Cultivating Wellbeing, Belonging, Curiosity, and Empathy Through Art
Battle between Krishna’s Brother Balarama and Jarasandha, from a History of the Lord (Bhagavata Purana) manuscript, Artist Unknown, ca. 1760–65, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper)
Illustration from the Bhagavata Purana Book 10 Chapter 54 Verse 1- 5: 1. Sri Suka said: “Saying this, armed and very angry, they all mounted their conveyances with bows in hand and set off in pursuit, surrounded by their armies. 2. The leaders of the Yadava army saw them rushing forward, O king, and stood facing them, making a twanging sound with their bows. 3. From horseback, from the shoulders of elephants, and from the seats of chariots, the experts in weaponry released torrents of arrows, like clouds releasing water on mountains. 4. The beautiful waisted Rukmini saw the army of her lord hidden by showers of arrows. With eyes full of fear, she looked bashfully at Krsna’s face. 5. Bhagavan Krsna laughed and said: “Do not fear, beautiful-eyed one. This force on your side will soon destroy the enemy force.” —translated by Edwin F. Bryant , “Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God: Srimad Bhagavata Purana Book X.”)
Danielle Casioppo, health educator and a certified yoga teacher at Being Well at Yale, says the artwork provides the basis and inspiration for the postures chosen. “Therefore, I felt as though the art work was the true teacher and I was just acting as a facilitator or guide on our journey into Balarama’s world, joining him in his quest upon the ancient battlefield,” she says. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)
Danielle Casioppo, Health Educator and a Certified Yoga Teacher at Being Well at Yale, says that teaching people online can be disconcerting because n instructor she can’t always see what people are doing. “But, I find with more thoughtful cues and detailed instructions, participants share that they are able to practice safely and experience the right amount of challenge.” (Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)
The mindfulness series offered at Yale University Art Gallery encourages participants to spend time with the art, examine it in detail, and engage with it from within, in a way that nurtures wellbeing, a sense of belonging, curiosity, and empathy, says Liliana Milkova from Yale University Art Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery)
Liliana Milkova, Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs, introduces the Mindfulness and Art program, Yale University Art Gallery, July 2019. Since the pandemic started, the program has moved online and evolved, along with many of the gallery’s other programs. (Photo by Jessica Smolinski)
It is just after noon on a Tuesday in my living room and I am wearing a golden bejeweled crown, and a dark jacket over a long, flowing, pink-hued shirt. I have a quiver of arrows strapped around my waist. The arrow in one hand is nocked in my jewel-encrusted golden bow in the other hand. It’s a bit hard to get my balance since I sit atop a huge swaying elephant, but I am ready to let that arrow fly toward an advancing army, their arrows pointed at me and my fellow combatants.
I focus on the arrow. I become the arrow.
Then my computer dings and I realize my co-workers need me to write one last entry in a summary before we can send the final newspaper to print. And, the truth is, I’m wearing a black sweatshirt bedecked with dog hair, along with yesterday’s yoga pants, and fuzzy black slippers.
I quickly dispatch my remaining work and return to my online class, part of Yale University Art Gallery’s The Mindful Movement with Art program. With a group of other people I cannot see or hear, I spend some time looking at a copy of the gallery’s Battle between Krishna’s Brother Balarama and Jarasandha, from a History of the Lord (Bhagavata Purana) manuscript, created by an unknown artist around 1760 in ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.
Liliana Milkova, the Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs at the gallery, explains we will use movement to amplify and deepen our connection with the selected artwork. Daneille Casioppo, a health educator and a certified yoga teacher with Being Well at Yale, tells us we will be using a chair, the space around that chair, and our breath as she guides us through those movements.
As someone who has been practicing yoga on and off for decades, I’m surprised by the experience. A pose I have been habitually repeating for years, to the point of taking it for granted, suddenly becomes brand new to me.
But it’s the time we spend with the artwork itself that is really the revelation. I’ve been to the Yale University Art Gallery many, many times. I usually go to whatever exhibit has drawn me in and race around to different works of art like a kid gobbling up handfuls of M&Ms at the candy store.
Surrounded by people, I’ve always felt a bit self conscious about just sitting and spending long periods of time with a particular work of art. But, at home, with the guidance of Milkova and Casioppo, suddenly I’m lost in the battle between Balarama and Jarasandha.
Casioppo asks us to close our eyes, soften our breath, and consider our internal battles, our experiences of dark and light, of good and evil, right and wrong.
“How can we be warriors, victorious over those parts of ourselves that perhaps need to be defeated?” she asks.
It’s not a question I would have thought to ask myself had I seen this work on my own in the gallery, and I certainly would not have asked it standing on one leg, my other leg in the air, with my arms in the form of an arrow in front of me.
With Many Changes, Some Things Stay the Same
The Mindful Movement With Art program is just one of many that has been adapted as the Yale University Art Gallery has remained closed during the pandemic. Art galleries in general have had significant obstacles to overcome when offering programs, since so much of what they offer, obviously, is centered around physical objects, original works of art.
Molleen Theodore, associate curator of programs at the gallery, says the gallery had some pre-pandemic experience with virtual programs but that the primary goal back then was always to use original works of art to engage people in real life activities and the chemistry of in-person conversations in the gallery.
“Programs in the gallery were ephemeral,” she says. “We could do the same program week after week, and it would be different every time because of the chemistry of people coming together.”
The pandemic swept all of that away. The gallery went from planning for an entire academic year to having all the programs closed down. Then, the gallery decided to plan ahead a month at a time.
“At some point we will plan further into the future,” she says. “We don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
As programs moved online, changes in format were considered. Some in-gallery talks used to run for a focused 45 minutes, to groups that might range from about 15 to 30 people.
But, online, little snippets or three to five minutes sometimes worked well. Instead of dozens of people, there might be hundreds of people watching those snippets, some of them fully focused on the topic, and others browsing as they did other things at the same time. Theodore says the experience is leading to discussions about what should be preserved in terms of programs, post-pandemic, whenever that might be.
She notes the gallery never did and does not put an undue premium on large numbers and sold-out programs, as much as both can be gratifying. On some topics, an audience of 15 is as good as 1,500. The gallery is not reliant upon ticket sales.
“But we are finding there are some virtues in e-gallery talks,” she says. “It’s hard not to notice it’s a global audience. So maybe that is something that will be preserved, or maybe it will move forward in a hybridized form. I think we have time to figure this out.”
She says the gallery is offering fewer programs than it has in the past, at a pace that is sustainable under the current constraints, and that there is some merit to that pace for the time being, along with planning only a month ahead at a time. One advantage is that it allows the staff to gather feedback and suggestions, and, in a collaborative manner, adjust programs as needed, almost in real time.
“It’s a little easier to plan by the month so that if we mess up, we can shift what we do. I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “The strategy is the same, but the tactics have shifted.”
As Theodore and her colleagues had to think about what they would have to do differently, they have remained true to their underlying values and goals at the gallery when it came to teaching people about the art.
“Our approach to teaching is that we use objects to teach and we teach from objects,” she says.
Creating Space and Time
The Mindful Movement with Art program is part of a broader series, Mindfulness and Art at the gallery, piloted in the summer of 2019, with the goal of “creating space and time for visitors to slow down and practice mindful looking,” says Milkova.
“Broadly speaking, this overarching series aims at integrating mindfulness practice in how our visitors engage with art, encouraging them to look in a more intentional, more alert way and to think of our spaces as conducive to deep reflection and relaxation, as well as to connecting to others and understanding how they might experience the same artwork or think about it,” she says. “During lockdown, the necessity to find ways to de-stress, to center yourself, and connect with others has become even more important, urgent even.”
The program was developed in partnership with Anne Dutton, the former director of Mindfulness Education at the Yale Stress Center, and Casioppo, who work with Milkova to select the artwork for each program.
While operating solely online poses challenges, it also offers opportunities.
“With virtual programming, we can mine the entire collection and highlight works that might be less accessible in person due to, for example, their fragile condition or minute dimensions,” she says.
Upcoming sessions, including one on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 12:30 p.m. are already in the works. The program in March might incorporate a socio-political dimension.
“I am very interested in exploring movement as a way of enhancing our perceptual experiences of art, but also of how we derive meaning from art,” says Milkova. “How can we offer our audience a chance to engage with an artwork as if from within, embodying postures or gestures depicted in it, and to inhabit the spaces and mindsets suggested by it? By activating our bodies with respect to a given work of art, I believe we can understand it more deeply and also relate to something or someone outside of us, in other words, adopt another’s perspective.”
She says this is all part of a long-term goal of making the gallery a place that nurtures wellbeing, a sense of belonging, curiosity, and empathy, noting, “One path towards getting there is through programs such as our mindfulness series.”