Book review: On Yoga will bend you in all the right directions

Michael O’Neill’s hefty tome is a beautifully illustrated celebration of what the human form can achieve when mind and body are at peace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2015, 3:00pm

On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace

by Michael O’Neill


In his book Light on Life (2005), the late yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar wrote that practitioners must treat asana (or poses) during a yoga practice not just as a physical exercise but a means to connect the body and mind to achieve self-realisation. “In this way, one can experience the true integration and reach the ultimate freedom,” he explained.

But in this age of social media sharing, with people (this reviewer included) posting images of themselves striking various challenging poses on Facebook, Instagram and so on to get “likes”, it is hard not to look at yoga at a very superficial level.

American photographer and portraitist Michael O’Neill’s On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, published by Taschen, sets out to go beyond the physical aesthetics to revisit and explore this Indian tradition and ancient science through images.

For this book project – a collection of mostly colour photographs taken over a decade around the globe – O’Neill, who is a yogi himself, wanted to “pay homage to yoga’s classical lineage and understand this unique moment before it slips away”.

The result is a hefty photo book (measuring 38 x 27.5 x3.8cm and weighing 3kg) full of portraits of famous yoga gurus and teachers as well as celebrities, with the occasional scenic and abstract mood shots scattered in between.

To give the collection some kind of theme or loose narrative, photographs are organised into five sections: Water, Earth, Fire, Air and Spirit – elements that are associated with nature.

There are still plenty of shots of the more extreme asana (think human pretzels) but they are presented not so much as circus or acrobatic spectacles but as examples of what the human form is capable of when mind and body are in unison and peace. The image, 13th and Hudson, of Dharma Mittra balancing on the crown of his head in niralamba shirshasana (hands-free headstand) in New York is one good example of that feat.

The series of portraits of Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois are particularly valuable as these men are among the most influential figures in modern yoga, having developed their own styles: Iyengar (with a heavy focus on alignment) and Ashtanga, which is a powerful and popular practice. Also included in this book are great teachers from other yoga schools, such as A.G. Mohan (Svastha Yoga and Ayurveda), Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Kundalini Yoga), David Life and Sharon Gannon (Jivamukti Yoga), and John Friend (Anusara Yoga).

Those not familiar with Hindu holy men and their faces painted with white ash might find them haunting to look at, though these often striking portraits are counterbalanced by the more glamorous, glossy magazine-style photography of celebrities such as model Christy Turlington, singer Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, actress Ali MacGraw, yoga teachers Shiva Rea and Rodney Yee, and even the Dalai Lama. These high-profile collaborations seem logical, given O’Neill had previously worked for titles such as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine.

Behind this project is a personal story: O’Neill suffered a bungled surgery that left his right “camera arm” paralysed, but yoga and meditation helped him recover. This inspirational and positive tale is true to the spirit of the very subject of On Yoga.