May 11th, 2020
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Watching documentaries is one of my favorite ways to learn more about a subject. Because I’m a visual learner, movies work well for me. They’re also much faster than reading a book for me (I do love me a good yoga book, though). Yoga movies have been a vital resource in helping me learn more about this ancient tradition and life-changing practice. Yoga-related Netflix movies have proliferated in recent years, and many are available to stream right now. Some of the older ones are also worth watching, and while they may be a little more difficult to locate, if you’re curious about the yoga tradition in general, I’ve found these to be extremely instructive.
People who want to learn more about veganism or travel should check out these documentaries. For yoga enthusiasts, here is my go-to list of yoga movies on Netflix and elsewhere to learn more about this life-changing practice and its surprising — sometimes good, sometimes bad — history.
1. On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace
This yoga film has stunning visuals and is one of the best yoga films Netflix has to offer right now. A large part of the story revolves around the work of Michael O’Neill, a well-known photographer who is best known for his portraits of cultural and political figures like Orson Welles, Leonardo di Caprio, and Richard Nixon. After surgery left his right arm paralyzed, O’Neill turned to yoga to help him regain use of it. As a result, he decided to combine his two loves of yoga and photography into one project. Since he began taking yoga photographs, he’s become known for them.
This documentary takes a closer look at his creative and spiritual process. Photographs, film footage set to entrancing music and interviews with yogis provide insight into what yoga is and what it means to them in the film, which travels between the United States, India and Nepal. Although it features many well-known modern-day western yoga practitioners, the sections on yoga and modern-day yogis in India and Nepal were my favorites. There are still sadhus, saints, ascetics, chillum smokers and mallakhamb aerial gymnasts practicing yoga today as a testament to the traditional lineages that have endured.
2. Awake: The Life of Yogananda
Since learning that Steve Jobs arranged for copies of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi to be distributed at his memorial service, I’ve been curious about the Yogananda movie. I’ve tried reading the book several times, but I’ll be honest: I never get past the part where he claims that looking at a photo of his parents’ guru cured him of cholera as a child. This movie biography of the swami was a wonderful find for me, so thank you! This documentary explores the life and legacy of Yogananda, who is considered to be the first well-known celebrity guru to arrive in the United States.
Topics include his role in popularizing meditation and Kriya yoga in the 1920s, the FBI’s suspicion of him, the influence he had on other prominent figures, and his legacy today. You might be curious about Yogananda, too, so if you are, this documentary is a great way to learn more about him, his teachings, and his legacy in the yoga community.
3. Bikram: Yoga, Guru, Predator
Keep an eye out for this. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of Netflix’s yoga movies or not, this one is both fascinating and disturbing. While uncovering the rise, fall, and reality of Bikram Choudry and his now infamous, Bikram hot yoga empire, it has an investigative/true crime feel to it. In the history of yoga, there have been many guru scandals, but of all the recently discredited guru figures, I believe the story of Bikram is the most intriguing.
The commercial side of yoga brought in millions for Bikram, who used the money not only to buy Rolls Royces but also to start a cult and abuse sex for personal gain. In the yoga world, Bikram is comparable to Harvey Weinstein. Knowing that he is still promoting teacher training today is depressing, especially after hearing the stories of the women who were sexually assaulted by him. As a piece of investigative work, this film has served as a significant wake-up call for the yoga community.
4. Wild Wild Country
This isn’t a yoga movie per se, but it’s closely tied to the subject matter. Once again, we’re treated to an eye-opening portrait of a spiritual teacher gone astray. Osho, formerly known as Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, is something of a love-or-hate figure in the yoga community. Many people swear by his teachings and meditation methods, while others denounce him as a power- and money-hungry charlatan who sexually abused women and children..
Having said that, I had no prior knowledge of him before watching this show. In the 1980s, Rajneesh and his followers established an ashram in the United States, and things take an unbelievable turn: think guru devotees taking up arms, bioterrorism, assassination plots and attempted political coups. Various people, including Osho’s devotees, are interviewed in the documentary series, which mixes old footage with new. This film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, proving that it is not only an excellent yoga documentary series, but an excellent work of art in general.
5. Yoga, Inc
Many modern-day yogis are torn between practicing yoga as a spiritual discipline and making a living from it. Yoga has been commercialized and commodified for a long time, and this documentary shows just how far it has progressed. While Swami Vivekananda introduced the practice of yoga to the United States in 1893, the counter-cultural hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s shaped it before it was assimilated into the American culture of celebrity status, fitness and weight-loss trends, and of course capitalism.
It features Bikram, Baron Baptiste, Jivamukti Yoga’s Shanon and David Life, as well as Rodney Yee and the Yoga Works founders. People who come off as more successful than others are scrutinized because of the question of whether yoga and business are compatible.
6. Yoga Unveiled
I was on the fence about including this documentary, but it’s the best resource I’ve found for learning about the origins and history of yoga. With contributions from some of the world’s most eminent yogic scholars and practitioners, Yoga Unveiled explores yoga’s 5,000-year history and philosophical traditions, as well as its arrival in the West and current evolution. However, there are a few things to keep in mind.
It’s a little stale and it shows, but the worst part is that it’s pricey ($36.99 for streaming, but the DVD is significantly less)! Because you can only buy it from the makers directly, you’ll be helping a small business by doing so. However, I believe this is a worthwhile purchase for yoga students who want a thorough introduction to the history and philosophy of the practice, as well as yoga instructors and aspiring instructors.
7. I am Maris
I am Maris is a personal account of how yoga changed and, in some cases, saved one person’s life. Mental health and the benefits of yoga are the focus of this intimate, down-to-earth documentary. From an early age, Maris Degener suffered from anxiety, which worsened over time and culminated in self-harm and an eating disorder, which landed her in the hospital during her adolescent years. Yoga was the deciding factor in her recovery.
After attending a yoga class by chance, she discovered a yoga studio, a yoga community, and her own unique teaching style as a yoga instructor. A large part of Maris’s life revolves around art and writing, and the film tells its story through a fusion of her drawings and blog posts. This film is a must-see if yoga has played a healing role in your life.
That this documentary focuses on how traditionally women have been excluded from yoga and yet they are at the forefront of modern hatha yoga is fascinating. This aspect of yoga’s history is briefly touched upon, but the book focuses primarily on female practitioners who are pioneers in the field. It is narrated by actress Anette Benning, an Iyengar yoga practitioner, and stars Angela Farmer, Seane Corn, and Cyndi Lee, all well-known yoga teachers.
The film promotes yoga as a liberating, radical, and feminist practice, and it is extremely motivating as a result. Yoga’s history is underrepresented, so it could have done with going deeper and asking tougher questions about how women are being exploited in its commercialization. However, this is a film that will make you want to do yoga after watching it!
I hope you enjoyed my picks for yoga documentaries; please share your own! Check out my favorite yoga quotes for more inspo.