According to yoga historian Dr. Georg Feuerstein, “While there has been a great interest in the discipline of yoga, we don’t yet have the proper context for an authentic engagement of yoga in the West. And that is why it’s not working.”
Such insights, calls to action and an attempt to articulate the place of yoga in a Western culture context is the basis of the illuminating documentary Yoga Unveiled: The Evolution and Essence of a Spiritual Tradition. From the most basic first question, “What is yoga?” prominent Eastern and Western yoga scholars, teachers and medical experts are asked to comment on the theoretical, historical and philosophical elements of the oldest spiritual practice in the world. There is no lack of passion and reverence in their discourse. In fact, one gets the sense that many of them have been waiting a long time for a chance to speak about a tradition that has profoundly transformed many lives, is India’s gift to the world, and is frequently misunderstood.
At just over three hours, Yoga Unveiled interweaves five thousand years of yoga history and evolution with insightful and accessible contemporary analyses. A daunting task, no doubt, but under the direction of filmmakers Gita and Mukesh Desai, the story that unfolds is educational, entertaining, and at times humbling. From its roots in the ancient Harrapa civilization of the Indus Valley to the Indian yoga renaissance spearheaded by Sri T. Krishnamacharya, to the gradual rise of yoga in the West, the documentary shows a yoga that is never static, but rather an ever evolving product of its times, the pervading culture, and most profoundly and consistently, of our relationship with nature.
Early man’s dependence on nature caused its elements to become the first objects of worship, and asanas – literally translated from Sanskrit as “the seat upon which a yogi sits to meditate” – were postural representations of objects found in nature. Yoga practice was created as a way of preparing for meditation, because it was there where deep insights came. It was how the earliest yogis began exploring the self, which they discovered had the capacity to somehow understand the outer world. Adoption of the practice and rituals presented this mystery of change in a dramatic way, becoming a kind of sacred theatre through the connection of mind, body and spirit.
I especially enjoyed these stories of the “first yogis” whose practice started because they were simply fascinated by the world around them, wondering how was it possible that they saw what they saw and felt what they felt. Why did the seasons change? Why do we change? Who are we in relation to this vast natural world that feeds us, moves us and takes us closer to death? What is death? What is life? The ultimate beginner’s mind. The questions haven’t really changed, but our relationship to nature has. Fed by a reverence to and bewilderment by nature, yoga’s goal has always been the realization of the innermost self, but now in the West we seem to have divorced ourselves from this mystery for the comfort of intellectual, rational fact.
In Yoga Unveiled, there is hope that a new context, and interpretation of this union is possible. In India, the questions preceded the postures. In the West, however, the opposite seems to be the case. This does not mean we have it all wrong, but there seems to be a consensus that – through trial and error – more work and study are necessary if we are to offer anything to yoga’s dynamic heritage.
The filmmakers and panelists don’t offer any cut and dried answers, but one is left charged with questions and excitement for the possibilities. I was also reminded that, like its history, yoga is a long, transformative process, and only through a synthesis of practice, study, and most importantly, a sense of wonder can we hope to renew our relationship with nature, create a more authentic context for yoga in the West, and continually encounter our true selves.