Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is widely accepted as the father of modern yoga, and this intermittently compelling documentary attempts to cement that fact through a combination of impressive archive footage of the master at work, interviews with the remaining few who studied under him, and a contemporary assessment of how the artful exercise has evolved over the years.
Director Jan Schmidt-Garre’s primary quest is to find out exactly where yoga started, his journey leading him from Krishnamacharya’s friends and family to the famed palace of the Maharaja of Mysore. Schmidt-Garre, an amateur yoga practitioner himself, is an able every-man to guide everyone from complete beginners to ardent enthusiasts through this process, even if it will inevitably be of more interest to the already initiated.
Still, Breath of the Gods is unquestionably at its best when focusing more on the near-inhuman physical feats that can be achieved through the exercise, specifically those which have been caught on film. Just when the footage begins to feel repetitive, we are shown yet another pretzel-like contortion that a yoga expert is somehow capable of, and frankly, its mind-boggling effect is topped only by the feeling of inadequacy it might muster in some viewers (and certainly this one).
Also of interest is the examination of the history and lineage of yoga, specifically how it was perceived at its inception, with many believing it to be a possible product of mental illness. From here, Schmidt-Garre examines the complex “family tree” of yoga teachers (namely those who helped popularise it in the West), and the various branching schools of thought which entertain the idea that there may not be, as some believe, “one true yoga”, but rather several.
One yoga expert pensively decries how the exercise has become imbued in the materialist mentality as more and more Westerners adopt it, yet emphasises that yoga is about imbuing knowledge as wealth – of course, that wealth can never be stolen or taken away.
Other dialogues may meanwhile test the viewer’s stock in yoga – specifically a claim that Krishnamacharya was able to lower and even stop his heart rate, which has zero scientific credence – though thankfully Schmidt-Garre does eventually steer things back to the patently human story. The rivalry between Krishnamacharya and his brother results in one amusingly visceral anecdote, with the brother being forced to perform the splits so strenuously that he ended up tearing a muscle in his leg.
Intermittently engaging though the various talking heads and stock footage are, the dry presentation will ensure that this will struggle to find an audience beyond the most hardcore yoga fanatics, though there’s no denying that some of the grueling classic footage is mind-blowing. Breath of the Gods is an undeniably relaxing sit, though one which also proves meandering on one too many occasions.
Breath of the Gods is on limited released in UK cinemas now.
This article was first posted on February 23, 2013