Bending toward enlightenment

Bending toward enlightenment

'Yogawoman' looks at the profound effect yoga has had on people's lives

By Jana J. Monji 10/24/2012

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What do you imagine when you hear the word “yoga?”

Some might envision a bearded guru clad in flowing robes and speaking in heavily accented English.

Most, however, likely see images of women in loose-fitting pants bending in ways that might not seem normal. “Yogawoman,” which opens Friday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 theaters, focuses on how yoga came to the west and became was adapted, changed and embraced by women.

According to writers/directors Saraswati Clere and Kate McIntyre Clere’s 2011 documentary “Yogawoman,” yoga was created over thousands of years to bring peace and enlightenment to men, not women. Women were considered obstacles to enlightenment for men.

Narrated by Golden Globe Award-winning actress Annette Bening, reportedly a student of Iyengar yoga, the film looks at how this ancient practice underwent a transformation worldwide. Call it feminization or modernization. Women came, learned and began to teach.

If you watched “Enlighten Up!” or the more recent “Kumaré,” you might be approaching this movie with more than a little skepticism. Kate Churchill in her 2009 documentary, “Enlighten Up!”  tried too hard to have subject Nick Rosen find his better self and ended with a weak apology. Churchill found her own inner peace after spending much money and film on a failed thesis.

On the other hand director Vikram Gandhi, drew on memories of his grandmother to create a false accent and moved from New York to Arizona and pretended to be a native of India as Guru Kumaré. As the yoga guru, he gathered a group of disciples, and as a false prophet of a fabricated yoga school, Gandhi was not without guilt. Gandhi, however, revealed himself and also felt a personal transformation from having focused on being happy. As with “Enlighten Up!” in “Kumaré,” Gandhi touches on the fake gurus and even the sexually predatory nature of some of the male teachers.

“Yogawoman” essentially ignores these two problems for an unabashedly positive celebration of female empowerment. Tracing the history of yoga from pioneer female teacher Indra Devi, the documentary travels to India where yoga originated, focuses mainly on America yet shows the global reach of the yoga craze. There’s a long roster of talking heads, including interviews with well-known yoga teachers, such as Patricia Walden, Sharlon Gannon, Shiva Rea, Angela Farmer, Cyndi Lee and Seane Corn. Physicians and scientists such as Dr. Sara Gottfried and Dr. Shirley Tells also appear to indicate how yoga provides health benefits.

Cindi Lee recounts, “When I first started, all my teachers were male. A woman knows how a woman feels.” That, of course, is much better than being told by a man how a woman should feel, because we’ve had centuries of that already. Women are also generally more physically flexible than men, and there’s a lot of twisting and turning involved. Why not women yoga instructors?

Tari Prinster, a breast cancer survivor, recalls how she began yoga for the worst reason: Vanity. She saw her back beginning to get that age-hump, just as mother’s had, and her mother’s mother before her. Just jogging and going to the gym weren’t helping, so she gave yoga a try. Yoga, it seemed, slows down the aging process. Prinster comments that yoga ““slows down the aging process” and it’s “really the fountain of youth.” And when she was diagnosed with cancer, she drew on yoga for her recovery.

As one might expect, embracing female concerns in yoga means a connection with family and other parts of the life cycle. Yes, female-focused yoga teachers touch on menstruation (or what one teacher calls “moon time”), so if you can’t handle hearing women talk about lessening the pain and discomfort of monthly cramps, you might want to pass. But that would be a shame.

Yoga isn’t just for the skinny, rich women who can afford classes. The documentary also shows thick girls, as well as girls who have been sexually abused and perhaps even prostituted, benefitting from re-establishing connections with their physical bodies through yoga. Despite the title, “Yogawoman” is worthwhile viewing for women and men. Why, it might even get you out and on a mat. 

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