August 10, 2011

Why Am I Doing This Again?: A Review of the Documentary “Ashtanga, NY”. ~ Esther Liberman

Are your friends on your case because you always insist on getting home early so you can make it to yoga the next morning? Is your mom on your case because you keep refusing her pot roast the night before your yoga workshop begins? Have you been wondering lately why you “do this” in the first place, what benefit there possibly could be in having an asana practice? The short, sweet, and incredibly inspiring documentary “Ashtanga, NY” may change their mind (and yours) about yoga, about Ashtanga, about community, and even about documentaries.

With a run time of only 41 minutes, the film seems to have begun as an attempt to chronicle the month-long visit Sri K. Pattabhi Jois paid to NYC in the fall of 2001. I say seems, because there is footage of the workshop he conducts daily (with the help of his grandson and daughter) at the Chelsea Piers, beginning at the start of September. These scenes alone, alongside interviews with the dedicated group of practitioners who attend classes in NYC daily throughout the year, show the humanity and individuality of these students who might otherwise seem rigid or dogmatic.

The practice of Ashtanga itself, which a few people in the film describe as “apparently cultish,” is shown to be just a practice, not a religion. The various students generously answer personal questions and allow their private practice to be filmed, as do a handful of recognizable celebrities and, most intimately of all, we witness bits of Sharath’s (Guruji’s grandson) personal practice, too. (Last week, when a student asked me whether Ashtanga would develop his biceps and his six-pack, I referred him to the unbelievably powerful images of this young man, Sharath, who looks to be no stronger than a twelve year-old but can lift up into a handstand from a seated position). These scenes serve to ground us in a better understanding of what an asana practice can do, its health and psychological benefits, its ability to prepare us for deeper practices and better understanding.

But as September courses onward, the devastating events of the 11th occur and the film becomes so much more than just the chronicle of a yoga workshop. The documentary takes us through the reaction of the various students we’ve gotten to know and allows us to see how a group of strangers, who have only their yoga practice in common, become a community.

This film is touching, well made, and beautifully shot. I first saw it halfway through the Ashtanga portion of my yoga teacher training when so many of my colleagues, unaccustomed to a daily Mysore practice, were feeling frustrated and defeated.  It inspired us to persevere (though not necessarily to push our bodies) and breathed a new perspective into our sweaty efforts on the mat. I then showed it to my husband when I was ready for him to practice more frequently than once a week. It worked. He began to practice three times weekly and helped me book our first trip to see Guruji. I now show it to students who are at a crossroads; to non-practitioners who want to know more about yoga; to my mom, when she feels offended that I’ve requested she schedule our Saturday night family dinner at 7 pm, rather than the usual Colombian-style 9 pm, so I can make it to Mysore practice the next morning.

To read more about this great documentary, click here.

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Esther Liberman  |  Contribution: 1,000