There are certain personalities in the North American yoga scene who have become unofficial spokespeople for the practice. While these A-list teachers are dedicated, articulate and knowledgeable, seeing the same faces and names attached to any yoga film or mainstream news article runs the risk of homogenizing yoga.
One of the most refreshing things about Planet Yoga, a yoga documentary which opens in Montreal on October 28, is exposure to new faces and voices from the world of yoga. The film features mini interviews and clips with a roster of teachers, many of whom I’d never heard of before. This gave the film a sense of discovery and energy
As the title suggests, Planet Yoga takes the viewer on a global journey as the filmmaker, Carlos Ferrand (who also narrates) seeks the essence of yoga. Starting in India at a huge gathering of Baba Ramdev devotees, we are then transported to San Francisco, Paris, Montreal, and even Nunavut, as we explore yoga and its permutations in the modern world.
The film is produced here in Montreal, making it a good reminder that New York and LA are not the epicentres of yoga in North America. Place and location are crucial aspects of the film, which is bilingual with French narration – although many of the interviews are in English and there is a version with English narration set for North American distribution.
This sense of locality, even in the face of globalization, is a central theme in the film. One of the most fascinating scenes includes archival footage from the 50s and 60s of the Sivananda Ashram in the Laurentian mountains. This was one of the first yoga centres in North America, after Sivananda disciple Vishnudevananda landed in Montreal in 1955.
A contemporary Montreal teacher, Dr. Bali, gets quite a bit of airtime as well. He is a passionate advocate for yoga in the medical system and the interviews with his students who have survived breast cancer are touching and inspiring.
The film does a great job of diversifying the picture of North American yoga, with a focus on the spiritual and health benefits of the practice. Unfortunately, there is little attention paid to the social-political movements in modern yoga. As well, there are some problematic portrayals, such as the earnest white woman teaching yoga to Inuit high school students. Frequent interviewee, Jeffrey Armstrong, a self-proclaimed “Western Master of Eastern Wisdom,” teaches yoga to youth in India and describes his work as “bringing India back to India.” His use of a tree metaphor, grafting of North American tree with lotus, or a “tree growing in white soil,” is in rather bad taste.
While the attempt to look at the global picture of yoga and journey through three continents is an admirable ambition, the final effect is a little “all over the map.” As a viewer, I would have preferred fewer people, fewer locations and more in-depth conversations. I wanted more backstory about the featured teachers – we didn’t even learn the names of some of them, and the unfortunate effect is that they became talking heads. Their wisdom and experience was invalidated in the short soundbites.
As is de rigueur within the yoga documentary genre, the film ends with no solid conclusion about what yoga is or isn’t. And that’s a good thing. It’s an inspiring global journey and unique picture of the practice, told through multiple voices and perspectives. Planet Yoga makes a great (although perhaps overwhelming) primer on yoga for the curious and unitiated. For the experienced practitioner and yoga media culture nerd, it’s an introduction to some new inspired teachers and practitioners, but may leave you wanting more.
Planet Yoga opens in select Montreal theatres on October 28, with North American distribution pending.