The concept of a guru is one that many of us in the West struggle to understand. Literally, the word means teacher, but on another level it refers to a spiritual leader, a saint, or an Enlightener.
As well as being credited with bringing the ashtanga form over to the West some half a century ago, 90 year-old Sri Pattabhi Jois is one of the best-known gurus in today’s yoga world.
It was this fascination with the guru concept that led Australian filmmaker Robert Wilkins to spend three months in India filming a documentary on the interaction between Jois and his yoga students.
Seeking a guru
Seeking spiritual guidance in the form of a guru is increasingly common among Westerners, says Wilkins. "We are flooded wtih information these days, we can find out just about anything on the net but to what end?
"What makes the guru system so unique and special is that the guru is there as a light, the one who shows us the way through this matrix of information and helps us to actually learn something."
The 30-minute documentary-style film offers previously unseen insight into the life of Jois, as well as the life of Westerners who have travelled to Jois’ base in Mysore, Southern India, to study under him.
Anyone with an interest in yoga, and what happens when yoga students travel to India to study yoga under a guru, will be fascinated by the result.
A new convert
Wilkins is a relatively new convert to yoga. He started practising out of curiosity and within a year, had developed a serious interest in all-things yoga – particularly ashtanga.
He now practises traditional Mysore-style yoga early every morning at Ashtanga Yoga London, on The Capital’s Drummond Street. His friend and teacher, Hamish Hendry is the only teacher in London certified to teach Pattabhi Jois’ ashtanga system.
It was this interest that led Wilkins to Mysore, practising under Jois, staying there for his 90th birthday celebrations, and recording life as a yoga student under him.
We meet over a steaming cup of mint tea, in a tucked-away Middle Eastern café in the heart of the East End’s Bethnal Green. He’s easy to talk to and has a chilled-out air common among serious yoga devotees. I ask Wilkins what led him to Mysore, and to Jois?
“It’s important to make films about what you’re interested in. Soon after I started practising yoga I felt I couldn’t get enough of it. I’m also a bit of an Indiaphile and I was fascinated by the wacky mix of East and West that you get in an India yoga community.”
Wilkins was also fascinated by the guru system and went to Mysore without any guarantees of being allowed to film Jois. “As a foreigner, the whole gury system seems strange. It’s such an intense thing and I felt there were so many things to ask him about”.
Luckily, a string of well-placed contacts meant that having access to Jois, and finding permission to film in the school – or yoga shala – didn’t present a problem.
And how was Jois to talk to? “He was great – a really interesting person to interview. He didn’t tolerate silly questions, though”, Wilkins says with a smile, and admits he did find him slightly intimidating.
Filming the devoted
As well as footage of Jois and his grandson, Wilkins’ documentary includes interviews with yogi travellers, devoted students who take their study of the ashtanga form to an extreme, attempting to elevate it to a kind of artform.
“For the dedicated, yearly trips to Mysore are a must”, Wilkins says. “They come to learn that yoga extends beyond the system of the postures or asanas which most of us associate it with.”
The film includes footage of the daily yoga class at the yoga shala – or the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute – led by Jois. Rows and rows of students (mainly Westerners) are shown taking their daily early morning class, held between 5 and 8am; their bodies contorted into astonishingly bendy positions and drenched in sweat.
Judging by the standard of practice shown in the film, the classes are hardly ideal for the easily intimated. But Wilkins insists Mysore is an easy place to be. Although the city only has a population of around one million, the yoga industry here is huge and there’s a big, transient population of Westerners.
“I almost found it too easy when I got there”, says Wilkins. “Somehow I wanted it to be more Indian.”
The Western influence
So did he feel that the constant influx of Westerners had spoiled Mysore in any way? “No, generally most people were being respectful of Indian life and Indian people and were really interested in the culture. Some were even learning Sanskrit during the day, or learning about Ayurvedic medicine.”
Wilkins adds that he didn’t identify with the suggestion in Lucy Edge’s recent book, Yoga School Dropout, that some Westerners’ motivation for coming to India was superficial. There were people who seemed lost, he says, but mostly, West interest in all-things Indian seemed altogether genuine.
Wilkins’ admits that one of the challenges of the film-making process was to turn a simple story – where there is no high drama, or romance – into an engaging one. As a regular filmmaker for the BBC, he is used to tackling an assignment with a strong storyline, or angle – something this mission didn’t have.
He says: “It takes a long time for people to change through yoga, and it’s hard to get that process across in film. People are human, and there was competitiveness out there – but there wasn’t much drama, so the challenge was to make it interesting.”
It’s true that there’s no high drama in the film - but this is not the point of Guru. But the simple, documentary-like format of the footage, the interviews with the yoga students, the insight into Jois’ life and the evocative sights and smells of India tell their own story.
So what’s next for Wilkins? Guru was entirely self-funded and a significant departure to anything he’d worked on before. But he admits the experience has given him a taste for another India-related adventure and the idea of a film on Buddhism is one option.
But for now, the success of Guru is clearly still taking up a lot of his time: a third and final public screening of the film is scheduled for July 27 at London’s Nehru centre. The Indian press will come, he says, along with a predominantly Indian crowd.
It’s an event Wilkins is looking forward to. “On balance I think the Indian community is pleased when the West adopts Indian ways”, he smiles. With that, we swallow the last of our mint tea and melt into the hubbub of the East End streets.
The DVD of Guru, priced at £12 plus postage, can be ordered online at www.guruthemovie.com
Wilkins practises at www.astangayogalondon.com
Pictures - source: Robert Wilkins. The top picture is of Pattabhi Jois; the other is of an ashtanga yoga class taken at the yoga centre in Mysore, India.