Eight Great Movies About Yoga (That Don’t Have “Yoga” In The Title)
Cover Photo by Hermes Rivera
By Kali Om
I’ve seen many amazing movies–but most don’t even have the Y-word in the title. Nonetheless, they provide a painless way to explore some of the core principles of yoga, or union with the divine. And winter is a great time to see them.
Naked in Ashes
Despite the titillating title, Paula Fouce’s riveting, beautifully shot 2005 documentary provides an intimate look at the lives of a handful of India’s 13 million sanyasis (renunciates), who heal and provide spiritual instruction to seekers and own nothing– eschewing clothes even on pilgrimages through the snow. Today, these fierce-looking yogis are in danger of extinction. They tell their stories in their own words (nicely dubbed into English) and appear utterly at peace with enduring hardships, which helps them maintain focus on the divine. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of tapas (self-discipline), karma yoga (selfless service), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God ), and vairagya (non-attachment). Despite the film’s poignancy (I was driven to tears more than once by the yogis’ devotion), it also has many funny moments: I nearly fell off the couch when Shiv Raj Giri sweetly says that even after becoming a yogi, there is no peace. Indeed!
I learn something new each time I watch this 1993 comedy about an arrogant and cynical Pittsburgh weatherman (Bill Murray) who’s trapped living the same day over and over again. Cited by some religious leaders as the most spiritual film of our time and shot in Woodstock, Illinois, it shows how egoism ( asmita ) makes us miserable and separates us from others. Murray’s character is initially confused when he realizes his situation–then cunning, and then suicidal. After confiding in his producer and love interest, Rita (Andie MacDowell), he tries to improve himself–initially to impress her. It’s only when his actions become truly selfless that his cynicism and ego disappear and he wins her heart– and finally stops reliving the same day. It’s as if the film’s message of selfless service was lifted directly from the Bhagavad-Gita : “To work alone you are entitled, never to its fruit .”
Into Great Silence
This meditative 2005 film by Philip Gröning quietly follows six months in the lives of Carthusian monks at Chartreuse Monastery in the French Alps. These hermits spend most of their time alone in their cells–in study, silence, and contemplation. They get together for prayer services, but the only time they speak informally is during weekly walks in the stunningly beautiful countryside. The film, which utilizes natural light and sound and has little dialogue, has been called “one of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created,” and shows the importance of svadhayaha (reading and reflecting upon sacred books), mauna (silence), mantra (chanting), dharana (meditation), and satsang (keeping holy company). During and after watching this film, I felt as if I’d also spent time in the monastery: calm, centered, and incredibly sattvic (peaceful).
Tibetan Buddhist Master Choogyal Namkhai Norbu’s Italian-born son, Yeshi, has been told since he was a child that he’s the reincarnation of his father’s uncle, a great master who was killed when China invaded Tibet. Yeshi has an uneasy relationship with his father, who fled Tibet in 1959 and wants his son to go there and meet the students who are waiting for him. Instead, the headstrong Yeshi focuses on career and a family and lives a normal life. Filmmaker Jennifer Fox followed the pair for 20 years in this excellent 2010 documentary, which explores the conflict between dharma (duty), fate, and following one’s own heart. In the end, Yeshi goes to Tibet, where he is warmly received,without telling his father. But then he returns home to become his father’s student as well as a teacher in his own right.
This uplifting 3-D computer-animated film from 2009 follows a cranky widower named Carl (Ed Asner) who personifies the quality of tamas (inertia); he is negative, fearful, and set in his ways, and he clings to the past–living in the house that he and his wife built, while the world around him has moved on (he also exemplifies two of yoga’s greatest obstacles: dwesha, or aversion and raga , or attachment). Carl meets a precocious boy and embarks on a grand adventure that proves one is never too old to follow a dream. But only when Carl lets go of his previously held notions and his most prized possession–his house–does a whole new world open up to him and life begin to take on new meaning. It’s a fine example of the debilitating nature of tamas and the transformational power of vairagya.
It can be difficult for the mind to accept yoga’s laws of karma and reincarnation, but this exquisitely shot 2009 documentary helped remove many of my doubts. It follows a gentle 28-year old Nepalese monk named Tenzin Zopa on his four-year search for the reincarnation of his Tibetan guru, Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001. Like any true master, Tenzin has no ego and believes he’s not worthy of the task. But with his elders’ urging, he scours rural Nepal looking for a young boy who is asked to pick out the lama’s prayer beads from other beads, which the child is able to do . The quiet way the film deals with the guru-disciple relationship, which does not end with physical death but spans lifetimes, is especially disarming, particularly when Tenzin interacts with the child who was his master.
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
This extraordinary 2009 feature by Margarethe von Trotta focuses on the eleventh-century Benedictine abbess and mystic who went into the cloister at age eight (as a gift from her family) and took her vows at sixteen. When her spiritual mother and guru passes, Hildegard is told to take over as prioress, but she wouldn’t do so until she was voted in by her sisters. Later she founds a couple of cloisters and writes books, musical compositions, and an early liturgical drama. She also travels to preach–unheard of for a woman at that time. Amidst the drama, the film touches on the guru-disciple relationship as well as the value of a life dedicated to work, spiritual study, healing, music, prayer, and meditation. It also explores what happens when one follows one’s inner intuition in order to directly experience the divine. My favorite line in the movie is spoken when Hildegard experiences doubt on the spiritual path: “The almighty has given you wings to fly. Fly over every obstacle.”
“Go f— yourself” is the last thing you’d expect to hear in this 2008 yoga documentary, but it’s exactly what Norman Allen tells a skeptical Nick Rosen during the latter’s six-month search for enlightenment (I think he was telling him to “Go within” to find the answers). Norman, who was the first American to study Ashtanga yoga with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and lived with him for years, has some other choice words in this lively jaunt, which follows Nick from practicing with Dharma Mittra and Alan Finger and at Jivamukti Yoga School in NYC to practicing Yoga for Regular Guys in California (where the dristi [gaze] is not where you’d expect it to be) to studying with Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Swami Gurusharanananda in India. Each teacher has something to offer the skeptical Nick, but it’s Norman, living in seclusion in Hawaii, who steals the show. When Nick asks him what the asanas (postures) have to do with the quest for enlightenment, he says, “Absolutely nothing."