Yoga Unveiled is a video documentary of the yoga tradition. Early on, the observation is made that yoga is not intended to promote the teacher, but to support the student. This is a fitting and humble orientation—but of course one should not forget the teacher entirely. In this spirit, first-time videographer Gita Desai and her husband, Mukesh, have produced a unique testimony to the countless teachers who brought yoga from the remotest reaches of India to the main streets of America.
The documentary covers a lot of ground, from cities along the Indus River abandoned sometime around 2000 bce to glimpses of the future of medicine. Desai has gone to great lengths to interview a large number of yoga’s most visible living faces. Although the final version of the documentary relies heavily on the opinions of only a few specialists (a cherubic Georg Feuerstein is never long off-screen) in a field that is enormous, most of the views expressed would resonate positively with knowledgeable mainstream yogis.
The two DVDs consist of five chapters which present the development of yoga within India, its transmission to the West in modern forms, and its therapeutic use for a wide range of health concerns. Chapter one, “Origins of Yoga,” is directed toward students who may not know much of India’s spiritual heritage. With help from well-written narration, recognized scholars cover 4,000 years of history without overwhelming the novice. Admirably, this introduction establishes meditation at the heart of the yoga experience right from the beginning.
The title of the second chapter, “Branches of Yoga” can be misleading. The metaphor of branches oversimplifies the complex relationship between the terms (bhakti, karma, jnana, raja, tantra, and hatha) discussed. This chapter contains some of the most interesting cinematic moments of the documentary, including a scene from a thoroughly American Christian devotional service that serves as backdrop for a discussion of bhakti yoga and a photomontage of images suggesting the organic development of various specific asanas.
“Passage from East to West” and “Modern Yoga” are the other two chapters on disc one. The towering figure of Vivekananda gets a great deal of attention, as does Krishnamacharya, the founder of modern asana practice. Interviews with his most recognized students (B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar) give a human face to the tradition and convey the great joy of sustained yoga practice. Rare recordings of Indra Devi and a discussion of her relationship with Krishnamacharya offer a brief exploration of gender issues in yoga. Originally something of a chauvinist, Krishnamacharya seems to have realized early on what is now undeniable: modern yoga would not exist without the efforts of some very capable women.
The second disc, dedicated entirely to “Yoga as Therapy” (60 minutes), is ample food for reflection on the ways we think about illness and health. Much of this comes from the eloquent champion of mindfulness in medicine, Jon Kabat-Zinn. The Desais also document the work of Father Joe Pereira’s Kripa Foundation (India’s largest NGO). Although it is a Christian organization, Kripa uses the tools of yoga—including asana and meditation—to address problems of chemical dependency and HIV/AIDS in patients from all ages and social, occupational, and religious backgrounds. This is a remarkable example of yoga’s capacity to transform and enrich lives and is perhaps the most inspiring section of the entire video.
In Yoga Unveiled, Gita and Mukesh Desai followed an unusual vision to complete a project unlike anything either had worked on before. The result is a clearly organized, accessible overview of what yoga was, is now, and could become as it continues to inch its way into the collective Western consciousness. It is easy to watch and very informative.