the yoga of ‘avatar’

Unless you’ve been living under some kind of rock, I’m sure you’ve heard of James Cameron’s latest blockbuster, Avatar. I’ll spare you the plot details (see IMDB for the full story). After several failed attempts (it was constantly sold out), I finally saw the film, and I was a little shocked at the overt spirituality within it. I’d heard a lot about the technology, the environmental message, and the story lines recycled from Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully. But what I didn’t realize is that the film is totally yogic. Here’s a breakdown of the yogic elements of Avatar:

interconnectedness of all beings – the Na’vi link to other beings on the planet through neural-chemical connections. One of the characters, Grace – the biologist played by Sigourney Weaver – calls it a network. And indeed, the whole planet is an organic neural network. The Na’vi practice and believe in an interconnection of all life in balance with nature. Because of this, everything is viewed as sacred.

unity – when they get attacked, Jake and the Na’vi realize pretty quickly that they’re going to need allies. They rally up the other clans, and together they fight the humans. Even their former predators, the wild animals of the jungle, unite in the battle against the humans and their corporate agenda.

goddess awesomeness – the Na’vi worship Eywa, and believe that all consciousness is infused with her energy. In yoga, this goddess consciousness is known as Shakti ~ while yoga isn’t exactly a goddess worshiping tradition, there are strong threads of the divine feminine throughout and sects which are devoted to her worship.

hindu origins – the word “avatar” itself is Sanskrit (see this NY Times article for proof), and is rooted in Hindu mythology (as is yoga). Since the advent of Second Life and gaming culture, the word avatar evokes the graphical representation of a computer user – but it’s original meaning is “descent” and it can be “an incarnation or human appearance of a deity, particularly Vishnu.” These incarnations – including one of the most famous, Krishna – have blue skin, and the blue Na’vi beings are themselves meant to evoke hindu deities.

These elements have not been overlooked by Rajan Zed, the Hindu statesman who has appointed himself watchdog of American pop culture. He expressed his initial concerns about the film last spring, and urged James Cameron to “be careful when handling Hindu concepts and terminology.” But he’s been awfully quiet since the film has been on the screens, so perhaps Cameron did a better job than expected.

Despite the strong yogic components of the film, it has managed to become the most popular movie in years (breaking box office records and second only to Cameron’s Titanic as the highest grossing film of all time) and it has captured the collective imagination. It’s fascinating, really – things like the divine feminine and interconnectedness (while not particularly new or radical) aren’t exactly mainstream thinking.

Certainly, people are seduced by the technology and the graphics (which are really amazing ~ in 3D Imax, you totally feel like you’re in the movie. It’s kind of no surprise that people are experiencing post-Avatar depression ~ when I left the cinema, regular life seemed really grey, bland and one-dimensional). But I wonder if the spiritual ideas in the film might just sink in, and affect some kind of change in consciousness, somewhere down the line.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic. While the spirituality is interesting and the visuals are stunning, the film is definitely flawed (predictable storyline, bland writing, and possible racist undertones). But I admit that I have to love a movie that is hated by the Vatican (who objected to how it presented nature as “no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship”), the right-wing and the country of China (because it may encourage people think about the consequences of forced removal). And has dragons, shamans, awesome battle scenes, and a 90s dayglo raver aesthetic, to boot.

  1. yep, everything you just said 🙂

    i would have preferred to have seen it without the 3D glasses, just because I always knew the glasses were there, so it was a constant reminder of “other”ness… but then I don’t wear glasses so maybe that’s why.

    i was a bit disappointed that Cameron didn’t try to match his characters to his main themes… i.e. despite the Divine Feminine (yes!) and unity with nature, the main female characters quickly became victims ruled by “love” and/or emotions. This applies to his beloved, the initially strong female Na’vi, who ultimately makes decisions based upon emotion and needs “rescuing” by the strong male figure.

    blegh, been there, done that. It would have been way more progressive if he had just allowed her to kick ass. Her weird emotional break down just seemed unnatural, like Cameron thought- “oh ya, forgot about the stereotypes, right!!” halfway through.

    anyhoo, i guess change doesn’t happen in a movie lol.

    • good analysis, eco! i had been so caught up in the spirituality and the magic of the film that i hadn’t paid attention to the gender politics. but you’re so right about neytiri (the na’vi girl who falls for the human guy) and her emotions. blech! overall, the characters were flat and one-dimensional (and given a choice, i’d take 3D writing and characterization over 3D cinematography/technique any day).

  2. “Post-Avatar depression”–so that’s what this feeling is! Ha, glad to know I wasn’t then only one.

  3. No.

    Goddess consciousness, the idea that everything is connected (i.e. standard Gaia ideology), and throwing around Hindu imagery are all characteristics of Western New Age bling.

    Western New Age pablum wants to feel “totally yogic,” but is actually just totally western and New Age.

    This film is wonderful, but there is nothing “totally yogic” about it. It perfectly expresses ideas and concepts that have a long history in western counterculture and now popular culture.

  4. I agree EcoYogini! I loved Neytiri initially and thought her breakdown was out of character, eh so predictable and not-in-keeping with her initial story, quite disappointing … at least at the end she destroys the villain and saves human Jake.

    What I enjoyed most: the visual beauty & themes of interconnectedness.

  5. I was totally immersed in the movie while watching it, and enjoyed it. However this “yogic spirituality” as you’ve called it was practiced by aliens on a far-off planet which communicates distance from these concepts, I think. And while it was imaginative and beautiful, as well as adding a mystical aspect, I didn’t interpret it as being particularly connected to people and yoga even though there are the references you pointed out. To me the movie speaks more about how far most humans, and particularly corporate interests are away from a sense of communion with nature.

  6. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but this discussion was certainly interesting.

  7. i think the “90s dayglo raver aesthetic” is the main reason i’m repelled by the movie.

    thanks for putting it into words for me.

  8. After seeing this movie over the Christmas holidays – I wanted to move to Pandora!! (in my next life!). I thought it did a great job of bringing forth ideas of interconnectedness to the mainstream. There are so many people in this world who have never contemplated this yet. To be able to visually see the ground light up with every step, the energetic connection with all things represented by the lock-in of tails brings a real-ness to the energetic connections we make everyday. The “Goddess Awesomeness” Divine Feminine message: LOVED it!

    I have to agree that it is a yogic movie… (on a “don’t look to deep for critisisms – it’s a great message” level)

    Thanks for the post! If you don’t mind, I’d like to put a link on my blog to this post…

  9. Thanks to everyone for these awesome, eye-opening comments on JC’s masterpiece.

    From what I can tell, this is first and foremost an environmentalist film. To the extent that yoga and environmentalism are on the same page, it is also a yogic film.

    But there may be other systems of thought at work here too. For example, what many people perceive as yogic themes may derive from shamanic themes. This is the perspective of many modern yogis who trace Tantra to the pre-Vedic Indus people. Avatar’s nature mystic / interconnection / gaia emphasis strikes me as deeply shamanic, not yogic per se.

    However, there are other parts that are explicitly yogic – the whole notion of an avatar, for example
    In the Vaishnavite mythos, an avatar of the deity literally ‘descends’ in times of crisis to save the day. The avatar’s earth-body is not a ‘real’ body, but rather more akin to a dream body. There are many analogies across cultures and times – it is a reality that transcends cultural expression. In Tibetan, a tulku (sprul-sku), or ‘transformation body’ (nirmana-kaya) of a Buddhist adept. In the yoga tradition, it derives from the yogic siddhis discussed in, for example, YS III.43. Here in particular, there are good grounds for saying Avatar is a ‘yogic’ film – as long as we’re clear what we mean by ‘yogic’

    There may be an subordination of the feminine in the ‘heroine’s’ emotionality. There may be a colonialism at work in the presentation of the People of Eywa. But no matter – I am in substantial agreement with the gaia-slanted perspective, and I’m glad that thinking of this type, however superficial it might appear to many of us, is finding its way into so many neural networks.

  10. Cowboys and Indians in space with spectacular special effects. The cliches of the over-the-top-battle scenes overshadowed any other meaning in the film.

    I did love the breathtaking scenery and the creativity of the flora, fauna and characters, but why did I feel like I was emerging from the Terminator?

    I personally did not see anything the slightest bit Yogic here. Yoga is the antithesis of magic spirits and primitive nature worship. It emerged as a more direct and rational approach to spirituality, while still full of wonder and awe.

    Just my opinion. I’m very happy for those who saw bigger things in Avatar.

    Bob Weisenberg

  11. This little comment thread has come alive again, which is nice to see!

    JSD, thanks for stopping by and offering your balanced and eloquent analysis (I also appreciated your comment on the meat debate). I agree that the film is primarily an environmental film, and I acknowledge the apparently “yogic” themes as being derived from shamanism. I especially appreciate that you encourage being “clear what we mean by ‘yogic'” ~ which I didn’t define in the post, operating instead on an assumption that my readers know and agree on what “yogic” is. Not always the best route to take. Luckily, it’s a blog and not an academic dissertation!

    Anyway, JSD, I hope you’ll stop by and comment again. Thanks for your perspective.

    Bob, are you sure your 3D glasses were working properly? You really didn’t see anything bigger in there? Not sure if I’d consider yoga “antithetical” to magic spirits and nature worship… it’s not all direct and rational, there is definitely some magic in the tradition…

    • girlwarrior.

      Yes, my 3D glasses worked great. Good questions and a big issue we’ve stumbled upon here, probably too big for a quick answer.

      But yes, I personally believe the the Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and especially the Yoga Sutra were the earliest attempts to see consciousness in a highly rational and, for the times, a scientific way.

      Rational and scientific don’t exclude wonder and awe and unfathomableness. Einstein himself, the ultimate scientist, often sounds like he’s coming right out of the Upanishads when he writes about spirituality.

      But being in awe of the wondrousness of nature and feeling one with it, which is at the heart of Yoga, is very different than inventing arbitrary magic spirits and worshiping them with elaborate religious rites presided by priests, as shown in Avatar.

      This is what the early Yoga sages were rebelling against, in my opinion.

      Bob Weisenberg

  12. The themes of interconnectedness, “Goddess awesomeness” and unity go beyond just “yogic” – they’ve been part of indigenous religions since the beginning of time. For most of us, yoga and buddhism in their Westernized forms are the vehicles through which we’ve learned about these universal themes. I love that the film, despite all of its obvious flaws, can move the hearts of millions of people in showing the unity of all beings as a cool thing – that’s what differentiates this film (@ Bob) from your typical intergalactic battle pic. I agree with the sentiments of the author of this blog, for sure!

    • Hi, John.

      Thank for coming over and joining in the discussion here.

      I knew I had seen this story before. Danny Fisher enlightened me when he referred to Avatar as “Dances with Wolves / Matrix”.

      I do appreciate your and Roseanne’s point of view. (Just think of how good this film could have been if they had figured out a more subtle ending than 30 minutes of unrelenting war movie cliches. For me that ruined the rest.)

      Bob Weisenberg

  13. Fascinating article on Avatar by Jim Tolstrup on Elephant Journal is best I’ve seen:

  14. Wow, just discovered a wonderful new Yoga blogger. See her terrific review of Avatar.

    She pretty much agrees with you, by the way, girlwarrior, even though she seem pretty RATRA to me so far (Catch the last line of the review–“the sweet secret knowledge that everything in every moment is an opportunity for swimming in ecstasy.”) I’m listening!

    Avatar and Yoga – Gotta put in my two cents

    Bob Weisenberg

  15. Great post and comments. So what do you think of the yoga of The Hurt Locker?

    • hi lisa ~ great post, and wonderful reflection on The Hurt Locker. i love your balanced interpretation. it’s interesting, because i think both films have yogic elements, embodied in different ways ~ which only reinforces the breadth and complexity of yoga itself. and also, how yoga can be read into almost anything.

      i really do need to see The Hurt Locker again. when i first saw it last summer, i hated it. it was before the film received all its critical acclaim, and i just watched it for what it was. i actually thought that it glorified war and felt like pro-american/pro-military propaganda, almost a justification of the US’s role in Iraq. i have since read some articles and had some conversations which have given me reason to question my initial response.

      in the end, i was happy that it beat out Avatar for best pic, if only b/c i like to root for the underdog. i also think the storytelling and characterization of THL was more complex and skilled than Avatar (which seemed to rely more on flash and glitz). however, i still believe that Avatar has a more essential and hopeful message, which the world needs to hear right now.