The cinematic tradition of the documentary is one of my absolute favorites within the world of film. As a film lover and cinephile, I find I come back to this genre of film-making more so than any other because it really doesn’t have many boundaries. Everything from the shortest YouTube video to the longest 10-hour visual to even the special features on your Blu-Rays can be condensed into the style. Its only requirements are that it documents —as the genre name indicates— what is real while bringing relevant and poignant insight to the table.
With the advent of modern social media and the internet, documentaries (just like every other film style out there) have never been more readily accessible to the people, and so it’s easy to find one out there that tickles a yogi’s fancy. Here then are 8 of my personal favorite documentaries I recommend for yogis and meditation/mindfulness practitioners to enjoy.
1. “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” (2012)
Activism and mindfulness are two concepts that can very often go hand in hand with each other. When we take on a practice of daily mindfulness, we begin to notice and see more of the problems in both our personal lives and the lives of everyone around us. A sense of mindful activism requires us to notice and expose these problems and sometimes put ourselves on the line to transform the world. There are plenty of brilliant documentaries out there about this kind of attentive action, but ‘We Are Legion’ is my personal favorite because it comes from such a different and unique place.
It sheds light on the decentralized hacktivist collective known as Anonymous (aka the people in Guy Fawkes mask all over the interwebs), which sprang from some of the stranger places of the Internet, the imageboard site 4Chan. In the early 2000s, this group became a true force to be reckoned in instigating powerful change across the online world. ‘We Are Legion’ taps into that history in a fascinating and quirky little piece that brings to light how conscious online activism can play a larger role in the coming world in conjunction with real-world solidarity.
At the same time though, the film doesn’t make blatant judgements on whether such activism is necessarily good or bad. Some of the events described in the film are morally multifaceted, to say the least, and the legacy of the group is certainly not a clean one. But the point it makes is that people in perhaps one of the strangest places imaginable began to hold others accountable for their actions in the way they knew how. In the end, it leaves it up to you to determine whether or not it appeals to your mindful sense of justice or not. Not many films really tackle that kind of activism with such a modern and interestingly odd tone; this makes ‘We Are Legion’ stand out as a mindful lesson on activism in a technology-based society.
2. The Qatsi Trilogy (1982 – 2002)
This trilogy of films created by Godfrey Reggio represents meditations on the natural world in its simplest and purest form. Framed by and named after three Hopi words “Koyaanisqatsi” (Life out of Balance), “Powaqqatsi” (Life in Transition), and “Naqoyqatsi” (Life as War), each film in the Qatsi trilogy is a subtle but powerful experience.
Each piece uses different film-making techniques such as time-lapse photography, montage, digital manipulation, and unusual camera movement in conveying their specific message. While Koyaanisqatsi is the most widely known of the trilogy and perhaps the best in tone and language, both Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi have their moments of power and all three are gorgeous, triggering immense emotional responses out of you as you watch life literally pass you by.
They each contain no auditory dialogue beyond their opening statements and engulf you in their shocking and poignant visual language, often times taking you far beyond what any words can convey. Granted, they are far beyond the conventional in every sense of the word and not something any moviegoer would tend to seek out. But each one remains a strong visual reminder of the need for both individual and worldly balance in times of transition and advancement but also exploitation and destruction. They are mindful reminders of the delicacy of our world and the sometimes destructive culture we are building around ourselves in the process. For us wellness practitioners who often try to be in touch with this exact aspect of living, this trilogy is an absolute must-see.
3. “Room to Breathe” (2012)
A bit more direct and applicable compared to the other films on this list, “Room to Breathe” is an informative case study that tackles the subject of mindfulness in the classroom, focusing on the impact of a mindful program implemented in a San Francisco middle school classroom. Not only does it makes me grateful that I’m not at that age anymore in such a hard, modern environment, but glad that such a need is starting to be recognized at schools throughout the United States. It’s one of those films that puts you on a journey and gets you to care about its subjects, struggling in ways many of us as adults never had to deal with.
The children are in a constant state of anxiety, distress, and movement they are unable to control while the teachers and adults around them work to find a way to help them learn and succeed. When things do finally take off with guide Megan Cohan arriving to lead a few weeks of brief sessions of mindfulness and meditation, everything begins to change. Hearing each of these students talk about how helpful these techniques are is really heart-warming. Watching them slowly but steadily find a way into control of whatever they have a hard time with is incredibly moving.
“Room to Breathe” is a very inspiring piece that shows exactly how powerful these techniques can be in any time and place even; in fact, even in the most riotous of school situations.
4. “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (2015)
The power of belief can be a truly powerful thing in one’s psyche. Belief in the right ideas can bring about tremendous good in the world whilst believing in something harmful or blatantly false can do intense harm both to ourselves and everyone around us. Nowhere has this been more clearly exemplified than in the church of Scientology, the subject of ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.’ First premiering at Sundance in Park City but later airing on TV and receiving multiple awards, this piece is a dark look into the history, mindset, and core beliefs behind one of the most esoteric groups ever to have gained prominence and attention. The film is very well made, and extremely powerful two hours regularly shock, amuse, and terrify you with its content.
When watched through the lens of meditation and mindfulness, what sticks out is how some of the techniques discussed in the film feel like an eerily twisted inverse of what a mindful lifestyle has to offer. It really emphasizes the importance of regularly examining yourself and your core beliefs in a world where anything can be twisted and turned towards a darker agenda. In that sense, it’s a film that I recommend not just to yogis but to everyone in general as a lesson on the power of belief and how beneficial and harmful it can be all at the same time.
5. “InnSaei: The Power of Intuition” (2016)
The Icelandic word “InnSaei” has several different meanings, each of which is interconnected. Translated, it means ‘The Sea Within,’ ‘To See Within,’ and ‘To See Inside Out.’ All of these form a great description of what’s covered in this documentary on the subject of the power of intuition and creativity. So much information is covered over the course of its runtime that I managed to get one of my best lesson plans for a mindfulness class simply by using the notes I took from watching it. It makes the case that the logical side of our brains is overwhelming us and in a constant state of stimulation with society’s focus on numbers and logic, suffocating and stifling the more creative and intuitive parts of ourselves.
Through the use of interviews, imagery, and fascinating scientific research, directors Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir and Kristín Ólafsdóttir take you on a thought-provoking and extremely powerful journey that reminds us of the internal consciousness that binds us all together. It also touches on how mindfulness and meditation play a role in garnering that intuition, how nature is ‘the silent witness of intuition,’ and how the destruction and desecration of the natural world is an outward symptom of how disconnected we are from ourselves. It’s a short but vibrant little documentary that has more to say in its shorter time than a lot of documentaries say with all of the time in the world and is well worth seeking out.
6. “I Am Maris” (2018)
One person. One journey. This is the basic premise behind “I Am Maris,” a very personal documentary centered on a young woman using yoga and other wellness techniques to recover from anorexia. It’s a short but very well made piece that understands and doesn’t make light of the hardship behind such a disorder. While the narration itself is a tad on the dry side at times, it’s hard not to feel the drama and passion behind the people showcased, especially Maris herself, an incredibly warm and vibrant subject to watch.
Her unique journey through YTT training is one that most yogis can relate to and the honesty with which the story is told is extremely inspiring.
The direction behind the film is also fantastic. Some of the touches and visualizations that director Laura Taylor uses from the animation of Maris’ drawings to the use of various yoga poses as introductory headers for each segment are brilliant and very powerful. All of this combined together make a film that’s hard to judge and critique simply because of the story itself and how honest and true to life it is compared to others. So both watched through the lens of intellectual film critic and yoga and meditation teacher, “I Am Maris” is short, sweet, and very special.
7. “Happy” (2011)
What does it mean to be happy? Is there a set formula for general happiness in one’s life, and if so, how does one get there? These are some of the questions that Roko Belic sets out to look at in “Happy,” and he does so in a fairly enjoyable manner. While it is more of a broad generalization and introduction rather than a specific and detailed analysis, it still works as a nice little feel-good documentary that touches on some deeper ideas and concepts from the most positive psychology class. There is a lot to be learned from this piece that contributes directly to how happy we are, some of which is obvious and some of which isn’t. Things such as the importance of variety, positive physical activity (*ahem* yoga *ahem*), and especially on the importance of flow with what you like to do all play a surprising role in being happy.
The piece also looks at the ways various people live and what governmental efforts are being made (or not) to ensure the happiness of the world and its inhabitants. It really gives you examples of what true and fulfilling happiness looks like and eventually brings your attention inward, inviting you to look at how you live day to day while not drilling ideas into your mind about what your life should be. Rather, it guides you with helpful thoughts and suggestions backed by science in a way that naturally motivates and brings you to mindfully push yourself in the right direction. It’s optimistic, informative, and surprisingly engaging with all of the trademarks of a great documentary. It leaves you with a big smile on your face.
8. “On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace” (2017)
‘Architecture of Peace’ is a very different sort of documentary than the one you might be expecting simply from the title. It isn’t really focused on the practice of yoga per se as much as one photographer’s path into the ancient and grounded roots of the yogic tradition. But within the beautiful images and conversations with the people of India, Tibet, and New York, this film really gets more into the essence and heart of what yoga is meant to be beyond the superficial modern meaning given to it in recent years. It’s a very personal and gorgeously filmed piece that really illustrates how much of a way of life yoga truly is and how intense of an effect it can have on us if we choose to pursue it.
Filmed in a slow and comfortable but very professional way, with gorgeous sound design and soundtrack, it uses its subject as a grounded base to take us on a long but very smooth ride that inspires, comforts, and enlightens in rapid succession. It goes far beyond the physical poses of the asanas and delves deep into the constant sense of re-discovery and search for meaning that yoga allows us to take. But as it looks at and frames the words of the gurus and the teachers as a sort of spiritual guidebook, it allows us to take those words and use them for our own reflections and journey.
This is a film that really does have the power to serve almost as an internal re-awakening to the practice for all those who choose to watch it and the all-encompassing nature of yoga beyond anything in the realm of religion or dogma is very much apparent here. This is one of the best documentaries focusing on yoga I’ve seen in a very long time and worth checking out, especially if you need a boost to get you back in the spirit of the practice.
So if you need a very real hit of yogic and mindful inspiration, check some of these pieces out in the course of your practice. Breathe, watch mindfully, and, most importantly, as always, enjoy!