8 Questions for Professor Nachiket Chanchani on the Art of Yoga


By Stephanie Harrell
Jul 08, 2014 Bookmark and Share

Nachiket Chanchani Field Work

Nachiket Chanchani at a medieval Indo-Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the high Himalayas, June 2014

1. You’re teaching The Art of Yoga fall term 2014. What does yoga have to do with ‘classical’ Indian art?

The word yoga is derived from the ancient Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to yoke or to unite. A yoga practitioner strives to bring together the faculties of his body, breath, and mind to reform himself so as to live in perfect harmony with his surroundings. As aspects of ‘classical’ Indian art were inflected with yoga philosophy, a basic knowledge of the subject is crucial to interpreting these artworks.

2. What are some examples of the objects that the class will study?

Over the centuries, yoga practitioners have made and utilized objects as aids to accomplish their goals. Besides this, communities living around yoga practitioners have frequently crafted representations of yogis as a way to negotiate their own identities vis-à-vis them. In this course, we will examine both kinds of objects.

One of my favorite pieces of what one might term as ‘yoga art’ is a small shrine model made in the fourteenth-century in western India. At the center of the shine is a copper sheet part of which depicts a yoga practitioner who has reached his goal –– standing in an upright posture –– as negative space. The solid copper sheet that frames the empty space symbolizes materiality. This gives shape to the body. The silhouette’s empty frame indicates the advanced yoga practitioner’s liberation from the world of forms.

3. Given the rising popularity of yoga in the U.S., what do students have to gain by learning about the history of yoga?

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to analyze how contemporary ‘styles’ of yoga are related to one another and the degree to which they resemble the practices of earlier generations. They will also be able to situate the subject of yoga within the broader context of Asian religions and societies and be able to more carefully discuss channels through which its knowledge has been transmitted. Furthermore, they will be able to appreciate the layered construction of images and texts and make connections across disciplinary boundaries. Finally, this course will ground students enabling them make a more informed choice should they wish to commence the practice of yoga.

4. In the course description, you say, “Occasionally, as a class we will attempt to perform a few basic yoga postures.” Why?  

Yogis view postures as a means of regulating and toning the body as a precondition for the more difficult task of controlling the breath and mind, which are more subtle. By encouraging students to attempt to few postures, I intend to improve their understanding of this dictum through practice.  Second, the forms of yoga postures reference the morphologies of objects in the world around us. By performing postures, I hope to draw my students into conversations on varieties of representations and their cultural uses.

5. What museums will the class visit, and what will you be looking at there?

The U-M Museum of Art has a useful study collection. On one visit to the museum we will examine some stone sculptures from early South Asia to see how sculptors visualized yogic conceptions of the human body as constituted not just of bone and muscle, but by prana (vital energy). We will also visit the U-M anthropology museum to examine painted scrolls from monastic complexes in the Himalayas to see how medieval artists represented lineages of yoga teachers and their protégés and molded princely attitudes towards them.

6. The class also includes visits to yoga studios in Ann Arbor. How are local yoga studios relevant to the history of yoga?

B.K.S Iyengar (1918–) is widely credited for refining postural yoga and for bringing it to the West. Ann Arbor was Mr. Iyengar’s first stop on his very first teaching tour to the United States that included lecture-demonstrations at the United Nations headquarters in New York and elsewhere. In fact, many long-time residents still have vivid memories of his 1973 visit and his tutelage of Mary Palmer, a well-known local resident. In the decades since Mr. Iyengar’s tour, several teachers trained by the master himself have established their own studios in town. My students will visit the Ann Arbor School of Yoga (AASY) to document yoga as it is taught and practiced at this studio. They will also attempt to situate AASY’s architecture, setting, and teachings with what they have learnt over the course of the semester about yoga philosophy and practice.

7. You grew up in India and went to school there before coming to the U.S. to pursue your undergraduate and graduate studies. What was your personal experience with yoga in India?

My parents have been direct disciples of B.K.S. Iyengar for over four decades each. While I was growing up in India, they were instrumental in introducing yoga into the curriculum of India’s most influential educational board. I grew up observing their work, practicing postures and the other limbs of yoga, and watching Mr. Iyengar shape and guide a worldwide movement.

8. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from yoga?

The study and practice of yoga inculcates a refined sensibility and sensitivity in a poised and harmonious mind.