Yoga Nidra and Indian Art

Dr D. Bhattacharya, Calcutta

We commonly recognize tantric art as the product of yoga. Originally it comprised highly symbolic spiritual signs. Later, some modern orientalists reduced this art form to mere abstract formalism. However, true tantric art is aesthetically more akin to non-objective composition, and hence its scope as an art form is limited. Actually these symbolic forms are products of meditational experience, which is more spiritual than aesthetic. The artist and viewer with no meditational experience may accept this art form as fashionable but unfortunately cannot fully appreciate it.

Yoga nidra is beneficial for bodily health and is also a good practice in the preparatory phase of meditation. Still, its main stress is on mental practice, the mind becoming aware of its sensory input. Then, at the point of intense awareness, the mind gradually becomes detached and serene. An artist's mind is also highly sensitive to all forms of sensory experience, but unlike others his passion is for creation of an art form and so, at the point of heightened experience, he becomes detached, absorbed and creative. Thus there is a very close similarity between the artistic process and the practice of yoga nidra.

Unlike other methods of relaxation, yoga nidra does not make the mind drowsy or numb. In this process, the body sleeps but the mind remains alert and aware. Such relaxed awareness increases the receptivity and depth of the sensual experience. The mental practice of visualization increases one's intuitive power as well. Above all, the tranquility and concentration produced by yoga nidra increase the power of retention of these experiences, both sensual and intuitive, which is the basis of creativity.

Visualization as the catalyst for creativity

Possibly yoga nidra or a similar practice was widely known by India's early artisans, who carved stone and built terracotta temples up to the end of the medieval period. Having no access to static models, they had to use their 'mental eyes' to grasp visual experience. This approach made their work distinctly different from western architecture, art and sculpture. Their drawings usually ignored the details of muscular dimples or wrinkles of skin. It was more apt to appreciate the movement of the spine and the flexibility of the limbs. All garments and ornaments were considered superficial and insignificant and the structures underneath were often visualized by the artist in his mind's eye. So we see the distinct outline of the navel in the sculpture of Lord Buddha, even though his body is covered.

The mental picture of a figure in action often evolves into a pose which is not representative but expressive of a movement. Such a creative approach was ultimately realized in this century by western painters like Picasso who superimposed drawings of different movements of the same figure. The later approach is more intellectual, whereas our painters and sculptors used this type of mental superimposition intuitively. Many pictures and terracotta works depicting Lord Krishna with Radha and the Gopis reveal this.

Rotation of consciousness and imagery

If we now turn to the total composition of a panel or the whole wall of a decorated temple, we shall find a profusion of work depicting mythological figures, symbolic motifs, figures of common people and even animals and plants. There is no break in it; it is a continuum of visual experiences. If you are trained in a western art school, you may dismiss this profusion as a lack of precision. You may contend that the eye does not get any relief, and may label such an approach as 'overwork'.

But if you have the concept of yoga nidra in your mind, you will understand the continuous rotation of consciousness along such a panel route. There is no gap; the mind continually experiences successive images, and this exhaustive process of experiencing gradually produces a perceptual block. Then you unconsciously fix your eyes on a particular figure, whether it be a figure of an apsara or a pretty creature, and the rest of the work fades into the background. In this way, the centre of interest may shift from one figure to another, while the rest harmoniously acts as a background. Ultimately, of course, the mind becomes completely detached and totally relaxed. Thus the whole process makes you aware and involved and then helps you to transcend the sensual sphere. This objective is so different from western aesthetic values that one can hardly appreciate Indian art without being aware of yoga, especially yoga nidra.