First Run Features // 2004 // 38 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // March 4th, 2005
"You need to practice [Ashtanga yoga] if you live in New York."
-- Willem Dafoe
Sorry, readers, but I made the critical mistake that we aim to avoid here at The Verdict: I requested a title for which I have no background. I had no idea that this film is a documentary about Sri K. Pattabhi Jois's final North American visit and the legion of "yoga fans" in New York. If I had realized that, I would have skipped over it and left it for someone who knows something about yoga. That's not me. I'm your classic inflexible man who has a hard time touching his toes. So it was breathtaking and humbling to see the bevy of limber individuals in Ashtanga, NY.
As already stated, this is a documentary (of sorts) about Ashtanga-style yoga and its leading figure, Jois, affectionately and deferentially called Guruji. It is not a "how-to" about learning the correct ways to breathe and bend. But, then again, that description isn't so much what I think of it as what the packaging calls it. As I watched Ashtanga, NY, I must admit that I was lost, not because I didn't know anything about yoga, but because I couldn't deduce the point of the film. To me, it wasn't so much about Ashtanga or about Guruji but about the people who follow the discipline. It was about the people who do the yoga everyday, getting up outrageously early in the morning, attending a class with people they rarely ever talk to.
Being an outsider to it all, a certain derogatory term kept drifting into my mind: cult. The steadfast devotion of these people to Ashtanga, to Guruji, and to the philosophy borders on religious devotion or even cult-like behavior. I was uncomfortable watching the disc because of this vibe. I clearly know that this is not a cult or anything close to resembling one, yet this film was unfortunately edited to give the casual viewer that impression. However, I know that I am not alone in this train of thought, for there is one scene where one of the interviewees mentions how their behavior does have cult-like tendencies.
But you do have to be impressed with Guruji, the devotion he inspires, and the nubile athleticism of the participants. From all appearances, Ashtanga yoga is a very healthy and vibrant pastime for those who partake in its exercises.
This documentary was filmed during the entire month of September 2001. That should trigger an immediate thought, since this event does take place in New York City. The tragic events of 9/11 unfold in the background, and we see how these devotees embrace Ashtanga and Hindu religion to help find peace and solace during that terrible time. My next comment will sound odd, but that's because the source is quite odd too. I was startled by the prayer offered during the 9/11 ceremony because it was a touch gruesome. Instead of a generic "we offer our prayers for all those who died in the attacks," the prayer went "we offer our prayers for all those burned, buried, electrocuted..." Is it better in the Hindu religion to detail how a person died? It was too morbid for me.
But that's not important to the overall documentary. This documentary also didn't appeal to me because I was hoping to get a few things out of it: What is Ashtanga and who is Guruji? If you don't follow Ashtanga, then this film will barely skim the surface. If you've never heard of Guruji, then this film will leave you with the impression of a short, older, somewhat stocky Indian man with a pinched voice. You don't learn much about him, his background, his rise, or his importance. (Mind you this isn't a completely empty documentary, and you do pick up a few details, such as Guruji began teaching in March 1937!)
There aren't any problems with the transfers on the disc. The full-frame video was apparently shot on digital video, so it's quite clean, sharp, and robust, and the audio is clear with hiss-free dialogue -- though I thought I heard a low-frequency buzz during the first half. There is a handful of bonus items on the disc: "A Hindu Ritual" (7 minutes), about an installation of a deity in a temple; outtakes (2.5 minutes); "A Visit with the Filmmakers" (1.5 minutes), where they appear to have difficulty explaining Ashtanga; a text-based "About the Filmmakers"; and some trailers for other First Run Features DVDs.
For me, a complete outsider to the world of Ashtanga yoga, I found very little appeal in this disc and wouldn't recommend it at all to anyone in a similar position as myself. But maybe for those in the know, those who follow Guruji, there is more to be found in this disc. Since there's a decent smattering of extras and the transfers are solid, go ahead and give this one a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 38 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "A Hindu Ritual"
* "A Visit with the Filmmakers"
* "About the Filmmakers"