Doing physical exercise or meditation in a museum is a far different experience than doing those activities in studios or on treadmills, says Dawn Eshelman, head of programs at the Rubin Museum of Art, which features both yoga and meditation programming. Combining those activities with viewing art enhances both, museum officials say.
And it seems to be catching on. Elsewhere in New York, The Asia Society offers meditation classes. In California, the San Diego Museum of Man offers "Yoga in the Rotunda." The Philadelphia Museum of Art offers yoga, too.
The Children's Museum of Green Bay, Wisconsin, meanwhile, has featured a "Yoga with Goats" program to help spark kids' imaginations. "Museums are one of the very few secular spaces where, when visitors enter, they make a conscious effort to slow down and to absorb their surroundings," says Boon Hui Tan, director of The Asia Society.
"So meditation is actually a very natural thing to do in a museum," he says, adding that in the case of The Asia Society, it is also a way of helping visitors connect with the cultures to which the museum is dedicated, in which practices like meditation have a long history.
Eshelman, at the Rubin, in New York, agrees that part of the popularity of such programs is because "museums are contemplative spaces, so it makes sense that visitors pursue contemplative practices here."
She says museums in general are looking at ways to increase their value to the public, and so are opening up to new ideas and activities. "Any public institution worth its salt will ask itself, 'What does my community need and what can I do to connect with that?'" she says.
Yoga programming is a natural, she explains, at the Rubin, which focuses on the art and cultures of the Himalayas, India and neighboring regions, where yoga originated. "It's not every day you can do a warrior pose beside a work of art depicting a deity doing the same pose," she says. "There's a lot of symbolism in the gestures and poses of yoga, and you get to experience them in a more tangible way here."
At other museums, offerings like yoga are seen as a way to diversify a museum's audience and help visitors engage more fully with the works on view. People come to museums not just to learn about art but to learn about themselves, Eshelman says.
"If you can find a way to engage people physically and emotionally, that's a great gift," she says.