Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kapotasana, Art

This morning, when I was doing my practice, my fiancee came into the practice room when I was in Kapotasana. She said, "You look so beautiful in this pose!" (I hope this does not mean that I ONLY look beautiful in Kapotasana...). In any case, I was quite happy to hear that from her; in fact, come to think of it, I may even have stayed in the posture for a couple of breaths longer as a result of that compliment :-)

What happened this morning was a rare occurrence. Usually, by the time I get to Kapotasana, she is already out of the house. So most of my Kapotasanas are solitary Kapotasanas (philosophical question: Did Nobel really do Kapotasana if there was nobody around to see him do it? You know, as in "Did the tree really fall in the forest if nobody saw it fall?"). As are most of my Karandavasanas. Not that that is anything to write home about...

This is actually related to a question I have been pondering lately: Is yoga an art? My gut feeling is that it is an art, in the sense that the yoga practice involves a process in which the yogi allows his or her body, mind and spirit to be "sculpted" and changed by the practice.

But some thinkers may not agree with my view. Today, in my philosophy of art class, we discussed the views of R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood's view is that the primary role of art lies in the expression of emotion. The artist, in performing or displaying his work, seeks to use his performance medium (whether this is a musical performance, a novel, a poem, or a painting) as a vehicle through which to express certain emotions to his audience, evoking empathy and understanding on the part of the audience.

It seems to me that on Collingwood's view, yoga would not be art. In practicing yoga, the yogi does not seek to use whatever he or she is doing (whether it is asana, pranayama, or other actions) as vehicles to express emotions or to evoke empathy or understanding on the part of the onlooker, although this can sometimes happen (as it kind of did with me this morning). For the most part, yoga practice is an inward-looking solitary enterprise, in which the practitioner does what he or she does, whether or not anybody else notices or empathizes or understands what he or she is doing. At least, this is what I understand practice to be about.

Or maybe Collingwood's definition of art is simply too narrow. Maybe yoga is art in some sense after all, just not in the particular sense that Collingwood has in mind.

Well, this is just me recording my random thoughts and musings about things. If you have anything to add, I'll love to hear from you. If not, that's cool too. Thanks for reading :-)


  1. Definitely not an expert on art, but I think of traditional art as something aesthetically pleasing and modern art as thought or reaction provoking, sometimes showing something different just for the sake of being unique. By Collingwood's definition, I think yoga would be an art in the eyes of yogis, because if we have done a pose before we can have an idea of what someone else is experiencing as they do the pose (eg. A stiff beginner trying trikonasana for the first time). For non-yogis' eyes, only aesthetically pleasing yoga poses serve as "art" because they have no idea how any of these poses feel like.

  2. Nobel, I like this. I teach art history, as you probably know, which still I think doesn't necessarily make me expert on "what art is." I think two things have to be separated before we can try putting them together: first, there's, let's say, the teacher's view of the student's posture. Some poses, vinyasas, are artful, are skillful, unlabored, flowing, easy. This to me is like Greek sculpture, there is a beauty and grace to it (or, of course, in many cases, some grunting and struggle and flailing, which can still be artful but a different type). That's not necessarily "art" but maybe "artful" as I put it.

    But there is also what an art person would call the "formal qualities" of the pose, strictly in terms of line, shape, movement, and this is what a big coffeetable book like the one YJ put out a few years ago (with Freeman doing Kandasana on the back cover) is all about. Art photos, if you will, of "beautiful poses." This plays very much to the whole rhetoric of beauty, but in your morning Kapo appreciation, I think it's some of both.

    I hear you heel-grab from the air, and probably make a pretty arch as you Kapo; it's aesthetically appealing, very likely. This is "art" definition two, but your entry and exit to the posture can also be smooth/graceful, and that is "artful" definition one.

    The "art" pose can be appreciated (aesthetically) by non-yogis, I'd expect, and the "artful" (skill, grace) aspect can be appreciated by any body movers.

  3. Hello Yyogini, yes, I do think you are right that in the eyes of many non-yogis, yoga only becomes art or "artful" when they witness a graceful or skilful execution of a difficult posture (Karandavasana?). And they might not appreciate the artful effort that is needed in order to do even a so-called "basic" posture like Trikonasana productively.

  4. Patrick, I like your distinction between the artful execution of a posture and "art" as expressed in the formal qualities of the posture. I think this is a very productive distinction. My sense is that yoga, properly construed, may have a place for artful execution (in that we always try to find ways to breathe and stay in difficult postures and work with them in less effortful and more "artful" ways), but achieving "art" as expressed in a posture's formal qualities may not be part of the goal of yoga practice, properly speaking, YJ coffee-table books notwithstanding :-) At least, this is my understanding.

    Let me also clarify a possible misconception you may have:

    "I hear you heel-grab from the air, and probably make a pretty arch as you Kapo"

    This is not entirely accurate. I always aim for my heels when I dive, but so far, I have only been able to land somewhere around my mid-soles, and have to walk a couple of inches to grab my heels. Perhaps I may have contributed to this misconception through my previous posts, but I should clarify, in any case. Maybe I will be able to directly grab my heels from the air one day (or not). We'll see. As for "pretty arch", hmm... I don't know: I have yet to film myself getting into Kapo :-)

  5. I like this post too, and the interesting comments. There's another way to look at Collingwood's view that "the primary role of art lies in the expression of emotion:" one definition of "express" is to squeeze out, as in juice. I know that personally, kapotasana has squeezed out my emotions many a time, namely frustration, pain, and very occasionally bliss. So yeah, I'd have to say that by this definition, yoga is certainly art.

  6. Hello Ellie, thanks for sharing. I totally agree with you that kapotasana squeezes out our emotions :-) But I think that Collingwood wouldn't agree with this definition of "express", because for him, expression is intimately connected with eliciting empathy and understanding from the audience, and this is not something we seek to do in the asana practice (at least not consciously).

  7. Hm. So would he say that a painter, for example, only paints in order to elicit emotion from another person? So a painter who never shows his work is not an artist?

    Here's another idea: if in art there is an artist and an audience, and going with my supposition that yoga is an art, then perhaps the "artist" is not the practitioner but the yoga itself, and the audience is the practitioner. The "art" of yoga draws out the emotions from the practitioner that need to be released. It's a bit of a departure from your original post and the idea of your fiancee seeing the pose you're "performing" as art, and Collingwood might roll his eyes at the liberties I'm taking, but I'm going with it. :)

  8. As an artist myself, although not, perhaps, inclined to define what art is and is not, I do think that yoga is, or at least can be, like dance. Put another way, think of an ashtanga series like a Chopin nocturne. It's the same every time, but it looks and feels different depending on the experience and talent of the practitioner.

  9. Ellie, I really like your idea of yoga itself being the artist, and the practitioner being the audience. In this sense, we are the "performance medium" through which yoga communicates itself. Very cool... I don't know what Collingwood would say about this (he probably will be rolling his eyes and/or turning in his grave...), but it's a very interesting and intriguing idea.

    Thanks for sharing, DeborahS. Yes, I definitely agree that like a Chopin nocturne, Ashtanga is the same every time, but it looks and feels different depending on the experience and talent, and may I add, even the state of mind or emotional state of the practitioner. Very beautiful and artful kapotasana you have, by the way ;-)