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In terms of Instagram popularity, the craze surrounding immersive art can be traced to Emily in Paris. In an episode of the Netflix show, Lily Collins, who plays the lead character, Emily, visits an immersive Van Gogh exhibit in Paris and shares a quasi-romantic moment with her character’s love interest, Gabriel. Suddenly, everyone wanted their own Emily in Paris moment (disclosure: myself included) in the same fantastical Van Gogh exhibit.
The immersive exhibit (and its many copycats) arrived in the United States earlier this year. Among its offerings? A chance to observe the projected paintings, write a letter to Van Gogh, hear colors (yes, hear)—and practice yoga.
But the combination of yoga and art predates Emily. Whether it’s a weekly Wednesday morning yin class at the Ellen Noël Art Museum in Odessa, Texas, or a lakeside outdoor class at the Milwaukee Art Museum, art institutions across the United States have been hosting yoga classes as special events for years. There’s even a children’s book titled Yoga at the Museum. And while, yes, these classes may be a way for museums to get additional (and young!) patrons in the door and urge them to sign up as members, for some, the confluence of art and yoga represents something a bit deeper.
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The connection between art and yoga
Emily Kamen, 26, is an educator and art historian—but she’s also a yoga teacher. This past year, she taught a weekly art-inspired vinyasa class at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In these virtual classes, Kamen centered each practice around a work of art, drawing inspiration from the piece itself when designing her sequence. She says this allowed her to take inspiration from the art, make new connections, and learn from others—all elements that ultimately benefit her practice.
To Kamen, yoga, like art, is a creative practice, and both pull from a common thread: the idea of care. “Thinking about the people at a museum—there’s the curator, and curate comes from the root word in Latin, cura, ‘to care,’” Kamen says. “For me, yoga is so much about ahimsa, and non-violence is linked to caring. So how can we pull out more consciousness within one’s own body—and for the outside world—through both art and yoga?”
But not everyone agrees that pairing art and yoga is a good thing. In a 2017 piece for Artsy, Daniel Kunitz writes about how participating in any exercise-based class in a museum—from yoga to interval training—has the potential to detract from the essence of the institution. Instead of contemplating the artwork, Kunitz says participants of these classes focus almost exclusively on the workout. Yogis may have a similar critique—can a yoga practice surrounded by beautiful artwork in a museum-like setting still be focused on yoga? The answer may depend on who you ask.
Yoga surrounded by Van Gogh
Carolyn Mueller, 38, headed to the Immersive Van Gogh Chicago experience with a friend earlier this summer. The exercise physiologist says she sees her yoga practice as an opportunity to slow down, focus on the present moment, and reset her body. While she had never practiced in a museum before, she says the experience of merging art and yoga was a pleasant one.
As she moved through the class, Mueller says she integrated not only the surrounding artwork, but also the life of the artist himself into her practice. “Van Gogh led a really incredible life, but a really troubled life too,” she says. “So I feel like I was able to just kind of try to put myself into the life of Van Gogh, as I was going through my practice.” Mueller says she plans on exploring more art-centric yoga practices in the future.
If you do decide to head to an art-based yoga class, you may find yourself feeling more soothed than you would following a typical studio or home practice. A study from the University of Westminster found that looking at art can decrease high stress levels. And we know that yoga can do the same. So we can theorize that combining these experiences may push you deeper into your practice, give you new perspective, and lower your stress levels. That’s a triple win.