August 16, 2012

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Yoga

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

This week Jeff explains how teaching lineages are represented in paintings.

Himalayan Art 101: Yoga

The word "yoga" is now a common term in the English language. It is generally associated in the West with the IndiMilarepaan practice of physical movement and exercise. Tibetan Buddhism also uses the word yoga as an important technical term to describe meditation practice, philosophy, or physical exercises associated with advanced tantric practices.

Another use for the term yoga is to describe a practitioner of yoga—a yogi or yogini. The most well known Tibetan practitioner of yoga was the 11th century poet-saint Milarepa. He is an iconic figure in Tibetan Buddhism and commonly found depicted in art. Milarepa is typically portrayed wearing a single white cotton robe, with long hair and bare feet, as in the example shown at right. Although Milarepa was known and referred to as a yogi, he is not the only one—all tantric Buddhist practitioners are also yogis (just less accomplished).

A number of oJalandharather historical figures such as Rechungpa, Ling Repa, and Tangtong Gyalpo are also depicted in this same yogi appearance with long hair and a white robe. These figures are not found represented in art nearly as often as the yogi Milarepa, however.

Physical yoga postures in tantric Buddhism, which are generally considered to be esoteric and are usually only taught to the initiated, are sometimes found depicted along with images of the 84 Mahasiddhas of India. A very good example of a yoga posture in art is with the siddha Jalandhara (at left), who is often shown with his left leg extended in the air, both his arms held overhead with his hands performing a "flaming" gesture. Jalandhara can be found in this same stance in both sculpture and painting.

In art, yoga is represented by the Tibetan convention of yogi appearance as shown with the example of Milarepa. Physical yoga is most commonly represented in paintings of the mahasiddhas. Sometimes yoga imagery, used in tantric visualization, is depicted in highly esoteric paintings. Examples of this type can be found in the famous Lhukang Murals located behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.


Image 1: Milarepa (private collection).

Image 2: Mahasiddha Jalandhara (Rubin Museum of Art).

Learn more about yoga here and here, and see yoga postures here.

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