Yoga Museology: Spiritual Citizenship from Our Galleries to Our Streets

Yesomi Umolu, curator and art director of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, published “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice” on June 25, 2020. One month to the day after George Floyd’s murder, Umolu put out a call to action demanding museums respond to white supremacy. The article asserts dismantling systemic racism means, “go[ing] beyond token gestures of diversity and inclusion and arriv[ing] at a fundamental rethinking of the role of museums.” Umolu continues by advocating, “Museums must practice empathy and close the gap between themselves and their communities; they must provide space for conversations on the issues that matter to the lives of their audiences, neighbors, and employees.” 

Museums and cultural institutions were already under scrutiny in major cities like New York, as major tax-exempt institutions refused to serve as polling places. Their denial exacerbated already tense questions as to whether museums enjoying government benefits had a responsibility to serve as civic spaces to their public. At worst, the refusal distanced museums from their stakeholders’ sociopolitical realities. At best, it was a claim of neutrality. But, as the “Museums are Not Neutral” movement argues, claiming neutrality is often more damaging because it ignores the need for “equity-based transformation.” 

Museums can become sites of unity and mend these wounds of division through what I term yoga museology. By embodying the moral principles of Patañjali Yoga’s first two limbs known as the yamas, abstentions or moral restraints, and niyamas, ethical observances in one’s personal discipline and practice, museums can establish socially responsible operations that connect with their audiences and neighbors. The five yamas are a code of conduct for how to treat others. Theyinclude ahiṃsā (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (refraining from stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy), and aparigraha (refraining from coveting). The five niyamas are a code of conduct for establishing a moral blueprint of action within ourselves. These include sauca (cleanliness), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (austerity), svādhyāya(study of the scriptures), and Īśvara-praṇidhāna (devotion to God). The yamas and niyamas are the building blocks necessary for spiritual activism. 

Yoga teacher and spiritual mentor Hari-kirtana das distinguishes social action from spiritual activism by motive, citing the Bhagavad Gita as instruction: “If we want to turn our social action into spiritual activism,” he writes, “Arjuna is our role model: we can follow his lead up the yoga ladder to higher levels of consciousness and a correspondingly higher level of motivation.” The lowest rung of the ladder is self interest. Pure motivations result in personal equanimity of mind, body, and spirit. Each rung up the ladder expands our reach and our actions take on more import, thereby making the purity of intent more impactful. We move from individual beings to family members, colleagues, community members, compatriots, members of the human race, contributors to the greater good of all living beings, and many steps between. Near the middle of this transformational path to spiritual activism, on the way to our highest level of consciousness, we recognize the lived experience of how we impact the world around us and how it impacts us. This pivotal moment is an opportunity for museums to actualize their potential as zones of “prefigurative politics,” what scholars Mark Chou and Roland Bleiker define as spaces in which subtle forms of protest and ideologies are negotiated before being implemented into everyday life. Yoga museology is a five-part process of reorganizing museum infrastructure that activates galleries as prefigurative political sites to debunk American cultural hegemony, white privilege, colonial legacies, and primitivist attitudes en route to liberation. 

It begins with the honest acknowledgement that museum collections are traumatic products of colonization in which the imbalance of power allowed white colonial empires to pillage objects from vulnerable communities of color. Attempts to make reparations for this imbalance will create space for collaborative methods like rapid response collecting from the grassroots level. The resultant reimagined approach to curating will move away from top-down storytelling in which privileged academics speak for communities of color and toward a process of storytelling in which curators facilitate spaces for people to tell their own stories. Exhibitions will therefore be transformed from narrative displays to interactive gatherings in which everyday folx help curators evaluate and revise content, ensuring it speaks respectfully of topical histories and contemporary concerns. To provide investment for community members’ involvement, the role of guards acting as phantom-like disciplinaries will be reimagined as hosts that serve as liaisons between institutions and their stakeholders. This transformation, along with empowering professional development opportunities, is crucial because educational and economic disadvantages have resulted in security roles being the only museum jobs accessible to communities of color. Museum public programming, then, will be fertile ground for community organizing that serves the greater good. Unified voices working for common justice will develop the love and compassion necessary for real social change. 

Colonialism caused spiritual atrophy in both the abusers and the abused. Its core belief that Europeans were destined to dominate and oppress nonwhites dehumanized the colonized, a pitiful rationalization to rape, pillage, conquer, and steal. Dismantling this history begins by seeing all living organisms on a deep level of equality, united as spiritual beings. Krishna, in the Gita, announces, “Great is the [hu]man who, free from attachments, and with a mind ruling its powers in harmony, works on the path of Karma Yoga, the path of consecrated action.” Identifying the path of consecrated action means understanding its essential nature, bringing into consciousness its power to reverberate and impact all existing beings. The traumatic history of colonialism reverberates to this day in social unrest across the globe. Moving toward an honorable path of consecrated action means standing for equality, yes, but it also means detaching from obvious and subliminal legacies of white privilege. Scholar Peggy McIntosh argues that “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks that needs to be unpacked and analyzed. Museums are giant invisible knapsacks our culture wears. Each object is a relic of privilege. Destroying the knapsack and restoring the objects’ true meanings are acts of Karma Yoga. Within galleries this means redefining how we tell stories.

Jamaican-born artist, curator, and researcher Rachel Minott suggests that “Museums are object-based and so the stories are object-focused; the role we have is to find out how certain objects relate to people and how they are the conduit for the narrative we want to tell.” This work begins with the yama of aparigraha, non-possessiveness. For museums, this translates to acknowledging and letting go of the impulses of white European colonists to “collect” objects from the bodies of color they colonized. If museum professionals begin to view themselves as workers participating in the causes of everyday life that serve the greater good beyond their individual and institutional interests, they will become caretakers that reorient how institutions relate to their communities. 

When museums around the world shut down in March 2020, industry leaders scrambled to understand what a post-Covid museum experience would be like for both staff and visitors. That same month peaceful protests and violent demonstrations broke out across the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, another black man that lost his life at the hands of a white police officer. Uncertainty of such magnitude was a wakeup call to all museum professionals, but it was a particularly urgent call to action for curators to arm themselves with the tools for new storytelling practices that interpreted the unfolding historical moment.

Curators must first acknowledge the existing lineages of violence in which they operate. Consider Sandro Botticelli’s painting Birth of Venus (c.1483). Framed as one of the most famous and influential expressions of Italian Renaissance art, the depiction of Venus’ body also came to represent ideals of feminine beauty grounded in whiteness and availability still relevant today in Western popular culture. Art historical traditions perpetuated by curatorial narratives have played a major role in reiterating white supremacy. To break the pattern is to reimagine the role of curator from a narrator of others’ stories to a facilitator that collaborates with others to help them tell their own stories. Imagine if Birth of Venus was recontextualized in an exhibition that put the painting in conversation with depictions of feminine beauty from outside of Europe during the same historical moment, each present with equal value.

Mythic neutrality is a systemic problem that violates the yama of satya, or truthfulness. An institution built on deception cannot serve the greater social good. Anti-racist trainer and yoga activist Michelle Cassandra Johnson argues that “Dominant culture perpetuates the belief that there is one narrative. Moving beyond the idea that only one truth exists allows us to create space for dialogue, authenticity, learning, and understanding.” Ignoring these truths results in institutional spiritual bypassing. “In social justice, spiritual bypassing takes on the idea that ‘we are one’ and uses it to avoid deepening any conversations around the impact of our actions and the responsibility we have to use our available resources to create a just world,” Johnson writes. “Dominant culture prefers that we focus on our sameness so that it doesn’t have to account for the ways that it others people based on difference.”  

It makes both long-term ethical and financial sense to remonetize the museum around multiple perspectives, not ticket sales. The Smithsonian’s Yoga: The Art of Transformation (2013-4) curated by Debra Diamond challenged popular conceptions of yoga as solely a fitness practice. In the exhibition catalog’s Acknowledgements, Diamond writes, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation does not seek to provide a definitive account of yoga or visual culture…this emerging field…promise[s] to yield new insights, unexpected connections, and surprising discoveries.” The exhibition did present a fascinating visual history of yoga through historical artifacts from India and those collected through the country’s colonial relationship with England. But the major project of the exhibition is what Diamond called “bringing yoga into the now” by pairing objects with a space for asana and meditation classes. Diamond’s “nowness” of uniting bodily practice with art historical education was a pivotal intervention, inviting curious museumgoers to try yoga and inviting yogis to find new understandings of the histories within which they operated. 

Racial unrest and Covid-19 have created a tipping point, mandating that museums relate differently to their visitors. These concerns are both practical (i.e. social distancing) and political (i.e. committing to equity and justice). Anti-racist work that can lead to new relationships must start from within.  Deconstructing the anti-blackness that has historically characterized museum spaces means beginning to understand how nonwhite bodies move through time and space. One of the first pieces devoted to this work linked mobility—both literally and figuratively— to practicing yoga. Stanley Williford’s article “YOGA: Something for Everyone,” published in the September 1975 issue of Ebony magazine profiles notable female black yogis of the period like activist Angela Davis, vocalist Freda Payne, and actor Krishna Kaur (formerly Thelma Oliver). Davis credits the yoga practice she cultivated while in jail to her political stamina: “‘I have never used yoga as an end in itself but merely as a means of preparing myself for a more effective struggle. As a result of yoga, I am more energetic. I am able to go and appeal to people and to organize them to do the kinds of things that are vital to our freedom.’” Davis echoes the Yoga Sutra I.14: “Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time.” Davis’ practice gave her hope, foundational compassion, and the organizational tools to help black and brown bodies facing physical, psychological, spiritual, and political attacks during the 1960s and 1970s Civil Rights Era. 

Lack of diversity is a problem, of course. Earning back community trust means that museums must engage in intense svadhyaya, or self-study, to understand how these violent mechanisms function in individual museums. Hiring tokenistic members of color will only exacerbate problems. The unfortunate reality is that in many museums people of color are only visible as guards and attendants. This is due to larger educational and economic disadvantages that have long excluded them from job opportunities. They stalk the galleries with hunched postures, appearing uncomfortable to be there. Even worse, they are rarely encouraged to train and advance into higher-level positions.   

Reimagining the guard/visitor relationship as a host/guest dynamic will encourage underrepresented communities to claim and hold space for themselves. Dutch Embodiment Facilitator Anouk Brack, whose pioneering work in the field is only recently being translated into English, suggests that if guards and attendants were trained to take up physical space they would feel more at home in museums and be more comfortable asserting themselves in ideological space. Eddie Stern elaborates on the mind-body relationship by reminding us that “We can change our attitude and our mood simply by changing our posture: our bodies reflect our mental attitudes, and our minds are reflected through our posture.” A yoga pose like Warrior 2 asks practitioners to take a stance wider than shoulder length apart, to spread their arms parallel to the floor from front to back, and to keep an erect spine. The posture symbolizes readiness, strength, and confidence. Pairing embodiment training with decolonized art historical education will encourage hosts to become active participants in galleries. They will be able to answer questions from visitors that both uphold museum missions and reflect the changing role of museums as actors in the real world. Embodying personal investment and joy will help ignite an infectious energy that hosts can use to help guests of all backgrounds feel like they belong in museum spaces too. 

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s Yoga, Literature and Art (YLA) Camp founded by Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts is a precedent for creating invenstment. Dr. Jackson Roberts is an educator, yoga teacher, and Global Lululemon Ambassador that brings social consciousness into her yoga pedagogy. The first YLA Camp was held in 2013 as an expression of Chelsea’s mission to “specifically look at the ways in which our yoga practice impacts how we engage the world, whether in our relationships, how we use our voice, [or through] the activism we participate in.” Her embodiment instruction begins by asking her students to examine how they relate to their bodies: “We have journeyed through this life accumulating the joys, the challenges and oftentimes they can get stuck within the physical body. It’s through this practice of yoga, the tools of yoga, of the breath, that we can make decisions about what we do with these experiences that begin to manifest in the body.” Here begins the unpacking of the three main types of trauma held within the physical being: shock trauma from external events that overwhelm us and leave us feeling helpless; developmental trauma that comes from misunderstandings between children and their caretakers; and systemic or institutional trauma caused by discrimination based on race, class, gender, ability, religion, or sexual identity. 

YLA works with girls of color between 13 and 17 years-old at a transformative moment in their lives. Whether dealing with traumas from self-discovery, family inconsistency, or social inequities, the program provides a safe space to release. Individual experiences are put into conversation while reading female writers of color that explore the diasporic black experience, including Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, and Janelle Monaé. Then these results are used as the basis for Restorative Justice dialogues. The girls create poetry and visual art to express their identities and revelations with pride. Hayley, one of the 2018 participants, describes the process from beginning to end by saying, “We’re here just letting go. Letting go physically, mentally, and emotionally.” Yoga is the key to unlock several doors in the quest for self-actualization and community intervention. What if more museums developed templates like YLA for their publics? What would those programs look like? How would they function? 

Employing rapid response collecting approaches will crowdsource objects. Those objects can be brought into galleries during yoga workshops modeled on the YLA structure. Introspective practice can reveal deeper insight as to why the objects hold meaning and be put into conversation with existing museum collections. Participants can then utilize that inspiration to create their own artistic statements about life within a beloved community. This method has the potential to create an ever-expanding archive that responds to the world with equal voices as it evolves. Yoga museology provides a radical departure needed to enable social justice within galleries that can fortify the souls of visitors in the fight for liberation on the streets. 

I hope to have introduced a sustainable framework for long-term change. Yoga museology can serve as the basis for what Dr. Monea Tamara Abdul-Majeed, racial equity strategist and yoga instructor calls “the four R’s” of antiracism: reflection, relationships, restoration, and resilience. Museums must make antiracism and embodied practices more explicit in their mission statements. They can also focus on showing up in their relationships with other institutions. In a city like New York, where the culture industry is so interwoven, museums must look beyond their self-interests to work as a collective in the fight against racism and injustice. Only then can they honestly begin transforming their daily operations to live up to that mission. Restoration means rebuilding trust, developing hope, and reimagining the civic responsibilities museums hold to their stakeholders. The last R is resilience. For museums this means leaning into evolutions without fear, consistently updating strategic visions, and being proactive at all turns. The world is at a threshold, undone by Covid-19 and the ugliness of systemic injustice. Museums have the opportunity to choose yoga. Will they?