When, towards the end of his Breath of the Gods, director Jan Schmidt-Garre performs the “life-saving” routine practiced by the father of modern yoga Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya until his death in 1989 aged 100, there is an appreciable quietude to proceedings, whereby the distant car horns and engine revs of a busy city beyond the walls of the Maharaja of Mysore’s palace are ever present but not distracting; they are, in fact, deeply complementary to the director’s audible breathing cycles.
The comparatively and effectively minimal sound (by Martin Müller, Rohan and Patrick Veigel) is all the more noticeable for having followed rich use, throughout the film, of music by Borodin, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Debussy, Medtner, Zeckwer, Rachmaninov and, most significantly, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Hindu Merchant’s Song”, as firstly sung here by tenor Iussi Björling with accompaniment from a Nils Grevillius-conducted Royal Orchestra of Stockholm, and as secondly channelled in Kaikhosru Sorabji’s beautiful piano pastiche, which achieves and sustains a fitting balance between contemplation and euphoria.
Subtitled A Journey to the Origins of Modern Yoga, Breath of the Gods is an attractive, textured documentary whose soundtrack is complemented by Deithard Prengel’s gorgeous cinematography, which captures the Indian locales – primarily, Muchukunte and Mysore – with intelligent restraint (at the film’s end, Prengel’s credit precedes all others’). The care and attention given in crafting the film is obvious, and makes for a more absorbing finished product than might have perhaps been expected for a subject matter not to everyone’s taste. But that’s part of the point: in embarking upon this journey, Schmidt-Garre places himself before the camera as a keen novice to yoga, as fascinated by its history as much as by its actual methods.
Indeed, though its starting premise is a history lesson, Breath of the Gods is more effective when simply watching how the practitioners of modern yoga – be it fellow beginners or learned masters – go about their daily feats. Schmidt-Garre perhaps became aware of this as the film took shape in the editing room: it isn’t until the very end of his film that he asks what until then has been curiously neglected, namely what the benefits of yoga might actually be. The answer is three-fold: physical health; mental health (purity of thought, courage and perseverance); concentration.
The question driving the film’s narrative, however, is where the roots of modern yoga – that which came to prominence in the twentieth century – are to be found. Though Krishnamacharya is widely regarded as its founding father, his presence in the film is limited to archive footage, which when presented with the Rimsky-Korsakov composition, takes on a haunting quality that enforces both the mysticism surrounding yoga and presumptions of its alien, exclusive nature.
Others weigh in on Krishnamacharya’s technique, as well as on their own departures from it: B. K. S. Iyengar, Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law, through whom yoga was popularised in the western world in the 1950s; Pattabhi Jois, who decided to dedicate his life to yoga after witnessing one of Krishnamacharyan’s public demonstrations at the age of twelve (Jois died in 2009, aged 93, during this film’s production); T. K. Sribhashyam, Krishnamacharya’s son, by whom Schmidt-Garre is taught the “life-saving” yoga session with which the film concludes. Sribhashyam’s sisters, Pundarikavalli, Alamelu and Shubha, also feature, and their inclusion shows the extent to which their father’s teachings was based on inclusivity – familial, but also in terms of gender.
Appropriately, then, Schmidt-Garre’s film is also accessible to all – to those who might share the director’s own fascination with the subject as well as to those for whom yoga’s philosophies are an alien concept. As its full title suggests, in fact, Breath of the Gods: A Journey to the Origins of Modern Yoga aspires upward from a mat-level vantage point, and the result is another engaging release from distributor Blue Dolphin Films, through whom Chris Smith’s The Pool (2007), another compelling outsider’s tour through contemporary Indian culture, is released on DVD today.
‘Breath of the Gods: A Journey to the Origins of Modern Yoga’ was released in selected cinemas on 22 February.