Breath of the Gods

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

Critical Acclaim

“Alluring, elegant” Süddeutsche Zeitung
 
“Engaging” – Sight & Sound
“Fantastic images” Abendzeitung
“Enlightening” Elle
“Beautiful” Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
“Pleasantly clichee-free” Filmportal
“Affectionate” Yoga Journal
“Brilliant”Kunst + Film
“A very beautiful film, enchanting
and astute at once. Great.”
Yogaeasy

 

“Mr. Schmidt-Garre, whose previous films dealt mostly with the performing arts, travelled to India in search of the origins of modern Yoga. He found real human beings (and gods) and a practise capable of humouring itself. This alone is good enough a reason to take them entirely seriously. We learn that Yoga is circus as well as religious service as well as the art to stand on one’s head and see the world the right way around. A beautiful film.“
Claudius Seidl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 8.1.12

“A complex approach to Krishnamacharya, his life and spiritual philosophy, captivating for its endeavour to comprehend and for its astute editing. Above and beyond the subject of Yoga the film draws a picture of modern India rich in facets and nuances.“
Wolfgang Hamdorf, Filmdienst 1/2012

“Mr. Schmidt-Garre portraits Krishnamacharya, who almost reached a 100 years of age and influenced all currently known Yoga styles, in an elegant mesh of different cinematic means: he discovered impressive historical archival footage from the thirties showing Krishnamacharya practicing his asanas, his positions – a young ascetic whose body control verges on magic. He conducted numerous interviews with Krishnamacharyas sons and daughters and with his most important students: Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois - the latter, well in his nineties, passing away in the course of the filming period. Mr. Schmidt-Garre’s observation of these men teaching their students glides by in ruminant sequences. Intermittently he has himself filmed during his own lessons, as he struggles with the head-stand for instance to old Iyengar’s relentless instructions. Especially alluring are the sequences where Mr. Schmidt-Garre reenacts historical India, snake charmers and all, including scenes from the court of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV.“
Susanne Hermanski, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 5.1.12

“With a subjective approach Mr. Schmidt-Garre intelligently handles the overwhelming copiousness of opinions and material. On his research trip across India the filmmaker from Munich encounters the aged Yoga gurus and their disciples. He avoids every clichéed image of India, does not pander to European expectations in his depiction. Krishnamacharya, the „father of Yoga“ from the twenties who can be seen on historical footage practicing his asanas, would be overjoyed at this detailed and precisely worked film.“
Münchner Merkur, 5./6.1.12

“Director Jan Schmidt-Garre interweaved wonderful black-and-white flickering images of Krishnamacharya’s Yoga demonstrations, the highly acrobatic contortions necessary to please his athletic sponsor, the Maharaja. With impressive images and interviews with school founders Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar Mr. Schmidt-Garre shows how Krishnamacharya’s teaching evolved and how the different schools emerged.“
Neue Presse Hannover, 5.1.12

“The jittery black-and-white images of half-naked yogis are of course fascinating. But ultimately stunning is the fact that Mr. Schmidt-Garre was actually able to meet with the protagonists of these ancient images. Hearing these legendary masters talk lets most prejudices dissipate. Stretching of the entire body all the way to the little toe – what may sound esoteric in Berlin Yoga lofts sounds very tangible coming from B. K. S. Iyengar’s mouth. But when he says that in the moment of perfect mental control you become holy, he himself can’t help laughing.“
Philipp Bühler, Berliner Zeitung, 5.1.12

“Despite its interest in the teachings and development of Yoga this film – unlike so many others – is not a search for meaning without any critical distance. Mr. Schmidt-Garre deliberates about whether Yoga is ancient tradition or novel invention and lets us see: competitiveness is no stranger even to the great masters.“
Stuttgarter Zeitung, 5.1.12

“Director Jan Schmidt-Garre has retrieved a treasure with his work. Not least because he himself explores Yoga with his means as a director and a student of Yoga. It is downright touching how he practices with high concentration a sun salutation under the guidance of the venerable Pattabhi Jois. With this genius trick he lures his audience onto the Yoga mat and onto his journey, beginners and experienced yogis alike. Once a philosophy graduate himself he worked for five solid years on this film project produced in India and each of the 104 minutes is bliss.“
Stefanie Wilkes, Spirit Yoga

“The reenacted scenes are reminiscent of the silent films of the 1920s; They are accompanied expressively by classical music. Herefore the director resorts to works of the late romantic period, for instance the aria “Hindu Song“ from Rimski-Korsakows opera “Sadko“ of 1898, which makes an alienating impression at first. After all in the West we associate Indian music more with sounds of the Sitar. But this late romantic music brings to life the European longing for Indian exoticism. In this way Mr. Schmidt-Garre brilliantly broaches the distance that lies between a phenomenon of Indian culture and his own perspective of it.“
Annette Hahn, Kunst + Film, 1.1.12

... and a testimonial

“The title alone is .... It’s amazing how you managed to put this subject to film in such a contemporary, effortless and relaxed way. Breathtaking images, India as it was and as it is, everything’s alive. It’s a historical document of a giant movement, and you made it just at the right time. Thank you for this significant contribution to my passion, which is Yoga.“
Angelika Taschen, publisher

... and another review

“It’s not so easy to find historic evidence in India,“ complains German documentary-maker Jan Schmidt-Garre at the start of this engaging feature-length delve into the roots of modern yoga as established by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). The guru himself appears only in photographs and silent (and blurry) archive footage, but Schmidt-Garre ends up with an impressive roster of interviewees with direct personal links, whether blood descendants or former pupils.

The film initially aims to establish whether modern yoga is genuinely ancient in origin or largely the creation of Krishnamacharya and his disciples, but Schmidt-Garre’s own personal journey gradually takes over. This approach can often lead to self-indulgence on the filmmaker’s part, but in this case it’s justified: when he’s first talked through 16 ’asana’ positions by Krishnamacharya’s former pupil Pattabhi Jois, Schmidt-Garre becomes a surrogate for the audience, an amateur surrounded by professionals with decades of experience. This comes to a head when Schmidt-Garre tries and fails to cross both legs over each thigh, much to Jois’ amusement and, no doubt, the lay viewer’s intense sympathy.

Jois also became one of the major figures in modern yoga, as did B.K.S. Iyengar, a Krishnamacharya pupil who became guru to Yehudi Menuhin among many others. Iyengar talks in detail about its history, specifically the claim that a century ago yoga in its practical (as opposed to philosophical) manifestation was as alien to most Indians as it was to Westerners, regarded with either bafflement or open contempt as little more than a circus routine involving people contorting themselves into impossibly uncomfortable poses.

Mercifully, Schmidt-Garre isn’t the only practical demonstrator. In addition to footage of Krishnamacharya himself (and assorted family members, including his wife Namagiri and daughters Pundarikavalli and Alamelu), a recreation of a private command performance for the Maharajah of Mysore and a more public demonstration involving multiple participants emphasises the striking beauty of yoga when conducted at the highest level of physical attainment. Krishnamacharya’s son T.K. Sribhashyam is also keen to stress yoga’s philosophical side (whose ancient roots are much more clearly defined), and identifies an unmistakable asana position in a Hindu temple painting of Narasimha, avatar of the god Vishnu.

Krishnamacharya seems to have been a hard taskmaster (“His hands were like iron – if he gave one slap, it might take days to recover“) but Iyengar makes it clear that this discipline was an important part of the process, not least in terms of demonstrating yoga’s virtues to a sceptical public. Although Schmidt-Garre doesn’t draw attention to this, a tacit acknowledgement of yoga’s health benefits is revealed by the longevity of its masters: Krishnamacharya reached his century, Jois got to 93 (he died during production, but enough was shot to give him significant screen time) and Iyengar is still alive at 94, though he looks considerably younger as he prods and cajoles his pupils into precise execution of his routines while wearing just a pair of blue shorts.

Schmidt-Garre’s documentary background is in classical music, reminders of which are threaded throughout Breath of the Gods, particularly the recurring use of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ’Hindu Merchant’s Song’ from his 1896 opera Sadko, both in the original and via Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s memorably lush 1922 piano transcription. The latter is a particularly apposite accompaniment, being an Anglo-Indian’s reinterpretation of a Russian’s impression of an Indian character. It also allows Schmidt-Garre to avoid using authentic Indian music, something he felt he didn’t understand enough to treat with sufficient respect. More generally, he goes to some lengths to avoid depicting India through overtly orientalist eyes – he can’t resist a snake-charming interlude, but his respect for the country and his evident belief in the universal application of modern yoga’s priciples shine through.

Michael Brooke, Sight & Sound, March 2013

... and one more

“Trees rustling in the wind. Nothing is left of the old village in South India. Here T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern Yoga, was born in 1890. Director Jan Schmidt-Garre follows the traces in search of the man from Muchukunte, who died in 1989. Krishnamacharya’s life as well as the encounters with his students and his children are one recurrent motive, the other is a wonderful musical theme: the Hindu Song by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov from 1897. It represents here the Western nostalgia for Eastern wisdom. The third motive is the development of Yoga teaching on the subcontinent, from the time of the British Empire all the way to modern day India. The documentary film narrates with a moving camera, then again with calm, steadily shot interviews, but also with much thrilling archival footage. It shows eye witnesses, friends, students, family members in the contexts of their own lives and conveys, as though in passing, much of the social and cultural changes of the Indian subcontinent.

The question about the origin of modern Yoga keeps recurring, about the faithfulness to tradition and about innovation over the last 100 years. Does modern Yoga derive from 5000 years old texts or was it formed in the 20th century? It soon becomes clear that Yoga is neither a cryptic secret doctrine nor an easy relaxing program. Almost physically clear it becomes when the director, failing at the lotus position, is encouraged to try over and again by Pattabhi Jois, the strict student of Krishnamacharya’s. „Yoga is always possible“ the old master says. The positions should be held up to 30 minutes. The layman’s muscles tense up at the mere sight of a lotus position or a head stand. But despite all the effort involved Yoga is as popular today as jogging and comes with the additional spiritual benefit of a „mergence“ of mind and body. “In my youth“, says Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law B. K. S. Iyengar, who with his sometimes serious, sometimes cheerful expression reminds of the indiophile philosopher Schopenhauer, “people in India knew nothing about Yoga. It was something for charlatans and morons.“ Yoga’s position in society was comparable to circus artistry; for the refined classes Yoga was rather a spiritual-philosophical approach than physical activity. Only as late as 1927 Yoga experienced a sort of renaissance.

The film presents Krishnamacharya, demonstrating his sequences to the Maharaja of Mysore, who in 1934 set up a Yoga school for him, where Krishnamacharya developed a new, faster and more intense Yoga with new positions, “asanas“. The Yoga master had six children; the younger ones speak of the rigid daily schedule and the deep concentration their father demanded from them. They say that knowledge is wealth, a hidden treasure that must be retrieved. To the backdrop of the world of old magical India, portrayed in the film with reenacted images of snake charmers, fakirs and Sanskrit scholars, the fact that Krishnamacharya was capable of stopping his heart beat for a full two minutes no longer appears all that unnatural. His brother-in-law Iyengar, however, speaks not uncritically of the master and portrays him as an ambivalent character, often driving him over the edge of his capacities. After India attained independence the Yoga shala of the Maharaja was shut down. Krishnamacharya henceforth worked therapeutically with individual coaching. The last images of him on faded colour film show the old guru with a white beard while eating.

“Breath of the Gods“ is no representative of spiritual wellness cinema offering European post-materialists life support with far-eastern recipes and exotic mysticism. Instead it is a true investigation and honest endeavour to comprehend a spiritual philosophy. This film is a kind of “Buena Vista Social Club“ of modern Yoga because beside the historical footage of Krishnamacharya it portrays also his students Pattabhi Jois (who died during the filming period) and the legendary Iyengar, the master’s brother-in-law. Jan Schmidt-Garre does not claim a false insider perspective, neither does he speak in images of regressive European exoticism. When, at the end, he faces the statue of Narasimha, the breathing God, the initial question of the origin of modern Yoga may not be answered, yet the not entirely explicable image of modern India is closer to completion.“

Wolfgang Hamdorf, Filmdienst 1/2012