced tea?

DebraDiamond7 karma

hot yoga and iced tea...yum

Moose_Hole0 karma

Is it hard to come up with new forms of art to exhibit? It seems like they're really reaching these days.

DebraDiamond3 karma

Nah, it's pretty easy. There's tons of amazing art and many important concepts and traditions that haven't yet been the subject of exhibitions - especially, I think, for South Asian art, but of course I am prejudiced....

mhbrainerd0 karma

Concerning the Bifolio from the Gulshan Album: Is there any textual corroboration for the interpretation that the mother cat's relationship to her kittens provides a model for the yogis' relationships with their fellow yogis? Can you refer me to the texts and if you have them on hand the passages? Thank you so much!

DebraDiamond1 karma

Mughal albums are so intriguing because they don't have texts describing which images are included. I interpreted the mother cat (and mother cow and calf) as positive commentaries on yogis for a few reasons. The most important is that the vast majority of images of yogis in Mughal albums depict them as part of peaceful groups. For example, in the Yoga exhibition, the painting to the immediate left of the Gulshan folios is a Mughal album folio depicting a musician, an Indo-Islamic prince, and an aged yogi in a very peaceful and beautiful setting.

minipinto990 karma

would you rather fight a horse sized duck or one hundred duck sized horses

DebraDiamond5 karma

For a tenth-century duck, visit the Sackler yogini in the exhibition. This yogini is a fierce flying goddess. Her duck vehicle is represented on the pedestal below her crossed legs.

iia-2 karma

Is it true that yoga was originally developed to enable the ability to check oneself for hemorrhoids?

DebraDiamond8 karma

Is that the "as" in "asana"?