Breath of the Gods
FactsDocumentary, 35 mm, 105 min, 2012
Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre
Modern yoga, that is, the form practiced daily by tens of millions of people around the world, goes back directly to the god Shiva according to Indian tradition. At the same time, however, modern yoga originated in the early 20th century, a creation of Indian savant T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). That story is far less known and is what this film is all about.
Krishnamacharya’s life and teachings are seen through the eyes of the director Jan Schmidt-Garre on his search for authentic yoga. His journey leads him from the legendary students and relatives of Krishnamacharya’s to the source of modern yoga, at the palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. From Pattabhi Jois Jan learns the “Sun salutation”, from Iyengar the “King of Asanas”, the headstand, and finally Sribhashyam reveals to him his father’s secret “Life Saving Yoga Session”.
A feature-length documentary including rare historical footage as well as lavish reenactments.
Cinematography: Diethard Prengel
Choreography: R. Alexander Medin
Production design: Irina Kromayer
Sound recording: Martin Müller
Sound mix: Eberhard Weckerle
Colour grading: S. Ganesan
Editor: Gaby Kull-Neujahr
Line producer: Surya
Produced by Jan Schmidt-Garre and Marieke Schroeder
Supported by FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, German Federal Film Fund, MEDIA
Detailed website for the film:
Claudius Seidl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 8.1.12
“Mr. Schmidt-Garre, whose previous films dealt mostly with the performing arts, travelled to India in search of the origins of modern Yoga. He found real human beings (and gods) and a practise capable of humouring itself. This alone is good enough a reason to take them entirely seriously. We learn that Yoga is circus as well as religious service as well as the art to stand on one’s head and see the world the right way around. A beautiful film.“
Wolfgang Hamdorf, Filmdienst 1/2012
“A complex approach to Krishnamacharya, his life and spiritual philosophy, captivating for its endeavour to comprehend and for its astute editing. Above and beyond the subject of Yoga the film draws a picture of modern India rich in facets and nuances.“
Susanne Hermanski, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 5.1.12
» Mr. Schmidt-Garre portraits Krishnamacharya, who almost reached a 100 years of age and influenced all currently known Yoga styles, in an elegant mesh of different cinematic means: he discovered impressive historical archival footage from the thirties showing Krishnamacharya practicing his asanas, his positions – a young ascetic whose body control verges on magic. He conducted numerous interviews with Krishnamacharyas sons and daughters and with his most important students: Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois – the latter, well in his nineties, passing away in the course of the filming period. Mr. Schmidt-Garre’s observation of these men teaching their students glides by in ruminant sequences. Intermittently he has himself filmed during his own lessons, as he struggles with the head-stand for instance to old Iyengar’s relentless instructions. Especially alluring are the sequences where Mr. Schmidt-Garre reenacts historical India, snake charmers and all, including scenes from the court of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV. «
Münchner Merkur, 5./6.1.12
“With a subjective approach Mr. Schmidt-Garre intelligently handles the overwhelming copiousness of opinions and material. On his research trip across India the filmmaker from Munich encounters the aged Yoga gurus and their disciples. He avoids every clichéed image of India, does not pander to European expectations in his depiction. Krishnamacharya, the „father of Yoga“ from the twenties who can be seen on historical footage practicing his asanas, would be overjoyed at this detailed and precisely worked film.“
Neue Presse Hannover, 5.1.12
“Director Jan Schmidt-Garre interweaved wonderful black-and-white flickering images of Krishnamacharya’s Yoga demonstrations, the highly acrobatic contortions necessary to please his athletic sponsor, the Maharaja. With impressive images and interviews with school founders Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar Mr. Schmidt-Garre shows how Krishnamacharya’s teaching evolved and how the different schools emerged.“
Philipp Bühler, Berliner Zeitung, 5.1.12
“The jittery black-and-white images of half-naked yogis are of course fascinating. But ultimately stunning is the fact that Mr. Schmidt-Garre was actually able to meet with the protagonists of these ancient images. Hearing these legendary masters talk lets most prejudices dissipate. Stretching of the entire body all the way to the little toe – what may sound esoteric in Berlin Yoga lofts sounds very tangible coming from B. K. S. Iyengar’s mouth. But when he says that in the moment of perfect mental control you become holy, he himself can’t help laughing.“
Stuttgarter Zeitung, 5.1.12
“Despite its interest in the teachings and development of Yoga this film – unlike so many others – is not a search for meaning without any critical distance. Mr. Schmidt-Garre deliberates about whether Yoga is ancient tradition or novel invention and lets us see: competitiveness is no stranger even to the great masters.“
Stefanie Wilkes, Spirit Yoga
“Director Jan Schmidt-Garre has retrieved a treasure with his work. Not least because he himself explores Yoga with his means as a director and a student of Yoga. It is downright touching how he practices with high concentration a sun salutation under the guidance of the venerable Pattabhi Jois. With this genius trick he lures his audience onto the Yoga mat and onto his journey, beginners and experienced yogis alike. Once a philosophy graduate himself he worked for five solid years on this film project produced in India and each of the 104 minutes is bliss.“
Annette Hahn, Kunst + Film, 1.1.12
“The reenacted scenes are reminiscent of the silent films of the 1920s; They are accompanied expressively by classical music. Herefore the director resorts to works of the late romantic period, for instance the aria “Hindu Song“ from Rimsky-Korsakovs opera “Sadko“ of 1898, which makes an alienating impression at first. After all in the West we associate Indian music more with sounds of the Sitar. But this late romantic music brings to life the European longing for Indian exoticism. In this way Mr. Schmidt-Garre brilliantly broaches the distance that lies between a phenomenon of Indian culture and his own perspective of it.“
Richard Brooke, Sight & Sound
“It’s not so easy to find historic evidence in India,” complains German documentary-maker Jan Schmidt-Garre at the start of this engaging feature-length delve into the roots of modern yoga as established by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). The guru himself only appears in photographs and silent (and blurry) archive footage, but Schmidt-Garre ends up with an impressive roster of interviewees with direct personal links, whether blood descendants or former pupils.
The film initially aims to establish whether modern yoga is genuinely ancient in origin or largely the creation of Krishnamacharya and his disciples, but Schmidt-Garre’s own personal journey gradually takes over. This approach can often lead to self-indulgence on the filmmaker’s part, but in this case it’s justified: when he’s first talked through 16 ‘asana’ positions by Krishnamacharya’s former pupil Pattabhi Jois, Schmidt-Garre becomes a surrogate for the audience, an amateur surrounded by professionals with decades of experience. This comes to a head when Schmidt-Garre tries and fails to cross both legs over each thigh, much to Jois’s amusement and, no doubt, the lay viewer’s intense sympathy.
Jois also became one of the major figures in modern yoga, as did B.K.S. Iyengar, a Krishnamacharya pupil who became guru to Yehudi Menuhin among many others. Iyengar talks in detail about its history, specifically the claim that a century ago yoga in its practical (as opposed to philosophical) manifestation was as alien to most Indians as it was to Westerners, regarded with either bafflement or open contempt as little more than a circus routine involving people contorting themselves into impossibly uncomfortable poses.
Mercifully, Schmidt-Garre isn’t the only practical demonstrator. In addition of footage of Krishnamacharya himself (and assorted family members, including his wife Namagiri and daughters Pundarikavalli and Alamelu), a recreation of a private command performance for the Maharajah of Mysore and a more public demonstration involving multiple participants emphasises the striking beauty of yoga when conducted at the highest level of physical attainment. Krishnamacharya’s son T.K. Sribhashyam is also keen to stress yoga’s philosophical side (whose ancient roots are much more clearly defined), and identifies an unmistakable asana position in a Hindu temple painting of Narasimha, avatar of the god Vishnu.
Krishnamacharya seems to have been a hard taskmaster ("His hands were like iron – if he gave one slap, it might take days to recover") but Iyengar makes it clear that this discipline was an important part of the process, not least in terms of demonstrating yoga’s virtues to a sceptical public. Although Schmidt-Garre doesn’t draw attention to this, a tacit acknowledgement of yoga’s health benefits is revealed by the longevity of its masters: Krishnamacharya reached his century, Jois got to 93 (he died during production, but enough was shot to give him significant screen time) and Iyengar is still alive at 94, though he looks considerably younger as he prods and cajoles his pupils into precise execution of his routines while wearing just a pair of blue shorts.
Schmidt-Garre’s documentary backround is in classical music, reminders of which are threaded throughout Breath of the Gods, particularly the recurring use of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Hindu Merchant’s Song’ from his 1896 opera Sadko, both in the original and via Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s memorably lush 1922 piano transcription. The latter is a particularly apposite accompaniment, being an Anglo-Indian’s reinterpretation of a Russian’s impression of an Indian character. It also allows Schmidt-Garre to avoid using authentic Indian music, something he felt he didn’t understand enough to treat with sufficient respect. More generally, he goes to some lengths to avoid depicting India through overtly orientalist eyes – he can’t resist a snake-charming interlude, but his respect for the country and his evident belief in the universal application of modern yoga’s principles shine through.
Noémie Luciani, Le Monde, 18.3.14
Si la tradition indienne attribue l’origine du yoga à l’inspiration divine, sa pratique moderne se construit au début du XXe siècle, sous l’égide de T. Krishnamacharya, fondateur de l’école Yogashala. Afin de retrouver sa trace, le documentariste allemand Jan Schmidt-Garre est parti en Inde rencontrer les descendants de Krishnamacharya et deux de ses élèves, devenus des légendes dans le monde du yoga : B.K.S. Iyengar et Pattabhi Jois.
Mais il ne s’agit pas seulement, pour le cinéaste, de faire parler ces témoins : se mettant à son tour dans la peau de l’élève, Jan Schmidt-Garre joint le geste aux paroles, pour donner à son questionnement sur la transmission la plus concrète des illustrations.
Par un joli travail de montage, la transmission constitue également le mot d’ordre visuel de ce documentaire. Le réalisateur insère au milieu des séquences récoltées lors du tournage de superbes images d’archives en noir et blanc datant des années trente, montrant Krishnamacharya, sa famille et son école (les deux sphères se confondant souvent) à l’œuvre. Les effets de raccord, soignés mais discrets, la musique classique qui remplace élégamment les sonorités folkloriques attendues, donnent au parcours documentaire une fluidité des plus agréables.
Mais cette mise en scène de la continuité n’empêche pas le réalisateur de s’intéresser aux variantes, différences et divergences nées de l’héritage prestigieux de Krishnamacharya. C’est même la part la plus intéressante de son film. Refusant de sacraliser la parole de ceux qu’il filme, Jan Schmidt-Garre n’hésite pas à la résumer en voix off quand le besoin s’en fait sentir. Lorsqu’il la laisse intacte (et d’autant plus forte qu’elle a pu, ailleurs, être condensée), c’est souvent pour souligner ces écarts : les désaccords des élèves avec le maître, les réorientations qu’ils ont choisi de donner à leur art, une fois l’émancipation acquise.
Toujours très apaisées, ces évocations deviennent, sans que le lien soit jamais explicite, le meilleur argument de l’enseignement des maîtres. Là où l’héritage aurait pu se teinter d’amertume, les exigences fondamentales de l’art, respiration, méditation, tranquilité de l’âme, ont gardé intacte le véritable trésor : le yoga s’offre à tous, dociles et réformateurs, experts et cinéastes novices. Il n’exige qu’un tapis de deux mètres de long pour soixante centimètres de large, et une grande inspiration.
... and a testimonial
Angelika Taschen, publisher
“The title alone is .... It’s amazing how you managed to put this subject to film in such a contemporary, effortless and relaxed way. Breathtaking images, India as it was and as it is, everything’s alive. It’s a historical document of a giant movement, and you made it just at the right time. Thank you for this significant contribution to my passion, which is Yoga.“
... and another review
Wolfgang Hamdorf, Filmdienst 1/2012
“Trees rustling in the wind. Nothing is left of the old village in South India. Here T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern Yoga, was born in 1890. Director Jan Schmidt-Garre follows the traces in search of the man from Muchukunte, who died in 1989. Krishnamacharya’s life as well as the encounters with his students and his children are one recurrent motive, the other is a wonderful musical theme: the Hindu Song by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov from 1897. It represents here the Western nostalgia for Eastern wisdom. The third motive is the development of Yoga teaching on the subcontinent, from the time of the British Empire all the way to modern day India. The documentary film narrates with a moving camera, then again with calm, steadily shot interviews, but also with much thrilling archival footage. It shows eye witnesses, friends, students, family members in the contexts of their own lives and conveys, as though in passing, much of the social and cultural changes of the Indian subcontinent.
The question about the origin of modern Yoga keeps recurring, about the faithfulness to tradition and about innovation over the last 100 years. Does modern Yoga derive from 5000 years old texts or was it formed in the 20th century? It soon becomes clear that Yoga is neither a cryptic secret doctrine nor an easy relaxing program. Almost physically clear it becomes when the director, failing at the lotus position, is encouraged to try over and again by Pattabhi Jois, the strict student of Krishnamacharya’s. „Yoga is always possible“ the old master says. The positions should be held up to 30 minutes. The layman’s muscles tense up at the mere sight of a lotus position or a head stand. But despite all the effort involved Yoga is as popular today as jogging and comes with the additional spiritual benefit of a „mergence“ of mind and body. “In my youth“, says Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law B. K. S. Iyengar, who with his sometimes serious, sometimes cheerful expression reminds of the indiophile philosopher Schopenhauer, “people in India knew nothing about Yoga. It was something for charlatans and morons.“ Yoga’s position in society was comparable to circus artistry; for the refined classes Yoga was rather a spiritual-philosophical approach than physical activity. Only as late as 1927 Yoga experienced a sort of renaissance.
The film presents Krishnamacharya, demonstrating his sequences to the Maharaja of Mysore, who in 1934 set up a Yoga school for him, where Krishnamacharya developed a new, faster and more intense Yoga with new positions, “asanas“. The Yoga master had six children; the younger ones speak of the rigid daily schedule and the deep concentration their father demanded from them. They say that knowledge is wealth, a hidden treasure that must be retrieved. To the backdrop of the world of old magical India, portrayed in the film with reenacted images of snake charmers, fakirs and Sanskrit scholars, the fact that Krishnamacharya was capable of stopping his heart beat for a full two minutes no longer appears all that unnatural. His brother-in-law Iyengar, however, speaks not uncritically of the master and portrays him as an ambivalent character, often driving him over the edge of his capacities. After India attained independence the Yoga shala of the Maharaja was shut down. Krishnamacharya henceforth worked therapeutically with individual coaching. The last images of him on faded colour film show the old guru with a white beard while eating.
“Breath of the Gods“ is no representative of spiritual wellness cinema offering European post-materialists life support with far-eastern recipes and exotic mysticism. Instead it is a true investigation and honest endeavour to comprehend a spiritual philosophy. This film is a kind of “Buena Vista Social Club“ of modern Yoga because beside the historical footage of Krishnamacharya it portrays also his students Pattabhi Jois (who died during the filming period) and the legendary Iyengar, the master’s brother-in-law. Jan Schmidt-Garre does not claim a false insider perspective, neither does he speak in images of regressive European exoticism. When, at the end, he faces the statue of Narasimha, the breathing God, the initial question of the origin of modern Yoga may not be answered, yet the not entirely explicable image of modern India is closer to completion.“
Poster "Breath of the Gods" UK
Poster "Breath of the Gods" Japan
Poster "Breath of the Gods" USA
Poster "Breath of the Gods" Germany
Poster » Breath of the Gods « France
The meaning of Yoga is concentration. Concentration to the extent we can go.
On DVD with PARS Media/Blue Dolphin including three hours of bonus features: additional sequences, unpublished interviews and yoga demonstrations
- "Breath of the Gods" – Interview
- Filming (in) the Orient
- The Intelligence in the Fingertips
- Reconstructing Yoga – Interview
- Shavasana – The Corpse Pose
"Breath of the Gods" – Interview
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt, December 2011
Your previous films dealt mostly with subjects of the perfoming arts – opera, theatre, dance. What interests you about the subject of Yoga?
They are not as different as they may seem. At the centre of my films – documentary or feature – is always the artistic process. How does art come about? How does mundane material like sounds or shapes transform and get a spiritual quality? I apply the same question to the subject of Yoga. The body is the material which miraculously turns to spiritual matter.
As with dance?
On the outside, yes. A Yoga sequence can have a dance-like quality when it is carried out with the correct breathing and concentration, as I have come to learn over the course of the filming. This can induce a change. Just as with figure skating: it is primarily just a sport, but has the potential to evolve into dance with certain athletes. In sports as in Yoga, it is the B-note that I am interested in!
And on the inside?
When I practice Yoga with the correct breathing I experience a unique merging of mind and body. The body turns spiritual and the mind physical. This I encountered with Yoga. It is for me what sets it apart from all other physical activities. Nearly all: with sex one can have that experience sometimes... (laughs).
I suspect you made this film as an excuse for the opportunity to be taught by the great masters of Yoga.
This is true to some extent. For me it was important to show the great masters in mid-action, not just in interviews. So I had to find a way to bring them to teach. I was not dying to be in front of the camera, but I did not want to show a student 25 years of age and naturally extremely agile, rather someone you would not expect to do these sequences – such as myself. The idea was to show that Yoga is for everyone.
The journey to India is notorious among researchers and artists of the West. Was it your turn now?
I always wanted to visit India – originally my honeymoon was supposed to lead us there. When I was 20 years old I tasted Indian food for the first time in New York. Back then it did not exist in Germany. Then I discovered Indian films, especially the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray. My fascination with India never faded.
What is it exactly that fascinates you?
It is the world seen in my film: the Orient of the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1960s/1970s image of India, the India of the Beatles, I have never taken any interest. So it does not appear in my film. What I found exciting, however, was the enthusiasm for India around the turn of the century: fakirs sitting on beds of nails. This is the world I found on the photos of Krishnamacharya. This combined with my spiritual experience of Yoga was downright explosive.
Your film shows India of the 1930s. Is Yoga not much older than that?
Yes, of course, it is an ancient practice. Only there is little we know about what was done in physical Yoga before the 20th century. The philosophical tradition is very well documented, the practical hardly at all. That has to do with the fact that physical Yoga by the end of the 19th century, when it first came to the attention of the West, was regarded as acrobatics practiced by crooks for charity. It was Krishnamacharya who rehabilitated the physical part of Yoga in the 1930s. It was he who gave it the new form that became extremely successful and led to the huge Yoga boom that we have today. This leaves us with the paradox of a practice thousands of years old formed only recently by one single man.
How as a Western director does one approach this foreign culture?
By broaching the issue of the cultural distance. It was clear to me from the beginning that I would have to avoid a naive immersion into this fascinating oriental world and steer clear of the overused images catching every foreigner’s (and every cinematographer’s) eye. With the example of music it is perhaps easiest to explain: I always find it presumptuous and embarrassing when films about foreign cultures operate with the music of these cultures. It is music that I know only very superficially as a Westerner, so I am bound to misuse it. With the music of my own culture, however, I am very familiar and so I apply it on this journey as though my own voice. I used piano music from the 1920s and 1930s, expressing the oriental nostalgia of the West in these years by processing oriental musical motives with a Western technique. It is in fact just what I do as a director.
So as a director you dream the dream of the Orient?
I open a window from my culture to the Indian culture. Of course, that is what every director, who saw something fascinating, is trying to do. As George McDonald put it, “a poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it, too.” One documents it to share one’s experience with others; only that many directors think that this is done by simply showing their audience exotic images one to one. For the director these images contain his experience of the Orient, but not for the audience. They miss the smells, the atmosphere, the experiences before and after shooting. To transport and generalise this impression in a way that the audience can feel the director’s experience to the same degree of intensity, the director has to construct this impression.
And how is this done?
It happens in the editing process. For an image to unfold its original power I have to create the appropriate context. Krishnamacharya’s youngest daughter Shubha demonstrated to us her own private Yoga practice. When we saw it, it had an enormous beauty and intensity. This simple demonstration for me showed the essence of Yoga and I knew when we were filming it, that it would be one of the climactic moments of the film. When I worked with the footage back home, the magic of the moment seemed to have vanished. Only at the very end of the editing process, when I was close to giving up the scene, I found the right place for it. Now it works!
What seems fascinating to me about Yoga: after all hopes were placed in the machines of Technogym and PowerPlate in the 1990s, we suddenly found ourselves with an activity requiring no equipment whatsoever.
It is indeed fascinating how little equipment Yoga requires. A Yoga mat is two metres long and 60 centimetres wide; on this mat everything is possible. The mystics of the Yoga mat used to annoy me, this „I unroll my mat and all is well.“ In the meantime I have come to understand that this is simply true: When you step onto your mat, you enter a world within the world – as the charcoal rectangle with Peter Brook. Everything that we see in my film, everything that is done in Yoga altogether, can happen on this mat.
Filming (in) the Orient
» I really don’t want the film to be a Eurocentric take on an Indian cultural phenomenon. Nor do I, as familiar as I may be with the Indian perspective, want to blur the differences and drown in the sitar vibes of a culture I wasn’t brought up in and don’t totally comprehend. No, I want to go at it by observing and listening carefully, by considering and selecting and arranging and concentrating and intensifying. Always keeping the cultural differences in mind, making use of them in fact. One can learn a lot from Louis Malle, whose India films you drew my attention to. Or the story I told you about the Indian composer Kaikhosru Sorabji, who grew up in England, a snobby homosexual intellectual who in the 1930s wrote a paraphrase for piano of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Hindu Song’ from his opera Sadko, a Russian piece of Orientalism at the Fin de siècle. It is cultural twists like these that interest me, that force me to ignore every attractive yet clichéd shot of India. And yet I’m all the happier when I find something justifiable. On our first shoot, Pattabhi Jois led us to the location of the old Yoga school in Mysore, which has since been torn down. Just as we arrived there, a group of kindergarden children in school uniforms were doing simple yoga-like gymnastics with their teacher. A charming scene full of atmosphere – exotic and real even though it could have been a clip for the Indian Ministry of Tourism. But with Pattabhi Jois’ going there looking for his old Yoga school it’s absolutely right for the film... «
From a letter by Jan Schmidt-Garre to an Indian friend during the shooting of » Breath of the Gods «
The Intelligence in the Fingertips
On the death of yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar
by Jan Schmidt-Garre, first published in Welt am Sonntag, 24.8.14
German version on waahr.de
First of all, it can’t be true at all that B. K. S. Iyengar, the most important yoga teacher of the 20th century, died last Wednesday in a Poona hospital. If ever an Indian guru would reach the magic age of 108, it would be him – I knew that when he pressed my ankles into the mat with an iron grip four years ago, then already 91 years old. I was making a film about the emergence of modern yoga and felt it necessary to stage myself as a guinea pig. I had never managed to get into a headstand without help, and now I was kneeling in front of the most famous of all yoga teachers and wanted to learn. I immediately forgot about the camera, because Iyengar’s authority was much more intimidating. So he grabbed my wrists, declared that fear sat in the gap between my knuckles and the mat, and pressed them to the floor with titanic force. » Now get into the headstand, « he said. I did it – and was able to do it.
But it wasn’t always so easy. First he had turned me down, on wafer-thin airmail paper that flew into my mailbox as if from another time. I had gone there anyway and received an audience in the library. This was a fixed element of his daily routine, the public part of which began at half past nine in the morning. Then he entered the yoga hall of his school in Poona, an octagonal building decorated all around with reliefs of himself in acrobatic yoga poses. The fifty or so students from all over the world, including many Indians, were already practicing, each to his own, enjoying, without showing it, Iyengar’s aura that gradually filled the hall. He modestly sought a corner and began his two-hour program: few postures in which he stayed up to thirty minutes, a small kitchen alarm clock on the floor for control. He also used aids such as ropes and blocks – one of his many contributions to yoga, allowing less limber and even handicapped students to move into difficult poses. Then he retired for lunch and a nap, and at half past three he sat down at his desk in the library. There, too, change of atmosphere; faltering breath among students at the shelves, dimming of conversation.... At his small table he answered letters, dictated and corrected his more than twenty books, and received supplicants like German filmmakers. I managed to convince him of my project and we agreed to start filming on Guru Purnima, the holiday in July dedicated to spiritual teachers.
The first interview was a revelation. Iyengar was a wonderful speaker who, contrary to what might be expected with his fiery temperament, spoke very softly and winningly, powerful Indian English, with a delight in wordplay. He told of his childhood in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where he was born in 1918, the early loss of his father, and the many illnesses he had as a teenager. At sixteen, the family of his sister, who had married the yoga master Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, took him in. Iyengar learned from him in a short time the most complicated yoga postures and freed himself from his illnesses. He revered his guru, but also suffered from his intellectual arrogance and the force of his slaps (with which he himself was later not to be sparing), and so he gratefully accepted the offer to go to Poona, where a yoga teacher from the Krishnamacharya school was wanted: » I was a tiger who had escaped the guru’s cage. «
In Poona in the early 1940s, the exciting phase of self-exploration began for Iyengar. While he had previously only copied the yoga postures from his guru externally, he now looked inside himself, traced the subtlest reactions of his body to the postures, modified his practice accordingly and thus achieved a profound knowledge of the human anatomy. From this he developed his system, which is used today in Iyengar schools all over the world: with meticulous work on the correct alignment of the body. For our film he demonstrated this with his granddaughter Abhijata. Quick as a flash and relentless, he identified the smallest inaccuracies in the postures, such as the wheel: » Roll up the skin. Heels up and ankles vertically over the heels. Now pull your ankles in and lift. Don’t lift from the wrist! «
His pride in being the great self-made man of yoga was, by the way, very unusual for a traditional Indian, especially for a member of the Brahmin caste of scholars. On my travels for the film, I usually only met people, such as Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, who insisted on instructing just like their teacher, who in turn would have faithfully passed on what he had learned from his teacher. This appeal to tradition is so much a part of Indian culture that there is even a term for it in Sanskrit: Parampara. Iyengar, on the other hand, self-consciously said that he had never read a yoga manual (but he had read the classical texts of yoga philosophy very thoroughly). Instead, he later wrote the most important book to date: Light on Yoga, to which Yehudi Menuhin wrote the foreword. Menuhin, then one of the most famous musicians in the world, had met Iyengar in 1952. He became his student, freed himself from his tensions with yoga and said that for him it was more important to practice yoga daily than to practice the violin. He introduced Iyengar in Europe and the USA and made him the most famous yoga teacher of his time. Even though other disciples of Krishnamacharya, such as Indra Devi or Pattabhi Jois, popularized other forms of yoga and thus established the dynamic yoga that is more popular today – it was Iyengar who created a broad awareness of this art in the West in the first place.
At the end of the interview, Iyengar told me how he had gradually learned to send his intelligence to the tip of his fingers. » How will you know God if you don’t even know your big toe? To this day, the asanas (yoga postures) are my prayers: meditation in action. Because I can expand the finite to reach the infinite. « He told it so vividly that I wished I could merge with his body to have the experiences he spoke of. Here was a man who could trigger a physical effect through words alone, through the mind. That lingered in me, in the yoga practice of course, but also in swimming and even just in lying on the bed. And that’s what yoga is: the incarnation of the spirit. And the spiritualization of the body.
Reconstructing Yoga – Interview
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Eddie Stern, first published in Namarupa, summer 2013
When did you decide to reconstruct yoga demonstrations from the 1930s?
I was very attracted by the few black & white photographs of the yoga shala that you find in Krishnamacharya’s first book Yogamakaranda. I saw them first in Norman Sjoman’s book on the Mysore Palace Yoga Tradition which also inspired me a lot. They convey beautifully the atmosphere of this point of departure of modern yoga, with its mix of discipline, devotion and magic. This atmosphere was supposed to become an essential part of my film. As those public demonstrations haven’t been filmed I decided to reconstruct them.
If you only knew those photos how did you know what actually happened in the demonstrations.
There are very few written documents about what happened in Mysore in those days. But we were lucky to find many witnesses whom I interviewed about the demonstrations. First of all Krishnamacharya’s relatives who were part of the demonstrations, especially of those done in other cities of South India in order to propagate Yoga. The oldest daughter Pundarikavalli was born in 1931 and remembered many details. She and her two years younger sister Alamelu are featuring together with her father in the 1938 film which I also used. Krishnamacharya’s wife and her sister Jaya Lakshmi were the first women he taught yoga to. Jaya Lakshmi only died recently and could tell us a lot. They not only took part in demonstrations, they even taught yoga themselves. (By the way this is why Krishnamacharya instructed them: He wasn’t allowed to teach women who were not his relatives. So he used his wife, sister-in-law and daughters as middlewomen to teach the female members of the royal family. The student practiced with his relative, and Krishnamacharya gave instructions sitting behind a curtain. This seems to be the starting point of yoga for women which until then was restricted to men. Amazing if you think of what the world of yoga looks like today, only some 70, 80 years later!) And there were the other students of Krishnamacharya’s who could relate on the demonstrations, basically Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar and Srinivasa Sharma. All these interviews took place before we shot the demonstrations. We actually started shooting with Pattabhi Jois on Guru Purnima of 2007 – without me knowing this – and ended intentionally on Guru Purnima again: With the palace demonstration in 2010.
Where did you find your performers?
Two of the yoga performers – Shiva Kumar and Shyam Narayanan – are asana tournament champions from India, teaching now in Hong Kong. Alex Medin who did the choreography chose and instructed them. The only real Brahmin in this group is Prasad Bathundi, a sanskrit scholar from Mysore. He is the one who does this amazing Buddhasana in the village demonstration. He had only started practising two years before! Maybe because he is a Brahmin to me it’s through his face and eyes that you can look into the deeper meaning of yoga, beyond the circus surface. The two girls are also yoga practitioners from Mysore. It was very important to me to include women in the demonstration because it is so little known that women were doing this. As Maharaja we were recommended a lawyer with striking similarity to Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV. He is of course no professional actor and it took me some time to talk him out of his routines such as twirling his beard! A difficult cast was Krishnamacharya himself. Here we couldn’t just go for outward similarity. He had to be a Brahmin and to breathe yoga and its tradition. So we were lucky to win Alex’ sanskrit professor at the Mysore Sanskrit College for the part: Gangadhara Bhat.
And what about the locations?
It wasn’t easy to find a village that still looked like in the 1930s. We finally decided for one close to Mysore, home of one of our set managers. We had to do a lot of masquerading, hiding telegraph poles etc. The Lalith Mahal Palace is the former summer palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. This was his private residence whereas the big palace in the city served mostly for representational purposes. We couldn’t find out without ambiguity where the historic demonstrations really took place but it could very well have been there.
What we see in the reconstructions are sequences of asanas which remind of Pattabhi Jois’ series.
We filmed two types of demonstrations: One in front of the Maharaja and his entourage which was supposed to present the fruits of the Yoga Shala teachings to its patron. These demonstrations had no particularly didactic purpose. They should impress the audience like a good show. When Krishnamacharya toured villages and small towns in the state of Karnataka the purpose was to propagate yoga. Krishnamacharya would ask a student to do a sequence that had a particular, very difficult and spectacular asana as a climax. He would then talk about the benefits of that asana to the audience. The student had to stay in the asana until Krishnamacharya had finished his speech and then go back to the starting position in reverse order. This is not exactly the same in Pattabhi Jois’s sequences. In his second book Yogasanagalu, Krishnamacharya precisely indicates step by step how to reach every individual asana from standing position as a starting point.
Why don’t you make it clear in your film which parts are reconstructed and which ones are authentic?
Because it would disrupt the flow. I want the audience to really live this world that I’m presenting. When you read subtitles like » re-enactment « this will shift your perception from experiencing to observing. It’s like asking you a question during Shavasana! When I think of Breath of the Gods today, with some distance, I sense an atmosphere. A mood. A world. Streets in South India, piano music, weird marks on old men’s foreheads, black and withe images. And the all-embracing feeling after a yoga class in which you succeeded to synchronize movement and breath. All of this cluttered together in one image. And this is what yoga became for me: a world. No aspect of the world – a world in itself. That I can enter as I enter the worlds of art, food or love. I wish that to some people my film may open this world.
Shavasana – The Corpse Pose
by Jan Schmidt-Garre, first published in Namarupa, fall/winter 2013
German version on waahr.de
One of the major topics of yoga philosophy – one that I encountered over and over again while working on my documentary film Breath of the Gods – is the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, otherwise known as the ashtanga path, from the Sanskrit words ashta (eight) and anga (limb). Patanjali was a key figure in the history of yoga. B. K. S. Iyengar dedicated a temple to him in his native village, and Pattabhi Jois named his yoga school the Ashtanga Research Institute in his honour. The idea of ashtanga is found in the Yoga Sutras, a philosophical treatise on the technique and goal of yoga. Though attributed to Patanjali, they were perhaps compiled by various authors between the second century BC and the fourth century AD and were at first orally transmitted. The verse on the ashtanga path reads as follows, in an impressive compound noun of the sort permissible in Sanskrit (and in modern German): yamaniyamasanapranayamapratyaharadharanadhyanasamadhayostavangani. It names the eight limbs of the yoga path: spiritual purity, bodily purity, bodily control, respiratory control, sensory control, concentration, meditation and enlightenment. This yoga path is customarily identified with the path of life: as morally good and physically pure human beings, we perfect our bodies with yoga exercises in our youth, turn to our spiritual nature with respiratory exercises as adults, blot out the material world, and compose ourselves in meditation and submission in old age in order to experience perfect knowledge at the end of our lives.
In the five years I spent working on Breath of the Gods, I probed deeper and deeper into the practice of yoga, attempting to follow the instructions of Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar, Sribhashyam and my German teacher Patrick Broome. During these years a different interpretation appeared to me. Perhaps the yoga path is more than just the life path of each and every one of us. Perhaps it is also the path of each and every yoga practice and is travelled anew every morning. All teachers initially insist on the student’s inner composure, whether in the form of sung mantras, as is common in India (though the Indians themselves never impose this on outsiders), or in the form of good resolutions or potent thoughts about someone dear to us. Identifying with the good at the beginning of a yoga lesson can easily be dismissed as a cheap form of indulgence, or at least as narcissistic escapism. But the philosophy of yoga teaches us that good thoughts cannot be without impact (nor can bad thoughts for that matter), even if they be but a few good thoughts at the beginning of the lesson. This, then, is yama, the first step on the yoga path.
Now comes niyama, the purification of the body. One example from the Krishnamacharya tradition is the kapalabhati exercise, where the nose and sinuses are cleansed by sharp expulsions of breath. Interestingly, the dictate of serenity comes at this stage (footnote 1). It is not until the third step that we encounter what is usually understood by yoga today: the bodily practice of yogic postures (asanas) in both their static and dynamic forms. The original meaning of the word asana is ‘seat’, and its function is traditionally to learn the correct posture for the higher steps on the yoga path. Only a body made lithe in the asanas is capable of maintaining the ‘at once firm and light’ meditative posture (sthirasukha). The fourth step is the fascinating field of respiratory exercises (pranayama), the most widespread limb of the yoga path after the asanas. They channel our awareness inward, where our consciousness now closes our senses to the outside world by means of a mysterious and little-studied yoga technique called pratyahara. Then come the purely spiritual exercises dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation), after which there ensues the storied goal of yoga, samadhi.
In the practice of yoga, it is the fifth step (pratyahara) that corresponds to the corpse pose, shavasana. Here the student lies motionless on his or her back and allows the bodily and spiritual exercises of the preceding 30 to 60 minutes to work their effect. (In Western yoga studios this is also known as ‘deep relaxation’, which can be most welcome after the often very demanding physical exertions of the yoga lesson.) Shavasana is the name of an asana; indeed, it is often said, to the student’s confusion, to be the most difficult of all. But I would like to assign it, not to the asana phase, but to the later phase of pratyahara, for it is here that I learn to master the withdrawal of the senses – or, more accurately, the merging of my senses with the material world, so that they lose their intermediary function. This has been to date the most profound and mysterious of the many enjoyable experiences that I owe to yoga. It takes place in six stages:
I lie on my back, my arms alongside my body. Without making any adjustments, I adopt the position that my body has accidentally assumed. I notice how gravity does its work, gradually bringing all my limbs into a state of balance. "We should be comfortable in ourselves instead of making our furniture comfortable", says Moshé Feldenkrais (2). I therefore trust that my inner body will shift inside my outer body until I lie ‘at once firm and light’. This stage is not spectacular on a mat, for the posture does not admit much variation, but it is quite different on a bed or chair. At most it may even be possible while standing to submit wholly to gravity without falling down.
I wander mentally through my body, exploring its borders and drawing up an interior map. Do my shoulders hurt? Does my foot feel a draft? Where does my leg lie? Where does it not lie? Am I lying crooked or straight? What’s the posture of my head, my mouth, my tongue? Where do I end?
I remove all tension from my muscles, my forehead, eyes, mouth, neck, torso, arms, legs. With a bit of practice I can even relax my skull and – most difficult of all, and very prone to disruption – my thoughts. I probe further and further into the ends of my body, and discover more deep-seated, older tensions that I can release, channels that I can open up. I encounter echoes of earlier decisions stored in my body. Here, too, form is what Adorno once called "sedimented content" (3). It transpires that these fields or nodes of tension constitute my individuality, my history, that network of limitations that shape me in the full sense of the word and constitute my profile. By releasing them I abandon my subjectivity and, in compensation, partake of a still indefinite stream of the Whole. Is this letting go a form of going with the flow, of losing oneself? It can probably be felt that way. Here, in a microcosm, as with so many turns on the yoga path, it depends on our interpretation, and on our choosing that particular interpretation. It is I who experience the release as if I were being filled with an influx of nectar.
Where I succeed in releasing all tension, the borders of my body dissolve. Outside and inside blur and coalesce. I merge with the mat, the bed, the chair. As on an old phantom photograph showing the same body in double exposure, I float above myself. What used to me my knee, my mouth, my hands, are now a single peaceful organism. And not even that, but rather a sort of force field in transition from the ego to the world. From now on I shall change nothing: any movement would be a superfluous adjunct on my part that would cause the flow to stop. I would then revert to the individual, and the dissolved borders would be reinstated in an instant.
Just after a strenuous asana lesson it can be difficult to remain motionless in the assumed posture and to resist the tempting impulse to make slight adjustments. I have been perspiring, and the salt itches my skin. I try neither to block out the irritation nor to bring it to the fore. I observe it with equanimity, knowing that it is transient. And indeed, after a while it stops trying to fetch me back: it desists and finally dissolves altogether. Thus I observe the coming and going of clouds. And each cloud causes me to sink deeper and to merge without a trace.
In the rare cases where I succeed in bringing this process to a sort of conclusion – or perhaps I should say, to accompany myself up to this point – I arrive at a state of profound oneness with the world, a state in which I know that I am being sustained. Sustained by what? That is again an interpretation, very personal and probably nontransferrable. In my case it is an image. I am lying on a leaf, perhaps a large oak leaf, in God’s hand (4).
Am I depicting what Patanjali meant by pratyahara, the fifth step on the yoga path? In a literal sense, pratyahara means ‘fasting’; in Desikachar’s translation it means "withdrawing from that which brings nourishment" (5). Patanjali, transferring this concept to the relation between consciousness and the object of consciousness, defines pratyahara as the withdrawal of the senses from the material world. Our senses "no longer allow themselves to be fed by their objects" (Desikachar). To quote Patanjali: "In pratyahara, the senses withdraw from that which has hitherto been their object and assume instead the form of consciousness" (6). This idea takes us to the centre of yoga, the goal of which is to free our thought from the contingent world of appearances. In yoga, "under the appearance of thought, there is really an indefinite and disordered flickering, fed by sensations, words, and memory. The first duty of the yogin is to think – that is, not to let himself think" (Mircea Eliade) (7). In the perfect yoga posture, according to Patanjali "consciousness is no longer troubled by the presence of the body" (8). And his commentator Vyâsa (7th-8th century AD) adds: "Posture becomes perfect when the effort to attain it disappears, so that there are no more movements in the body. In the same way, its perfection is achieved when the mind is transformed into infinity – that is, when it makes the idea of infinity its own content." (9)
When I merge with the material world in the corpse pose, shavasana, what does my sense of touch do? It marks a border that has dissolved. When inside and outside have become one and my senses are no longer focused because there is nothing left for them to focus on, what are my senses of touch, smell and hearing? Whether I hear or do not hear is one and the same thing. The senses are not switched off, as we are taught by a naïve concept of pratyahara, but suspended. I direct them back, in Patanjali’s sense, toward myself, while I myself dissolve into the material world. In other words, they assume ‘the form of consciousness’ that has become one with its object, a consciousness that no longer needs the sensory faculties because it has itself become wholly sensual – and the surrounding world wholly spiritual.
One of the objects of yoga is to probe, surmount and move borders on a daily basis. The mat is a trial battleground for life’s struggles. What border is involved in shavasana? When we are young and high-spirited, we do not encounter bodily limits and believe that we exist by virtue of our own strength. It is usually not until we are old and weak that we realise that the strength of our muscles, and of our spirit, only seems to stem from ourselves; that in reality we are guided and sustained in our every step, and were so even earlier when we imagined we were strong. The absolute feeling of being sustained is Death, and it makes shavasana indeed the "most difficult asana of all", being preparation for death. (That is the deeper truth in the name ‘corpse pose’, which only superficially derives from the fact that we lie as motionless as a corpse.) In shavasana we practice what Heinrich Zimmer has called "unlocking the gate to the inner beyond" (10) and learning that life and death are dialectically identical: a single and – as yoga can teach us – blissful act of being sustained.
1) Mircea Eliade: Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 56 (Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 52
2) Moshé Feldenkrais in a lecture handed down by Andrew Lutz
3) Theodor W. Adorno: Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt am Main, 1970), p. 15
4) I owe this fleshing out of my picture to Jörg Splett.
5) T. K. V. Desikachar: Yoga: Tradition und Erfahrung (Petersberg, 1997), p. 177
6) Patanjali: Yoga Sutras, Verse II:54
7) Eliade, op. cit., p. 48
8) Patanjali: Yoga Sutras, Verse II:48, in the somewhat pointed translation by Eliade, op. cit., p. 54
9) Vyâsa, on the Yoga Sutras, Verse II:47, quoted from Eliade, op. cit., p. 53
10) Heinrich Zimmer: Yoga und Buddhismus (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), p. 128. "A state of unconsciousness enters in which I and the world disappear: they are no more. A state comparable to dreamless sleep is willingly produced: everything individually outlined as shape, everything transiently fleeting as process, dissolves and melts into its opposite, into something ineffable, shapeless, without process. That is the physiological leap into the inner beyond, into being that lies behind individuation, into being per se" (p. 129).