Movie review From a Yoga Perspective


These sometimes rare or hard to find movies are well worth the search.  Sit back, butter that popcorn and enjoy multidimensional cinema that will impact your body, mind and spirit.

Movie Reviews from a Yoga Perspective by Jeff Martens

21 Grams: A profoundly gritty movie which rubs your nose in the clay of life. Just when you’re about to say “uncle” you’re hit with an ending that grows more redemptive and inspiring the more you reflect. Incredible acting with real characters that touch on the idea of life’s journey and purpose within the wheel of karma. Challenges you to look beyond your judgements of people to see the humanity beneath the surface of all beigns. Drama.

Baraka: In chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna or the Lord incarnate reveals Himself to the warrior Arjuna in all of His terrifyingly resplendent, exquisite glory. Baraka is a tour de force of experiencing that same Divine presence, taking us continent hopping to drink in vivid images of humanity and nature to the sounds of soul-drenched music from such sources as Dead Can Dance and Tibetan Buddhist chants (the film is entirely without dialogue). This combination of sight and sound carries you effortlessly from Times Square to funeral pyres on the Ganges to Snow Monkeys bathing contentedly in natural hot springs. As Krishna did for Arjuna, Baraka offers a God’s eye view of the large and the small, frightening and revelatory in this incredible universe inspiring a state of profound peace and wonder long after the last credits roll. As much a meditation as a movie, you are left to make your own interpretations after experiencing the breath of God.

Beauty and the Beast: “There must be more than this provincial life!” Join Belle as she searches for love and truth behind the mask of appearance, turning society’s values upside down and teaching the true value of living a life with purpose and love. An absolute masterpiece in film and animation. Watch the opening musical number for a great screenwriting lesson on exposition. Disney – All ages.

Being There: This Peter Sellers Film is a briliant comedic protrayal of simplicity, Innocence and cynical influerence. The title character, a simple-minded gardener named Chance, has never been outside the estate of his wealthy employer. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced into the world with only his knowledge of television programs and commercials to help him relate to the real world. Part comedy and part scathing social commentary, this film also portrays the perseverence and hilarious triumph of simple innocence in the face of manipulation and opportunism, wondefully illustrating the spirittual teaching “When you are at peace with yourself, all is well even if the world is in chaos”. Also starring Shirley McClaine. (1979-Black Comedy)

Billy Elliot: How do you know when you are following your dharma? When your little self disappears, when the energy, and the surety of your path, flow through you . . . like electricity. “Like electricity” are Billy Elliot’s words to describe how he feels when he is dancing in this story about a working class English boy who discovers his love and gift for ballet. The son of a widowed coal miner, Billy has a tough road to travel, but he is sure of his path. This is a sometimes gritty (a parallel theme is a miners strike), sometimes warm, film about perseverance, love, faith, and the joy of movement. It has plenty to offer people not especially interested in ballet, and the dance scenes are a special treat (it was supported by the British Arts Council). reviewed by Michelle Hegmon

The Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)
This exceptional story is adapted from a novel originally written by C.S. Lewis, a friend and contemporary of JRR Tolkien. Perhaps the most powerful message in this film is the theme of sacrifice illustrating the yogic principles of Avidya (ignorance) and Kaivalyam (aloneness, freedom). All things in this world of opposites that live in ignorance of their true nature sow and reap certain causes and effects. But when True Innocence steps forward to illuminate another’s suffering, the dualistic system of good and evil (aka. Karma) begins to break down. Rooted in Christian theology, this teaching of sacrifice and resurrection and is more ancient then Christianity and indeed speaks to the universal teaching of the Christ within all of us. To manifest and radiate that Divine Christ (realized or enlightened state) essence and innocence within ourselves as our true identity obliterates duality’s hold on us and shatters the chains of suffering rooted in good and evil. Take note especially of what happens to the forms of conflict — the warriors of good and evil – after one side is eliminated to get a taste of why Kaivalyam or Ultimate Freedom is really supreme aloneness (NOT loneliness).

Cloud Atlas

Residual Afflictions give rise to root actions experienced as the self in present or future births. – Yoga Sutra 2.12

I thought for sure Tom Hanks was going to ruin this movie. Though he did wonderfully in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks’ “Gump-ishness” seemed too light a feather to be set in the wings of such an epic yarn.  Luckily he and all the other actors are perfectly placed in a film emphasizing multiple-life-paths over individual personalities as character arcs.

The Wachowski’s, creators of the Matrix trilogy, have been known to tackle some enormous thematic topics in their visually stunning and highly kinetic films. The scope of Cloud Atlas, their most recent film released October 26th, 2012, is one of the more ambitious in a long time for any movie… Spanning genders, generations and leaping through time and space on a terrestrial and other-worldly level, Cloud Atlas follows the life-threads of several characters that have gathered into a major grouping or clan (think: all on the same cosmic bus) through past associations and “karmic” interactions.  What is binding action?  How do we free ourselves of past actions?  What defines a soul or person?  How does a person really change and at what level does this change take place? These are just some of the questions explored through the actions of common and yet individual lives.

Though this movie noodles through these questions from a multi-narrative perspective framed by storytelling both written and verbal, the answers discovered are as nuanced and as ambiguous as the path of the clouds across the sky.  Despite this almost fuzzy meandering through a present defined by past actions, it is the characters surviving in what seem to be the most powerless lives that have the greatest opportunity to rise into a deeper purpose.  Exploring the clearest, most enduring traces of who they really are, these former victims take full advantage of defining their own potential using their current situation as a launching point to fuller consciousness. Somni 451, for example, is a slave of the future, genetically engineered to serve the “almighty consumer” in a life deemed as valueless as it is brief. And yet as a replicant “bred” for such a purpose and living in an environment reinforcing this world-view upon pain of death, she is unaware of her own plight until a series of events illustrates her own humanity to herself.  Mirroring another thread of outright slavery from the 1800s and more subtle subtexts of imprisonment and loss of freedom in other lives, Somni 451’s realization of her own plight and the dawning of comapassion for herself and others in her situation provides the spine of the movie’s greatest awakening to how we may use our circumstances to go beyond them.

“We are only what we know, and I wished to be so much more than I was, sorely.” – David Mitchell

Many characters seem to be a bit uni-dimensionally portrayed without the complexities of positive subtext or at lest a clear motivation. Even Smith in the matrix, a much spiritually deeper yarn, had his desire to be free.  A few characters in Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks’ portrayals included, have more nuanced life-threads that begin to touch on the complexity that makes human action liberating or binding. Slavery, greed and cruelty are balanced by the sheer depth of Love, and though such a love may not be fully realized on the screen what the movie lacks in complexity within a single character it more than makes up for in its scope and ambition. Remembering the character’s names and specific actions can be a bit difficult in such a sweeping epic, but that may be part of the point: individual lives matter only as much as they alter a person’s destiny and the direction of their karmic evolution. To glorify one life, condemn another or model a third would halt the wheel of karma and thereby hinder the turning of evolutionary action.

Like many of its seven main character life-threads, Cloud Atlas seems to reach a bit too far without fully grasping the true depths of what is sought.  And yet, how else does one at first comprehend the incomprehensible but by reaching? Like the movie these characters seem to stumble upon opportunities to choose a different course of action. These forks in the karmic road – the killing of an enemy here, the claiming credit for someone else’s work there – leave further impressions defining life-streams leading eventually, one might assume, into the final realization of oneness. Until then, like a lifetime or three, this film is to be experienced and will leave you with a ringing awareness that there are timelessly layered depths here within yourself that have just begun to stir.

The Corpse Bride: A fun romp through the land of the living (populated by the nearly dead) and the realm of the dead (inhabited by the truly living), this film is a wonder of claymation expounding the virtues of love and decency even though most of the supporting characters keep finding delightfully creative ways to display their innards. As a bonus, Tim Burton (in his best work by far) touches on true spiritual freedom when the film’s title character transcends both worlds in a breathtaking lunar scene of ultimate transformation. Go have a blast and see this movie. All ages, One brief intense scene of the dead getting some revenge from the film’s baddie offscreen.

Crash: An amazingly enlightening film revealing the terrible beauty within every human being. This film follows the events of several key characters – a racist cop, a Chicano locksmith, a District Attorney’s wife, a carjacker and others – as their lives are upended and then turned back head over heels into a fullness formerly impossible to imagine. No character is spared on this journey which forces us beyond initial judgments of villain and hero into a revelation of the profound humanity shared by us all. The street scene with the locksmith’s daughter and the shop owner and the car rescue with the policeman and the director’s wife are two of the most powerful moments committed to film in many years.

Dalai Lama Renaissance: If you put 1000 spiritual intellectuals in a room with 1000 typewriters, would one of them eventually type up the script for world peace? Not according to Dalai Lama Renaissance, a documentary about educational, scientific and spiritual luminaries invited to Dharamsala, India for a summit about the world’s problems with the Dalai Lama. Since we can only share what we authentically are, it takes a while for the invited guests to actually discover that up to a certain point they have only been sharing their own selfishness and arrogance. At first, many at the summit seem more concerned with being seen by the Dalai Lama or receiving his blessing for themselves or a relative than actually making any progress on the topic at hand. Ultimately this film deeply exemplifies Gandhi’s saying to change yourself to how you want the world to change.
There is a fable about the trickster Mulla Nasrudin. When he was a young man he prayed to God to help him change the world. In his middle age Nasrudin prayed for the guidance to change his family. As an old man, Nasrudin pleaded for the strength to change himself. Ultimately the message in this film is one of inner change. The only world that finally begins to shift in this documentary is the world of one’s own creation. It becomes readily apparent that this is the shift from which all external change begins to occur and without which external miracles will remain just that, external – and unreachable – miracles.

The Dark Crystal: On a mythical planet, a dark crystal is shattered and the missing shard holds the key to mystical balance. As the fate of th eworld teeters on the edge of chaos, our Gelfling muppet hero must save the day by finding the shard, facing down evil and healing the rift of opposites into a unified balance before all is lost to darkness. No Kermit or Miss Piggy here, just amazingly conceived, well-rounded characters. A profound and fun masterpiece that transcends its muppet characters to become more real and true than many live-action movies in multiplexes today. All ages

Ghandi: Ben Kingsley channels the most amazing popular example of ahimsa in the 20th century. The power of non-violence as a means for personal and social change are held up as a brilliant mirror in a film that is moving and intensely intimate. This movie will redefine your idea of what it means to be a warrior.

Groundhog Day: Who has NOT seen this movie?  See it again!  Samskara (Habitual identity) comes from the Sanskrit roots (sam=same, to join; kri = action, to do) that taken together can literally be interpreted as “identifying with your actions”. In this movie Bill Murray embarks on a funny and poignant repetition of habitual unconscious living. Forced to repeat the same day over and over again he explores all options (from hedonism to suicide) to try and escape his own inner miserableness until finally, realization and wisdom enters as he loses his identification with his doomed little self and discovers self-less action. A great film to study how habit takes root (identification with the mind/ego) and view how habit is transcened from a yoga perspective.

Happy Feet: In yoga (and Buddhism) there is a word often associated with Karma that means “the righteous path” — life’s path or purpose. The word is “Dharma” and it comes from the Sanskrit root “dhri” which means to uplift or uphold. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that there are two types of dharma: the first is sva-dharma, or self-dharma. This is related to the discovery, cultivation and expression of your unique talents and abilities in life. Which brings us to a little Emperor penguin named Mumble. It seems Mumble is in dire straits because he was born without a ‘heartsong’, a unique song for expressing his essence that will allow him to find true love. When Mumble tries to sing, however, it sounds like a seagull caught in a vacuum cleaner. Not to worry though, because man can this penguin dance! Never seeing a heart “song” expressed in such a way, Mumble is banished from the Emperor society and sets off into the archetypal wilderness where his auspicious talent serves as a vehicle to an even higher calling. Beautiful to look at and often funny, Mumble’s journey brings us to the second type of dharma – “Sat Dharma”. This is your True or highest calling — to know your Divine self. And in a way this is what Mumble does, uniting not only his homeland but a whole ‘nother species, revealing the interconnection of all life just by expressing the unstoppable rhythm of joy that lives in his own heart.

Harold and Maude: Have you lost all reason and purpose for living? Try this alternately Zen and Tantric view of the Universe as Maude the elder Guru leads her surprisingly apt teen pupil Harold in the art of living with humor, grace and fun. Great soundtrack by Cat Stevens accompanies this most unusual film, a love story that transcends stereotypes to embrace the very fabric of life itself. Black Comedy.

Henry Poole is Here
As a man thinketh in his heart, so shall he become. Proverbs 23:7
“Man is made of Faith. As his faith is, so is he.” Bhagavad Gita, 17.3
“Our life is the creation of the mind.” Buddha, Dhammapada, Chapter 1
“…Faith, committed energy, awareness gained from past actions, and knowledge of integration form the path of realization.” –Yoga Sutra 1.20

Faith is often found by those who have reached the end of life as they know it. Enter Henry Poole, a man facing this prospect in a less-than-storybook manner. Add in one nosy coke-bottle-lensed checkout girl, a stereotypically religious spanish speaking neighbor old enough to be his grandmother, and an emotionally mute little girl who tapes his voice from next door and you have the recipe for a miserable bon-voyage party. It takes a bit of stained stucco on the side of his newly purchased home for Mr. Poole to actually begin to see these people as multidimensional human beings who eventually add a richness to his life that he would have hardly given credit to exist while drowning in his own little pool of self-pity. Their faith leads to miracles in healing and openness, plunging Henry Poole deeper into his own depression until he literally strikes through the mask of his own misery. Demonstrating the words of Masters and great spiritual teachings, Mr. Poole and everyone in this movie sees what they are open to see. This faith is what defines us, and ultimately it is a higher faith in ourselves and each other that offers each one of us the opportunity to live our life anew.

House of Cards: Brilliant meshing of Spirituality and archetypes in a story about a family recovering from emotional trauma and a child’s acute autism. Great if you need a boost to follow your inner guidance in the face of overwhelming negativity or popular condemnation. Hard to find as a rental, but well worth the effort! Stars Kathleen Turner and Tommy Lee Jones. Drama, 1993.

I Love Huckabees: A spiritual/intellectual detective story leading to the discovery of Self in all things, I Love Huckabees is an exploration of ego in action, caught up in the tension between aggravation and ecstasy. The lead character, Albert Markovski, seeks out two existential investigators (Lilly Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) for help finding the significance of a coincidental meeting. What results is a highly intellectual, funny and emotional quest to experience the meaning of life. This film provides a brilliantly honest illustration of how the mind works through judgement, repetition, and ego-building to keep us clinging to suffering and the little self. In Yoga, to go beyond the little self and experience the bliss of integration and union is Samadhi (from the verb root dha = “to hold” + prefixes a + sam = together completely). In Buddhism freedom is described as a state of no-thing-ness or Nirvana (literally “extinction” from the root va = to blow + nir = out). When it comes to spiritual Truth, this creative film illustrates how the mind keeps us stuck by mistakenly projecting Nirvana as nihilism/negativity and One-ness (big picture integration, Samadhi) as anti-individual. Luckily Truth is beyond Mind — as countless Masters tell us, whether you are “All That” or “Not This”, the end result is the same. The film’s ending may feel less-than-revelatory (unless you have experienced a similar event in your own life), but if they ever make a movie starting where this one leaves off, get ready for unexplored territory.

Jet Li’s Fearless: In this, Jet Li’s supposedly final martial arts film, we are treated to the arc of Huo Yuanja’s heroic journey, a true historic figure who lived to compete in the early 1900s/ His desire to conquer and be the best takes him from from revenge through arrogance to realization. Yuanja (Lee) represents turn-of-the century China in a fight bringing honor and virtue to his country by utilizing the tenets of ahimsa (non-violence) in his – gasp! – violence. Fearless is a joyful celebration of a film about what it means to truly see with one’s heart, transcend past suffering and have the ultimate victory over one’s self and therefore one’s enemies. It is also a study of desire for power and its conscious evolution into the sublime recognition that what is good for the all is best for the one – even if it is framed in a bit of Chinese nationalism and proverbial cliche’. The ending may feel a bit tacked on to give a good hollywood feel, but it is also a confirmation of truly seeing with one’s heart as represented by the film’s other (unsung) Master, Yueci: a blind village woman who teaches Yuanja how to Love and live again. As a study on the nature of desire, watch for the “Greek Chorus” crazy rag-man beggar character asking Yuanja when he will become champion – then check out how this question changes as Yuanja does.

The Legend of Bagger Vance: Matt Damon and Will Smith work remarkably well together in this movie about golf… and the Bhagavad Gita – one of the world’s most sacred texts! This unlikely pairing of subjects creates a wonderful metaphor for finding freedom and inspiration when life has been buried in an early grave of despair. Will Smith (Bagger Vance) plays Krisna to Damon’s Arjuna, encouraging him to meditative states (“Stop thinking without falling asleep…”) in order to let go of the past, “Be one with the field” (Dhamma, truth) and reconnect with the divine play of life. Your non-yoga significant other will love it and receive a stealth-injection of spiritual insight along the way.

Little Buddha: Watch the scene of Buddha’s enlightenment. You will be so inspired to meditate that it will be effortless, at least for the first few days. 🙂

The Matrix: The first and best… Yeah, I know, who hasn’t watched this movie? But if you can see through the violence you’ll find some amazing spiritual truths posted in a hollywood big-time movie. Check out the choice between two pills scene, the description of the Matrix to “Neo” (Reeves) and the idea of “waking up” to reality. Such weighty topics as fate and free will, true freedom, responsibility and spiriual ignorance are addressed. Plus — admit it — you gotta like the kung-fu scenes.

The Matrix, Part 3 – Revolutions: As the closing credits roll in part three of the Matrix (titled Revolutions), the ancient Upanisad Chant “Om Asatoma” pounds through the speakers in a pulsing mix of ultra-mod techno and Sanskrit. The words to this chant translate as: Take us from the false to the true, from darkness to light, from death to eternal life. In this third and final installment of the Matrix series, the Revolutions of Karma stop here. Missed by critics and movie-goers alike, the words from this chant are truly what all three of the Matrix movies are about. Watch the trilogy with this awareness and see a movie that dares to reach for the highest theme imaginable. Perfect in its imperfections, Matrix Revolutions digs for the pearl of Self-realization buried deep in the silt of Maya. Science Fiction.

Nell: Released in 1994, the film stars Jodie Foster as Nell, a young woman or “Wild Child” raised in the woods by a mother who had a stroke. Nell’s only other human companion growing up was a twin sister who died in childhood. Speaking her own unique language based on childhood communication and knowing nothing of the outside world, she is forced to begin bridging this gap when her mother dies and two competing forces begin to vie for her future: Doctor Jerry Lovell (Liam Neeson) works to try and understand her and believes she is capable of living her own life how she wants to. Another psychologist represents interests that would like to institutionalize and study Nell “for her own protection”. What follows is a beautiful down-to-earth meditation on what it means to listen and the nature of love and loneliness. This film is a journey through the vally of isolation showing us a way to discover the richness of our interconnectedness and shared joys.

Princess Manonoke: “See what you can see with eyes unclouded by hate.” An animal-god turned demon attacks a peaceful village and is slain by Ashitaka, a young but spiritually advanced warrior who sets out on a journey to heal the hatred that was brought into his village, body and life. On the journey he encounters a war between man and nature and discovers his ultimate fate: to live in peace or die ruled by hatred and revenge. Going beyond duality, this film is a Buddhist meditation on what hate can do and the power of love and non-judgment to heal all life and the planet. If you are interested in keeping enemies in your life, this film will seem baffling at first. For precocious kids 8 and up, teens and adults. Two or Three very brief scenes of non-gratuitous but graphic violence

Sliding Doors: Do you think you know what is Good for you? What is bad for you, really? This movie brilliantly taps the themes of fate and action, ultimately encouraging the idea of trust or Ishvarapranidana in a world that can often seem beyond our control. A great illustration of the folly of labeling the events in our lives in order to truly experience the present moment. Drama/Romantic Comedy.

Super Size Me: Aparigraha freedom from greed is one of the Yamas, the self restraints and ethical principles that constitute the first limb of Yoga. Many translations and discussions of aparigraha talk about its spiritual and social significance. Super Size Me is about the importance of aparigraha at the more immediate level of physical health. As everyone probably already knows, this entertaining but also sobering movie documents what happens when Morgan Spurlock, a healthy young man, decides to eat nothing but McDonalds, three meals a day, for 30 days. Not only does he gain 25 pounds, it literally almost kills him. His health, especially the state of his liver, deteriorates so badly that his doctors urge him to stop, and warn him to be prepared to rush to the emergency room if his symptoms become any worse. Morgan says that after just three days he felt terrible, with headaches, depression, and shortness of breath. But he continued the experiment, partly because he was determined, but also because he felt better while he was eating. The movie is much more than just a warning against fast food; it also explores the forces ranging to the addictive powers of some foods to marketing strategies that make it seem so attractive. Whatever your attitude love fast food or despise it this movie is worth seeing. Reviewed by Michelle Hegmon

Solaris: How does the mind bind us to the past? Why do some Masters call this world Maya or illusory? When a psychologist of the future visits a space station cut off from all outside communication, he unwittingly discovers the mind’s propensity to manufacture guilt, pride and regret which warp our perceptions and keep us isolated in a world of right and wrong. A science fiction on the surface, this 2002 film starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone gives a profound contemplation on the nature of a self-identity defined by a past as malleable as any imagined future and the ultimate desire to be free of the past or future in a state where “…death has no dominion”. The more the future psychologist’s mind tries to gain knowledge and figure things out, the deeper he moves away from Love and reality as it actually happens, demonstrating, perhaps, that In the end, “There are no answers, only choices.”

Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…Spring!

Less a conventional movie and more of a meditation or a sutra on the circle of life, Spring, Summer… gives the observer the feeling of being at the center of life’s wheel as the world spins irrevocably around, sometimes beautifully, sometimes chaotically, but always ripe and rich with the nectar of experience. Beautifully fimed in Korea, the main setting is a floating house at the center of a high-mountain lake where the view out the door changes not only with the seasons but also with the lake’s current. This “center of the wheel” perspective provides the perfect platform for the growth and evolution of a young boy and his granfatherly Buddhist teacher/master in five distinct phases of life as each character is consumed by their own passions and beliefs which contributes to the idea of an individual fate and shared destiny.

Stranger than Fiction
What if you were a character in a book? Would it be possible to change your predetermined ending? How would you get the author to notice you and give you choice instead of literally writing you off? Can the created become the Creator, thereby mimicking the author’s creativity? This film is about living an inspired life that is also inspiring enough to catch the attention of the One who writes the story. A brilliant contemplation on the unwritten path of Free Will and the pre-destiny of Fate, this movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson and a subdued Will Farrel shows how freedom is waiting just one big leap of faith beyond the comfortably deadening footsteps of habit.

Unknown White Male

This “true-story” documentary follows David (Bruce) through a rare (ie unheard of) case of memory loss that may or may not ultimately be true. What’s definitely true is the issues the film raises about identity, personality and the concept of self. As Bruce revisits his “first” snowfall, old friends, immediate family, his home city of NY and, the ocean, we experience with him a strange mixture of wonder, detachment and an odd sense of emptiness. While the film barely glances over some more profound revelations possible from such a rare state of memory loss (for example: did any of his habits remain after the amnesia event? Did any physical or emotional tics or reflexive reactions persevere?), yoga practitioners and those interested in the dichotomy of Self and self will recognize the initially terrifying and somewhat euphoric dance of a mind liberated from past association. This is the dance we can all experience when we free ourselves to rediscover each moment for what it is: truly new.

What the #$*! (bleep) Do We Know?

In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, the word “anu” means “elementary particle” or “that which cannot be divided any further”, i.e. the individual “atom” where all becomes one. Patanjali spoke about individual perception in the Yoga Sutra, a teaching beautifully summarized in sutra 4.15: Same object, different consciousness, separate path. So what do the atom and individual perception have to do with each other? Fast forward 2500 years or so to the study of quantum physics. This resonant, sometimes hilarious and always mind-altering film uses leading scientist, university professors and spiritual teachers to explore the Quantum Physics of Enlightenment as a Holy Grail bridging spiritual mysticism and 21st century science. It is a phenomenal accomplishment that dares to dive deep into the very heart of unity and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the “elementary particle” within all things seen and unseen.