Recently, I went with a group of friends to see Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition includes representations of yoga practice in sculpture, painting, icons, and illuminated manuscripts across 2,000 years. Yoga originated as a radical religious practice, one originally designed to help practitioners transcend their bodies rather than strengthen them. Some yogis and yoginis lived lives of deprivation; others were spies, powerful leaders, or even fierce warriors. As we wandered through the galleries, one of my companions, a yoga instructor, said, “This is not the yoga I practice.”
I understood precisely what she meant.
As a public historian, I often feel a similar sense of disconnect and dislocation when I try to situate myself in many of the possible pasts that my discipline presents me with. Am I the intellectual descendant of 19th-century women’s organizations which sought to protect relics of a particular past in order to stave off unbearable social and cultural change? Do I owe my habits of work to Progressive Era professionals who applied the techniques of scientific management to solve pressing social problems, far too often without listening to the people directly impacted by dangerous working conditions or barely habitable tenements? Am I a professional in a still-emerging intellectual field, one gaining in legitimacy because it has become tied to a larger effort to preserve the academic discipline of history?
More often than I probably should admit, I find myself thinking, “This is not the history I practice.” Continue reading