You Won't Believe Where Yoga Gets Us! Filmmaker Mira Nair on Iyengar Yoga, a Cornerstone of Her Craft

Richard Jonas

For acclaimed director Mira Nair, Iyengar Yoga is more than a personal practice. "It's a cornerstone of my professional life," she declares.

Creator of such lush, evocative films as Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, and The Namesake, Nair credits Iyengar Yoga as a font of her creativity.

"The practice teaches you the art of resistance and the art of surrender," she says. "If you can't approach an asana in one way, you try to approach it in another. Every time you get a new teacher and every time you hear a new direction–even with a pose as common as Trikonasana, something you think you know–suddenly an instruction opens a new door and the pose comes in a different way. Yoga quietly reminds you that learning never ceases.

"That is a big lesson in any creative work, but especially in making films. You have to really glean and get from your actors and your crews the best they can do, the work that suits your vision. You can't demand, you can't holler, you can't force. Every single person is a finely tuned instrument, and you have to find the way to make that instrument play for you. Yoga has taught me: if you don't find one way, you find another."

Yoga has even influenced the rhythm of her films, Nair says.

"Once I am keyed into the rigor of yoga, to the spine and core of it, it allows me a much greater looseness in other ways–but without the rigor, the looseness is nothing. And that interrelation between rigor and looseness is what creates rhythm.

"I think my films are very economical and visual," she says. "But I am always working to find the balance, paring down something so that it can then be further amplified. Iyengar Yoga is a lot like that. It's so much about the foundation. When you are at home with the foundation, you can experience the ecstasy."

Her discovery of Iyengar Yoga was a transformative moment, Nair remembers. In her native India, she practiced yoga irregularly from the age of seventeen. "I first taught myself through a book of 24 positions," she explains. Later, she practiced the Sivananda method.

Later still, she moved to Cape Town, South Africa. "I was being a good wife to my husband, who was director of African Studies at the University of Cape Town," she remembers. "I had heard of a great [Iyengar Yoga] teacher called David Jacobs. He was slightly mythic: he was supposed to be really rigorous and strict. It took me six months to get up the nerve to go.

"Once I found David, I just felt that the rigor of Iyengar Yoga was the thing for me. That pretty much changed my life. Since then [1996], I've been singularly devoted to Iyengar Yoga, and have made it a part of my professional life as well."

In fact, Nair has had Iyengar Yoga teachers conduct classes on the sets of each of her films since Monsoon Wedding. The teachers' names appear in the final credits, along with hairdressers, accountants, and location managers.

From the beginning, her teacher from Bombay, Ashwini Parulkar, taught on Nair's sets, and continues to do so. Others who have worked on Nair's sets include Jacobs, Intermediate Junior III; Megan Inglesent, Intermediate Junior II, of the United Kingdom; Yvonne De Kock, Intermediate Junior III, of New York City and South Africa; and James Murphy, Intermediate Senior I, Director of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York.

Cast and crew complete a full hour-long practice before the morning call to begin shooting. "Obviously it's voluntary," Nair says. "But 15 or 20 diehard people come every day. Often they're the same people from film to film; people love to work on my films because they know they'll get the yoga.

"Many of them are transformed by the practice, and they continue with yoga after the shoot is over."

The group practice creates a special bond between the cast and crew, according to Nair. "It removes ego. You get a sense of working as a real unit. When the movie star's bum is up in the air in front of you, you realize: It doesn't matter who you are.

"It's the same energy you get from the group in a yoga class. There's no hierarchy in a yoga class, and that's very beautiful. That's the atmosphere I like to create on a movie set."

Nair recalls being on the English set of Vanity Fair: "We were shooting for weeks and weeks in a mansion, and we converted what had been Lady's Windemere's bedroom into the yoga room." Some crew members were too busy readying the elaborate period costumes and hairstyles to attend the early-morning yoga sessions, so "after James [Murphy] would teach us in the morning, he would teach again during lunch and throughout the day, so the people from the departments that couldn't make it in the morning could get in a practice. And the main crew would come back for restorative yoga almost every night."

On the recent set of Amelia, starring Hilary Swank as the aviatrix Amelia Earhart, Nair called on Murphy's skills as a choreographer. "Mira was filming what she called the 'commodification montage,'" he recalls. "Amelia Earhart was one of the first celebrities to endorse all sorts of products–Kodak, a line of luggage, clothing, even a waffle iron–to fund her flights. Mira wanted to convey that idea in a quick 'snapshot.' Inspired by what we'd done for the yoga presentation during Guruji's visit [to the United States in 2005], we joked about having people doing Sirsasana and Sarvangasana on the wings of a plane.

"I flew up to the set in Toronto for auditions. I saw hundreds of talented girls, but no one had the Iyengar training required to hold the inversions for the hours it took to film. We had a very tight schedule–one day to rehearse and one day to shoot! It became a yoga practice for me: I had to focus, concentrate, and solve the problems in front of me. I also had to practice nonattachment as I knew most of what I came up with would probably not be used." Still the montage came together. "Mira's vision was captured and made it into the final film. It's a wonderfully lively, bubbly moment," Murphy says.

"Like Amelia," he recounts, "Mira is an incredibly independent and strong woman,
pushing forward to achieve her goals no matter what obstacles lie in her path. Working around her has always been an inspiration, and this time I had the privilege of being part of the creative process."

On the wintry Brooklyn set of The Namesake, the cast shot in a bar location; bar and barstools became makeshift props. "One day the guy who was supposed to unlock the yoga room didn't show up," Murphy remembers, "so we did yoga on the street, with our shoes and coats on."

He went in front of the camera himself as an extra in Vanity Fair. "Mira put me in a wig and costume to play a gambler in a scene in a seedy casino. I was in the background, behind Reese [Witherspoon]. Mira said, 'Camp it up,' so I started camping it up, but I was moving so much it was distracting from Reese, so Mira said, 'Tone it down!' It was a real privilege, being right next to her director's chair, seeing how it all came together," he recalls. Later, the film had one of its premieres as a benefit for the New York Iyengar Yoga association. "Mira has shown her generosity of spirit again and again in supporting our mission," Murphy says. "We're so grateful."

"Mira always manages to make time for yoga," says De Kock, another of the on-set teachers, "and does not have the expectation that yoga will make time for her!" During her time on the set of Hysterical Blindness, De Kock remembers, "We did yoga in some very strange locations"–one was a church–"but to Mira, yoga is an integrated life practice, and she just gets on with it."

The director has "an inner glow that touches everything around her," De Kock says. "It's beautiful to watch how, when she is in Sirsasana, she becomes a still point which is very settling to all around her. Even her sense of humor is creative, out of the ordinary."

The independent filmmaker earned acclaim with her first feature, Salaam Bombay!, nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film of 1989. Subsequent films include Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington, The Perez Family, Kama Sutra, Hysterical Blindness, Monsoon Wedding, one of the top-grossing foreign films of all time, and The Namesake. Her latest film, Amelia, co-starring Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor, was released in October 2009.

Although she describes her home practice as "a bit undisciplined"–"I'm spoiled by all you teachers! I only like to come to class," she says–her yoga is not. When in New York, Nair attends class three times a week at the Iyengar Yoga Institute, "Monday, Thursday, and Saturday with James. And on the road, I have Iyengar Yoga teachers everywhere! In every major country I have identified and created friendships with Iyengar teachers. Never a week goes by without my practicing, but I am not good at doing it alone. I do it, but not deeply, not regularly enough."

Nair made a brief visit to RIMYI in Pune, taking a class with Prashant Iyengar and visiting with Guruji.

Earlier, in 2005, she interviewed Guruji during one of his triumphal Light on Life appearances. "That was one of greatest honors I have ever received, to be asked to converse with Guruji," she says of the event at New York's City Centre. "I remember feeling like I had to be deeply prepared. I read Light on Life, of course, very very carefully. I met with him the night before for dinner. I told him, 'Guruji, one condition only, that you won't make me demonstrate anything in front of 3000 people.' Then he laughed his beautiful cascade of laughter.

"I think it was our beloved Mary Dunn's idea," Nair recalls, "that it would be a great opportunity to have all 3000 of us taught by Guruji, even for just the Om." At her request, Guruji instructed the audience in sitting and chanting, and hundreds who would never have had the chance to study with B.K.S. Iyengar shared an unforgettable moment.

Recently, Nair had a reminder of just how remarkable the evening was, and how much it meant to Iyengar Yoga devotees.

"It was the funniest thing," she remembers. "I was in London last week, and some friend of mine walked me into a really fancy, overcrowded restaurant. They showed us to a terrible table and my friend took the maitre d' aside. I could see them talking, my friend was trying to convince him. The maitre d' turned around and asked, 'Is that Mira Nair? I saw her interview B.K.S. Iyengar in New York!'

"Forget my movies! It was because of that interview that he gave us the best table in the place. We had the best meal and he kept sending special dishes over to our table from the chef all night!

"I was just telling James [Murphy], 'You won't believe where yoga gets us!'"

Nair is the founder of the Salaam Baalak Trust (baalak means "child"), a foundation with 25 centers providing a safe and nurturing environment for street children all over India. Funded with profits from Salaam Bombay!, her first film, the organization (www.salaambaalaktrust.com) is led by chairperson Praveen Nair, a social worker and Nair's mother.
Nair also founded Maisha, an annual filmmakers' laboratory based in Kampala, Uganda, which supports emerging filmmakers in East Africa.

Richard Jonas, certified at the Introductory level, is a faculty member at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Greater New York. He is also a writer and Vice President of the IYNAUS Board of Directors.

Photo courtesy of Mira Nair