March 1, 2013

To Stream or Not to Stream?—Searching for a Yoga Movie that Doesn’t Suck.

Couples Retreat, Universal Pictures, 2009

I admit it: I watched the Oscars on Sunday.

Not only did I watch the ceremony itself, but I drank almost an entire bottle of Coppola Vineyard champagne while watching the E! live red carpet extravaganza for a full three post-show hours.

By the time the ceremony began, I had reached for my bottle of Ibuprofen. The host, Seth McFarlane, was bombing. I was bombed. It was a very long night.

For as much as I love yoga, I also need that one night a year when I can be vapid and celebrity-obsessed.

Where I can appreciate the vital importance of not overpowering your exquisitely beaded Valentino dress with a statement necklace. Or, as poor Anne Hathaway discovered, to re-think the darts on your decolletage.

The Oscars is about more than just starlets with toothpick arms telling Ryan Seacrest their red carpet dieting tricks, though. We tend to forget it’s about movies, something I like very much and spend far too much money on. I spend the months before the Oscars seeing every movie that could possibly make the nominee list. Short film, documentary, feature—I attempt to see it all. I even saw Wreck It Ralph this year, in spite of my hatred of animation because it makes me slightly nauseous. (At least, that’s what I tell my boyfriend. How much Adult Swim can a grown woman take, after all?)

There’s just something soothing about completing that list of films, checking off every box and filing the ticket stub. It’s akin to crossing off a to-do list, but you get the added benefit of laughing, crying and eating entire boxes of Junior Mints. Plus, you get to be totally transported away from this world of compiling your tax forms and vacuuming pet hair from the carpet and hating your boss.

The list is the kind of imperative that doesn’t involve muzak versions of Easy Lover and spoiled avocados. It forces me to have fun, to take a much-needed break from the stresses of life, even though completing the list often becomes a goal-oriented, contact sport—in line at Les Miserables I stepped on a man’s toe when he was trying to butt in line. (MMA fans have nothing on musical theatre people.) If I didn’t have trouble relaxing, I wouldn’t need yoga, right?

For the past few months I sat in theaters both big and small, some with plush seats, some with seats so old you leave the theater with a fractured tailbone. There were midday matinees and long, late-night movies I was literally holding my eyelids open to finish. There were some movies that surprised me, some I loved, some not so much. There was the great disappointment of seeing Silver Linings Playbook, which resembled too many of my OkCupid dates, none of whom looked even remotely like Bradley Cooper. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Naomi Watts in The Impossible left me sobbing and thanking the universe for the invention of the moving picture camera. The list was an absolute pleasure this year, unlike the Oscar ceremony.

Now that the season is complete, theaters will be filled with movies about demonic young girls and rogue cops and Jennifer Aniston’s endless search for love.

I’ll be forced to watch my movies at home, streaming from Netflix and Hulu, and spending fifteen minutes at a Red Box trying to pick between one terrible Gerard Butler movie and another terrible Gerard Butler movie. I’ll grieve the death of the video rental stores, places where I used to spend hours searching for just the right thing. I almost always found it (and if I didn’t, I would get my old fallback, Waiting for Guffman. Never gets old).

While cruising my Netflix queue just the other day, I noticed that a new category of films had been recommended for me. The genre, as chosen by the automated gods of instant streaming, was Sex and Spirituality. These two things—sex and spirituality—seem to be the topics I’m most obsessed with according to my former movie choices. I’m a sinner and a saint. A whore and a goddess. I have my moments of slightly perviness, but I’m essentially a prude with a talent for self-guilt trips. I think my therapist would agree with Netflix on this one.

The choices of movies in Sex and Spirituality was sparse and very B. There was a movie about a Catholic prostitute, and a movie about child-molesting priests. There was a movie about a Catholic woman in Ireland who cheats on her husband and dies a brutally painful death as a result. Catholics, it seems, are the Alfred Hitchcocks of sex and spirituality, but much more frightening. Priest makes Psycho look quaint by comparison.

There was only one film about yoga in this category, an instructional film entitled Better Sex Through Yoga. The cover featured a young, taut yogini in a tank, bikini underwear and legwarmers—a la Flashback. There are a couple of chakras on the cover, but as far as I could tell Better Sex had nothing to do with yoga at all. The description said it used “Pilates-influenced routines, designed to boost your self-esteem.” Instead of eradicating our egos, the Flashback yogini encourages us to love ourselves as much as she loves herself. If her spread-eagle centerfold of a cover says anything, she has no problem with self-love.

When yogis get together to talk about movies, the same titles come up again and again. There are very few choices for the viewer who needs a little inspiration after teaching a bad class or getting lost on the spiritual path.

The documentary, Enlighten Up, comes up often. Though it gives a good overview of the many styles of yoga, it’s essentially about a man who finds the entire thing ridiculous and can’t wait until his friend/yoga-pusher stops filming him. He’d like to get laid and have a burger, and is a total grump for two straight hours. I know it must have been terrible for him to travel around the world, staying in ashrams and retreats free-of-charge. It couldn’t have been any harder, though, than watching him bitch about it for two hours.

There are a lot of documentaries featuring the Dalai Lama and Ram Dass and all the media-savvy sages of the new age. Deepak Chopra’s got a lot going on, with his Weinsteinian production company and camera-comfortable smile. There are a lot of how-to’s out there, though. Shiva Rea’s DVD’s, with their lovely helicopter shots of sunsets on the beaches of Hawaii, allow us to follow as she instructs. They also make me feel terrible about myself and my body—what’s the point? I’m never going to be Ms. Rea. I end up reaching for a beer and a Millionaire Matchmaker marathon instead.

Easy Come, Easy Go, Paramount Studios, 1967

These films talk about yoga and spirituality, they instruct, but they don’t give us the full experience of what it is to meditate and practice asanas. There are almost no films that I know of that truly capture yoga or the yogic life. Admittedly, there may be a crop of foreign films I don’t know about. But as far as American film goes, yoga is almost non-existent.

There is Eat, Pray, Love, where yoga serves as the most direct route to finding a new man after divorce. We see Julia Roberts in uber-expensive Donna Karan malas complaining about yoga, but not actually doing much of it. She doesn’t find enlightenment, but she does find Javier Bardem—so it doesn’t really matter anymore. Yoga, apparently, is just one big internet dating site where the universe does the matchmaking and we always look slightly sweaty, yet super-fabulous in our spandex.

The other common yoga cliché appears in brom-coms, those flicks that specialize in low-brow jokes, Vegas hijinks, and very blonde and buxom twenty-year-olds. Usually one of the characters, a schlubby beer and BBQ kind of guy, goes to a yoga class to impress the beautiful, temptingly flexible love interest. He farts and sweats and falls out of headstand onto one of the many model-perfect students. The instructors are always pretentious and sadistic, the soundtrack is always a goofy didgeri-dub-step.

Why aren’t there any movies about the most visually exciting and beautiful experiences in human existence?

Why does Hollywood think that yoga is merely a way to relieve gas or get laid or find your soul mate? We don’t see characters ever finding their actual souls, or being truly and earnestly transformed for the better. I see, on practically a daily basis, so many passionate yogis with rich, inspiring, heartbreaking stories. No one arrives at the yogic life without a Shakespeare-sized dose of tragedy. We arrive at faith often by default, our white flags held high to the universe.

I’m flattered that Hollywood thinks we’re are all sexy and handstand perfect, but the truth is, as always, so much more interesting and diverse. Yes, we yogis do fart and fall down and talk about chakras and auras and kale. We can be pretentious and focus far too much on having a fashionable water bottle. We are, because of our connection to our bodies and the world, sexier than the average person. A good person, a person who promotes peace and love and chemical-free food, does radiate a sexual energy that’s hard to ignore.

Hollywood has ignored us, the real us, for far too long. Get your cameras out, yogis—my Netflix queue needs you. Namaste.

PS: One of the best, must-see movies featuring yoga is Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. Check it.

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Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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