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Breath of the Gods
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by Jay Seaver

"Interesting overview that may or may not lead to the advanced class."
3 stars

Jan Schmidt-Garre's "Breath of the Gods" is not a movie advocating yoga as much as it is an overview of the modern form's history. In fact, it's almost certainly going to be of strongest interest to those who are already devotees of the technique. However, the very fact that so many of the early masters are around and active certainly makes an argument in favor of its health benefits.

Legend has it that yoga was handed down directly from the Hindu gods in ancient times, but its most modern form was codified by T. Krishnamacharya, a scholar born near the present-day village of Muchukunte in 1888. Skilled at reading Sanskrit, he memorized the Yoga Kuruntha from a series of rotting scrolls and, with the patronage of a local Maharajah of Mysore, founded the Yogashala, where he would teach the next generation of students, many of whom would become influential masters in their own right.

As he journeys through India to learn more about Krishnamacharya and the history of yoga, Schmidt-Garre gets to meet and learn from several of the people who learned from Krishnamaharya personally, including his children. Though many are quite elderly - Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya's first student, was in his late 90s when Schmidt-Garre spoke to him, and passed away before filming was completed - most (including Jois) were still teaching and quite sharp. Krishnamacharya's son Sri Washel gives a tour of several important places, and early student B. K. S. Iyengar - Krishnamacharya's brother-in-law as well as one of the most influential yogis of the twentieth century himself - is refreshingly unromantic in his recollections, telling stories of how Krishnamacharya was a harsh taskmaster and often gave frustratingly non-specific instruction.

Though Krishnamacharya passed back in 1989, Schmidt-Garre was able to dig up film of him in his prime, and the images of him and his students demonstrating their flexibility are quite impressive indeed. There's plenty of good footage from the present, too, with Jois, Iyengar, and other interview subjects both demonstrating themselves and having their students do various exercises for the camera while giving a bit of a lecture. The filmmaker also takes advantage of the chance to get personal instruction from these masters.

Yes, this is a case where the filmmaker inserts himself into the documentary, but he's an amiable, self-effacing sort. He makes his enthusiasm quite clear without actually making the movie about himself. The tone is even-keeled, not presuming too much knowledge from the audience or trying to aggressively sell them on the topic. That measured approach is at once the film's greatest asset and potentially its greatest weakness: It's very accessible and well-able to keep the audience's attention throughout, but in some ways lacks a hook that can pull the audience in beyond polite interest. For all that the viewer may be glad to have seen the demonstrations and learned something about yoga, will they be inspired to take things any further?

Eliciting that sort of reaction from the audience isn't a necessary for a documentary to be successful, and I suspect that viewers with pre-existing interest in the subject may have it resonate more strongly. For the rest of us, it's interesting enough to keep attention of anyone who catches it on PBS or a specialty cable channel through the end, even if only a few are affected much beyond that.

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originally posted: 09/03/13 05:43:51
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