The seething tourist trap of Leicester Square in central London might not seem the ideal location for a screening of a film about peace, tranquility, and deep questions about human nature.
I thought about that as I sat down at Raindance to watch On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, a film about a photographer, Michael O’Neill, who suffered a life-changing injury and turned to yoga for help. The film is based on O’Neill’s book of the same name, and his ten-year project to photograph yoga’s greatest practitioners.
My first impressions were promising. Here was a film that combined beautiful filmography and music with a topic that I had broad scope to learn more about. Having never practiced yoga nor really sought information about it whatsoever, I was a reasonably blank slate.
In one sense, On Yoga is a personal story about O’Neill’s relationship with yoga. In another, it is an attempt to reach the essence of yoga and portray it via film. It’s a beautiful film in some ways. But it is not a good documentary.
they spoke to disproportionately far more European ex-hippies in orange saris than indigenous practitioners
The film struck me as an exercise in preaching to the choir. A lot of the runtime was taken up with interviews with people extolling yoga’s benefits (which I don’t doubt are powerful), with nowhere near enough devoted to giving the viewer a balanced understanding of what yoga actually is. More than once I heard interviewees say that it was impossible for them to get across their point using language alone. Given that this is entirely believable, I wondered why so much of the film was devoted to just that.
I left the screening none the wiser as to yoga’s origins or roles it has played in societies over time. Neither did the film address, nor even label, the many different varieties of yoga it depicted. I left knowing yoga is diverse, but with no understanding of the key differences between interpretations.
Even more problematically, I was struck by the film’s lack of attention to the very real inequalities and power structures that still structure the lives of many Indians (where much of documentary was filmed) and indeed humans more generally. I wanted to know why they spoke to disproportionately far more European ex-hippies in orange saris than indigenous practitioners, and why they didn’t address that phenomenon at all. I sighed in resignation when, towards the end, a materially secure white American man opined that across history there has always been exploitation, war, financial crises, and (I’m paraphrasing) that disgruntled people simply need to turn within themselves to find happiness.
capitalist culture teaches us to seek happiness from outside, whilst yoga teaches that happiness must come from within
Art is not devoid from historical processes, no matter how much On Yoga’s filmmakers might disagree. Historically, early photographs (and visual art more generally) were one of the key transmitters of orientalism – the imagination of the East in the mind of the West, where the East was presented as exotic, spiritual, and, subliminally, inferior. When these filmmakers go to India to make a film about yoga and leave it decontextualised, they are complicit in a new form of orientalism. As much as the film rails against commodified, high street yoga, it hardly sets a good example for cross-cultural interactions.
That is not to say that I left the film not wanting to know more about yoga. It piqued my curiosity, and for that I have to give it credit. Whilst the film’s approach is problematic, I did admire the common conviction amongst yogis that fulfilment must come from within the self. My favourite interview was the one with an Indian man (in a suit, no less) who pinned down the idea that the rest of the film seemed to be grasping at: that capitalist culture teaches us to seek happiness from outside, whilst yoga teaches that happiness must come from within. The result of fulfilment coming from within is self empowerment, and that can be a liberating force.
Indeed, what I see as the film’s major flaw (its focus on the subjective and ignorance of structures and context) almost certainly stems from yoga’s own centring of the subject and rejection of the wider world.
Therefore, I feel the film would be more accurately titled: “On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, or: How white people learned to stop worrying and love the om”.
Image: On Yoga, The Architecture of Peace