A Photographic Time Capsule of Our Moment in Yoga

Michael O’Neill spent 10 years photographing the masters and gurus of our time for his new book On Yoga. Here, he shares his experience and work with YJ.

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Urdhva Dhanurasana from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Photographer Michael O’Neill spent 10 years shooting the masters and gurus of our time and is now sharing the rich experience both in his stunning new book On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace and here on YJ.

A prominent New York-based photographer with five decades of experience and a portfolio studded with shots for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Fortune, Time, Life, and Vanity Fair, Michael O’Neill had done portraits of everyone from J Lo to Richard Nixon when the idea to do a series of yogis occurred to him. “Sometime in August of 2005 I had finished a class, I came out onto the streets of Manhattan with a yoga mat under my arm and I bumped into my director of photography from Vanity Fair, who I hadn’t seen in a year,” says O’Neill, who is devoted to Kundalini Yoga. “We started talking about yoga, and I said I would love to do this portfolio on the masters and gurus of yoga and Susan [White] looked up at me and went, ‘Absolutely—and do a book.’”

Scorpion from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

A photographer’s bhakti

You may remember his iconic images of Shiva Rea, John Friend, Dharma Mittra, Christy Turlington, and more that ran in his 22-page Vanity Fair piece in June 2007, just as yoga was truly coming of age in America. For O’Neill, that was only the preview. “There was a point when somebody at the magazine looked at me and said, ‘No more money, Michael.’ But poor little me couldn’t stop shooting,” he says.

O’Neill devoted the next decade to his labor of love, traveling frequently to India (on his own dime), spending time with yoga masters and gurus in both the East and the West—TKV Desikachar, BKS Iyengar, Yogi Bhajan, and everyone in between. “I did it as a bhakti, as my devotion to yoga,” he says. “I never said I like this better than that. There was no judgement. Yoga is yoga. It’s a path to consciousness. It’s a path of spirit. It’s a way of life.”

See also A Tribute to BKS Iyengar

On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

A book a decade in the making

The result of his decade-long immersion, On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace (TASCHEN, October 2015), is a study as much in anthropology and sociology as in beauty of form and spirit. “What I’ve tried to do with my work in general—not just the yoga—is to tell a story that’s more than just a specific image,” he says.

The book is a time capsule of practically the entirety of our moment in yoga, featuring striking images of everyone from Krishnamacharya to the Indian Sadhu community to Sting. But O’Neill says the work is always the same. “A portrait is always an agreement,” he says. “An agreement is established in one form or another on whatever wavelength to work together and share the process and the same goal of making a great picture.” Yogis, he says, make his job easier.

10 Images from On Yoga by Michael O’Neill

White Tantric, Summer Solstice Sadhana

White Tantric, Summer Solstice Sadhana from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico

June 23, 2009

See also One Man’s Kundalini Yoga Journey to a State of Grace

45 Minutes, Salamba Urdhva Dhanurasana (Supported Upward Bow)

BKS Iyengar from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

B.K.S. Iyengar

Pune, India, March 8, 2006

See also The Legacy of BKS Iyengar

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)

Guru Prem Singh Khalsa and son from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Guru Prem Singh Khalsa and his son Siri Guru Dev Khalsa

New York City, December 8, 2007

Learn more about Kundalini Yoga

Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance or Dancing Shiva Pose)

Shiva Rea from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Shiva Rea

El Mirage Lake, California, October 25, 2006

See also content from Shiva Rea

Bhagirathasana (Pose of the Sage Bhagiratha)

Eddie Stern from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Eddie Stern

Crosby Street, New York City, January 21, 2014

Learn more about Ashtanga Yoga

Jivamukti Yoga by the Manhattan Bridge

David Life and Sharon Gannon from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

David Life and Sharon Gannon

Brooklyn, New York, May 19, 2006

Learn more about Jivamukti Yoga

Private altar to T. Krishnamacharya, with son T.K.V. and grandson Kausthub Desikachar

TKV Desikachar from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Chennai, India, March 11, 2006

See also The YJ Interview: TKV Desikachar

Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana (One-Legged Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Erich Schiffman and Ali MacGraw from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Ali MacGraw and Erich Schiffman

White Sands National Monument, Alamogordo, New Mexico, November 13, 2006

See also Talking Shop with Erich Schiffman

Niralama Sirsasana (Hands-Free Headstand)

Dharma Mittra from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Dharma Mittra

13th and Hudson, New York City, November 3, 2006

Explore content from Dharma Mittra

Gurmukh Kaur Khasa at her most holy of places, the Golden Temple

Gurmukh from On Yoga by Michael O'Neill

Amritsar, India, February 23, 2006

See also L.A. (Yoga) Story: Kundalini Star Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa


michael o'neill

Photographer Michael O’Neill. Sag Harbor, New York, August 11, 2012

Images excerpted from On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace by Michael O’Neill. Copyright © 2015. Published by TASCHEN October 2015.

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