Updated: Oct 30, 2018
by Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill’s book On Yoga, The Architecture of Peace is a beautifully printed coffee-table book. The book is a photographic homage to the great teachers of yoga, seeking to pay tribute both to yoga and the great teachers of the art.
The images are a mix of beautiful portraits and yogis photographed in meditation and in advanced yoga poses. The poses can be extreme, however, as H H. Swami Chidanand Saraswatiyi reminds us in the opening essay, poses in yoga only exist to help bring the mind and body together. "...asana [physical postures] only becomes yoga if it leads to spiritual union, not just limberness, flexibility, and strength."
As the title of the book highlights, the body becomes architecture, shape and form, and the advanced poses show the dedication to the art that these men (mostly men, though a few women are represented) have shown. The alternate title provided in the book’s description is "Poses of peace: One photographer's meditation on the essence of yoga" gives insight into how Michael approached this project. In Michael's beautiful words:
Yoga for me is the architecture of peace - it is the science of angles and triangles. And its purpose is to move toward what Guru Prem Singh Khalsa calls 'devine alignment' through a series of postures that aid in stillness of mind and heart, and bring the practitioner closer to touching the infinite. To align oneself with that flow - to embody the geometry of love - requires desire, direction, and discipline.
Michael O'Neill, a professional portrait photographer, began this 10 year project after surgery left his right arm (camera) arm paralyzed. He credits yoga and meditation with helping him regain the use of his arm. In many ways, this book is a work of personal passion and thankfulness.
To capture the images, Michael traveled to India on multiple occasions, but gurus from the United States and Tibet are also represented. Famous teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014) were photographed by Michael for this project. This project serves to document these influential men before their deaths, but also show the new generation.
History and lineage is a theme throughout the book showing both teachers advanced in age and also children studying yoga. Michael includes a number of family photos showing a father and son in complementary yoga poses.
By and large, the photographs show the real practice of yoga, in authentic contexts, though a few are posed in situations where yoga would not normally be practiced. For instance, the image on the back cover is of Dharma Mittra posing in headstand on a New York street. The yoga teachers likely had some say in how and where they wanted to be photographed.
Many of the images are breathtakingly beautiful, but some may be disturbing. Michael shows the real practice of yoga including poses that may not be readily accepted in the western world. Some of his most striking images are from the festival Kumbh Mela which takes place every 6 years Allahabad, India. Michael shows both individuals as well as the thousands participating in a naked procession into the Ganges River in a ritual cleanse.
Text is minimal even in the captioning of the photographs, but there are a few introductory pages providing a brief history of yoga. The captions focus on who, where, and when the photograph was taken leaving the viewer to interpret the photographs.
At the end of the book, Michael brings yoga and photography together:
The concentration of both the yoga and photographic processes are one and the same. Both involve bringing an open mind to see what is really there. Both require patience and reward practice. Both are meditations in that they are totally engrossing. When you are in that moment, in that flow, nothing else exists.
Michael’s book has been made into a documentary film available on Netflix & Amazon
From the Published Description:
It’s taken yoga several thousand years to make the journey from a handful of monasteries dotting the Himalayas to the yoga studios popping up everywhere. Whether bathing with holy men in the Ganges or joining the chorus of a thousand voices chanting “om,” photographer Michael O’Neill decided to devote himself to experience and record the world of yoga at this critical juncture in its history. The result is a powerful photographic tribute to the age-old discipline turned global phenomenon, with over 250 million practitioners united in physical, spiritual, and mindful practice worldwide.
Famous for his photographs of the famous, O’Neill first set out to make portraits of the most influential yogis of our time—B. K. S. Iyengar, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, Rodney Yee, Colleen Saidman, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa—as well as those famed for integrating yoga into their high-profile lives, such as Donna Karan, Sting, and Trudie Styler. It was a chance to honor the masters and unite his lifelong passion for photography with a newfound love for yoga and meditation. But as his practice deepened, so did his drive to look past the personalities and the poses to document the roots of yoga. Over ten years O’Neill trekked beyond the traditional epicenters to meditate with monks in the Tibetan Plateau, live with sadhus in their tents at the Kumbh Mela, and marvel at the boys who practice the little known discipline of Mallakhamba at the wrestling grounds in Kochi. Says O’Neill: “All I wanted to do was to pay homage to yoga’s classical lineage and understand this unique moment before it slips away.”
Now brought together for the first time, this extraordinary XL body of work tells the story of yoga as it’s never been told before, with nearly 200 photographs, most of which have never been seen. Two of O’Neill’s most important subjects, meditation master His Holiness Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji and Ashtanga guru Eddie Stern, join the conversation with their essays on the role of yoga in contemporary culture, the history of the practice from the time of Patanjali, and the healing power of what Michael O’Neill calls “the architecture of peace . . . a series of postures that bring the practitioner closer to touching the infinite.”
Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. -- And she's a member of the St. Louis Women in Focus group. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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