Breath of the Gods

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A journey to the origins of modern yoga A Jan Schmidt-Garre film

Jan Schmidt-Garre, director of Breath of the Gods,
in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt

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...

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 momet 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.