The more I sit with Michael O’Neill's epic photography book, On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, the more I agree with Swami Chidananda’s opening words, “Through meditating on these images…we receive darshan (the sacred sight of the divine). Through these images we not only see but feel the divine.”
This striking book unfolds and reveals itself much like a meditation. It is a collection of images—moments, really—gathered over the last ten years that will also serve as a ledger to a unique window of time in the yoga world, a legacy of masters past and present. O'Neill has great stories and I was lucky to be able to ask him about the book’s creation and his own journey.
He will be doing a Q&A about On Yoga after a class taught by the mentees of these great yogis at Pure Yoga tomorrow (Tuesday, January 19th), from 7:30-9:00pm.
Miles Borrero:Can you tell us about the title of the book?
Michael O’Neill: It’s not as if I had a title and then tried to build a book around it. I knew it should be called On Yoga. That always felt right. And then I heard the phrase "architecture of peace" at a conference and it stuck with me. I like that architecture defines the science/technology of angles much like yoga defines the science/technology of peace. It was a continued journey of trying to express as an artist what I experienced from my impressions and observations. The editors liked it so we went with it.
MB: The book is divided into five sections: water, earth, fire, air, and spirit. Why did you decide to break it down this way?
MO: I didn’t want to break it down at all. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow. But the designer kept insisting that we should make it into smaller sections. I had taken so many workshops over the years with so many incredible teachers: high level kundalini classes, yoga therapy classes, etc. There was always so much dialogue about the elements, the mudras, and such. It was how I touched upon and saw yoga. And one day, I mentioned the elements, the editors loved the idea and they were the ones that figured out how to position the images in each element. It doesn’t seem to break down the flow.
MB: If anything I think it enhances it and gives it a nice direction. How did the idea of the book come about?
MO: As things go, some moments change your life. I had walked out of a yoga class years ago and bumped into my friend, Susan White, Photography Director at Vanity Fair, who also had a bit of a yoga practice going at the time. Noticing my mat, we began to talk about it. I asked if they wouldn’t be interested in featuring an article about it and she said, “Yes, and then a book.” That’s where the whole thing started. It’s really such a dream for any photographer to be published by Taschen and I truly feel that this book belongs to all the people who helped make it happen. It is such a collaboration and came from their love and devotion. I was the vehicle.
MB: Most of the images are incredibly intimate. What is it about you and your art that allows you to get into these sacred spaces?
MO: I expressed my love and interest and they mirrored it. I was the student wanting to meet the masters. I met them with an open heart and humility in my eyes. Honesty, truth and passion can’t be kept a secret. Also, because this came at a time when I had already been working as a photographer for forty years, they were able to perceive I had a level of mastery in my art. Masters meeting on different levels. Even so, some people still did not want to be photographed.
MB: On that subject, was there someone you wanted to photograph and didn't get the chance to?
a doctor and was there when Yogi Bhajan left his body; John Kabat-Zinn, who is an incredible master of meditation and we were hoping to shoot at Walden Pond, and the list went on. Finally, my wife Bia, pulled me aside and said “You have a book.” As we went into editing, it took on a new life and I began to see the sutras, the connective threads throughout it.
MB: Can you describe participating in Kumba Mela?
MO: My Indian counterpart Dhruv, who was by my side at all times, asked me if I was ready for a 24-hour circus. I don’t think I was. It’s a gigantic gathering of human souls living side by side to leave past lives behind at the Ganga. Cooperative and cordial and not scary. I can’t really describe it. You’ve got to go feel it.
MB: There are stories out there about yogis being able to do extraordinary things, having magical siddhis. What was the most fantastical thing you witnessed?
MO: I don’t think I’ve been privy to one of those beings. I never saw someone levitate if that’s what you’re asking. But I believe it can happen. I also wanted to shoot a yogi on a bed of nails, but it didn’t come to pass. The penis lift photographed in the book is pretty far out and the same saddhus showed me pictures of themselves in newspapers pulling a car with their penises. I thought that was pretty wild.
MB: Do you have a favorite image or moment?
MO: The shoot with Dharma Mittra in the Meatpacking District. It was already November and pretty cold. We had space heaters. The twinkle of working with him and the synchronicity of the timing, like choreography, to catch that moment.
MB: What’s your take on spirituality?
MO: I rejected Catholicism when I was younger and thought I was an atheist. As I got older I realized I was actually spiritual. This book changed everything. I will never be the same. Having had the chance to make it and wet myself in this kind of spirituality brought me freedom.
For more information about O'Neill’s Q&A at Pure, click here.
Borrero teaches around town at Pure Yoga, Exhale Spa, and The Bhakti Center. For more information, check out www.milesyoga.com.