Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Samudra Pictures; www.samudrapictures.com; DVD; 42 minutes.
You might expect a documentary with the dramatic title The Fire of Yoga to be an examination of some kind of heavy-duty ritual sacrifice dating back to Vedic times. But you’d be wrong. Instead, the film spotlights the yoga stories of three everyday folks: Miguel, a 20-something New Yorker and former felon; Susan, a dyed-in-the-wool Christian in Jackson, Mississippi; and Frank, an 81-year-old yoga instructor in California.
Miguel still looks like someone you’d want to avoid in a dark alley late at night. But after spending four of his teen years in the slammer, where he fell under the spell of yoga and meditation, he turned his life around. At the time of his interview, Miguel was working as a counselor for a program based on yoga and meditation, called the Lineage Project, helping inner-city teens change their lives.
Susan is sort of an anti-Miguel. Middle-aged and happily married with two teenage kids, she discovered that she had lymphoma. Despite living in an area that’s not exactly a yoga hotbedwhere, in fact, yoga is regarded with a good deal of suspicionshe resolutely began taking a yoga and meditation class. Initially at least, she hoped the practice would counter the deleterious physical effects of chemotherapy; eventually, she discovered that yoga, far from being a pagan religion lying in wait to entrap unsuspecting Christians, was an effective means of intensifying her already powerful faith and moving her closer to her version of God.
Frank is (for me, anyway) the most interesting of the three interviewees. A former alcoholic and a type A, absentee father, he first stumbled into a yoga class hoping to clean up his self-destructive act. He became a teacher at 68, and at the time of his interviewlooking not a day over 70he’s shown leading a mixed-age class through Ashtanga’s primary series, then tearing up when talking about his reconciliation with his grown children. The short scenes of him performing Eight-Angle Pose and a difficult Headstand variation are worth the price of admission.
Fire is a central image with many rich associations in the yoga tradition, especially in hatha yoga, where it reminds us of the school’s roots in Indian alchemy. We see many of these associations at work in this film, variously purifying what’s been tainted, either by society or disease; “baking,” or preparing (just as the yogi’s raw body is “baked” through asana) the three people profiled for a new life of self-understanding; and burning or destroyingand so sacrificingoutmoded or insufficient ways of thinking or doing.
In the end, fire represents consciousness itself and its transformation. Each of the characters in the filmwho stand in for you and meundergoes a significant shift in awareness of the self, in relation to family and society, when baked in yoga’s oven. This film, narrated by yoga enthusiast Ali MacGraw, is a beautiful and inspiring testament to yoga’s reformative, regenerative, and transfiguring power.
Contributing Editor Richard Rosen teaches public yoga classes in Northern California. He is the author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama.