In the year 2054, a certain Captain John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) unexpectedly falls into a yoga shala brimming with lithe yogis practicing awe-inspiring asanas. One yogi, whilst calmly situated in the titibasana B variation, steps toward a befuddled Anderton and concernedly states, ‘oh my GOD, are you okay?’
Eleven years ago, as I sat in a movie theatre captivated by Steven Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report,’ the contorted bodies of these futuristic yogis appeared to be oddities at a carnival geek show. I was perturbed by the seemingly grotesque postures these weirdoes were holding, but simultaneously fascinated by their sense of ease.
This scene continues to replay in my head and now that I contentedly practice these same asanas years later, I was curious about other onscreen yoga depictions. With the aid of Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Instant Video, this past week I decided to comb through the annals of yoga film history.
I was excited to find that a pre-knighted Alfred Hitchcock directed 1930’s ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ which is set in a Dublin tenement during the Irish Civil War. This early talkie is unremarkable save for the surprising yoga nod, which appears about halfway through. Here, a character describes a certain group of men called ‘yogis’ who attain high states of excellence (and even magical powers) by steadily practicing ‘certain mental exercises.’ At the dawn of sound cinema, yoga had yet to find popularity in the West. Krishnamacharya wouldn’t even head to Mysore until 1931.
By the 1960s, yoga was embraced by an Aquarian age and some films of the era reflect this. In 1967’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go,’ Elvis gets stuck in sukhasana (it’s clearly not so easy for him), which ignites a garish song and dance number complete with unidentifiable mudras. The classic 1970 documentary ‘Woodstock’ features a shirtless dude teaching kapalabhati to a group of longhaired Baby Boomers in a sea of mud, and 1973’s ‘The Harrad Experiment’ shows sexually revolutionized college students practicing nude yoga as they hold hands and ‘take all of the energy in from the earth.’ No wonder why my parents associated yoga with hippies…
Two cartoonish Kung Fu films of the late 1970s magnify yoga’s awesome physical potential. ‘Yoga and Kung Fu Girl’ (1978) and ‘Kung Fu vs. Yoga’ (1979) showcase some truly kick-asana fight sequences. Here, decades before Spielberg’s sci-fi extravaganza, yoga postures appear intimidating and (dare I say it), painful.
The post-millennium yoga craze has inspired a plethora of unsettling film depictions that are too numerous to list here. In 2000’s insipid ‘The Next Best Thing,’ Madonna plays a sultry yoga teacher who promises ‘to go easy’ on a tight Benjamin Bratt (her verbal cues and hands-on adjustments could use some work). 2003’s memorable flop ‘Gigli’ has Jennifer Lopez seductively lounging on a mat while exchanging R-rated conversation with Ben Affleck. In ‘Meet the Fockers’ (2004), Barbara Streisand plays a sex counselor for seniors whose kinky therapy session looks like a yoga-Zumba-sexercise class (a possible foreshadowing of the many yoga-fusion styles that are currently so popular?), and in a raunchy nod toward the abundance of teacher/student scandals, 2009’s ‘Couples Retreat’ features an oily teacher who has clearly been reading the wrong Sutra (to say that he breaks boundaries is to put it mildly). I see a trend here…
With the exception of Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report,’ this past decade has failed to place yoga cameos amidst the ranks of quality films. It’s safe to say that none of the aforementioned movies were artistic high points. Is yoga doomed to prowl the jungles of vapid comedies forever?
Maybe not. A stimulating find is the 2009 Korean horror film ‘Yoga Hakwon’ which follows a group of teacher trainees sequestered at a menacing ashram with rigorous regulations. As the rules are broken, the students suffer grisly consequences (I sense an American remake on the horizon…).
Filmmakers have an excellent opportunity to inspire yoga skeptics, but I have yet to find a film that does so. When will yoga be taken seriously and when will it be depicted as a beneficial practice for all (not just a clique for wacked weirdoes)? With my boat against the current, I beat on, searching for an onscreen depiction of yoga that isn’t ceaselessly tainted by the past (or the present, for that matter). I wonder if some future fourteen-year-old will carve a path similar to mine. Alas, only time will tell.
While I returned slightly unenthusiastic, I did enjoy my movie hunting. The recent slew of comedies had me in hysterics (stereotypes are inspired by truth…) and no time spent with Elvis is wasted. If anyone discovers more onscreen yoga cameos, please send them my way.
–By Michael Laskaris