Capturing Inner Light in Photos of Yoga Masters

Capturing Inner Light in Photos of Yoga Masters

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When did yoga get so big? For the third International Yoga Day — yes, the United Nations has given it a day, June 21 — India, where the ancient discipline originated, organized classes all over the country, and public yoga events were held across the globe, from South Africa to South Philadelphia.

In the United States, more than 36 million adults practice yoga, more than ever, according to a recent study in Yoga Journal. Faddish offshoots — goat yoga, baby yoga, beer yoga — keep springing up, aspiring yoga teachers are multiplying like Uber drivers and celebrity yogis have become the stuff of legend, scandal and even tabloids.

So when Francesco Mastalia decided to document yoga masters for his latest book, he not only found a timely subject, he also found no shortage of worthy subjects. The photographer, based in Rhinebeck, N.Y., happens to live in a yoga mecca, where ashrams and yoga centers dot the Hudson Valley and Rhinebeck’s Omega Institute draws serious practitioners from around the world.

Still, “Yoga: The Secret of Life,” (due Sept. 12 from powerHouse Books), a lush photo documentary of 108 leading yoga practitioners, morphed, in a fitting way, during the year and a half that Mr. Mastalia spent photographing. It became something much deeper, much more, than even he intended.

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Sri Dharma Mittra.Credit Francesco Mastalia

He started with the idea that yogis stretching and twisting themselves into various postures — the beauty, grace and strength of the human body transformed through rigorous physical practice — would be “beautiful to photograph.” But to those who live and breathe yoga, the practice is not an exercise regimen, but a spiritual journey. It’s the key to understanding their place in the universe.

As Mr. Mastalia began documenting his subjects, the book “quickly transcended into the spiritual realms of the practice, as many of the yogis chose to emphasize meditation, devotion and their divine connection.” While many of the yogis are captured during poses, others, including some of the most famous ones, chose to be photographed in repose.

To try to capture their inner light, Mr. Mastalia chose one of the oldest photographic techniques, the wet collodion process, using a large-format wooden camera, antique brass lens and glass plates. It’s a labor-intensive craft that requires each step be performed by hand, working with chemicals sensitive to ultraviolet light, temperature and humidity, and whose characteristics change as they age, he said.

“All of these variables change each time you photograph,” he said. “It is a live process, and things are always different. Working outdoors, nature plays a critical role and it cannot be controlled. I embrace it all. It is a place where a known and unknown world comes together. The process always teaches you something.”

And it yields magical results. He first used it for “Organic: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley” (2014, powerHouse Books), a collection of portraits of growers dedicated to the sustainable food movement (or what used to be called, before pesticides and agribusiness, simply, farming). In that book, the process gave the images an old-world beauty, much like the gardens the farmers tended by hand.

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Dana Trixie Flynn.Credit Francesco Mastalia

In “Yoga: The Secret of Life,” the blurred backgrounds, dancing light and shadows lend the portraits an ethereal quality, as if they were reflecting the energy of the subjects themselves. Perhaps as powerful as the portraits are the yogis’ stories, which, to a one, describe the discipline’s role in self-discovery and enlightenment. In fact, he chose to photograph 108 yogis because the number 108 is considered sacred in many Eastern religions and traditions.

As “Yoga: The Secret of Life” transformed into a documentary on those seeking answers to life’s big questions, the photographer began changing, too. “This journey has had a profound effect on my life,” he said. “It has changed my perspective on reality, and perception of existence. I now walk the earth in a different way.”

Not to mention, he is now, for the first time in his life, practicing yoga.

“Perhaps we know, but we often forget, how precious life is,” he said. “It is a miracle that we are here on this planet. Every breath is a gift. Yoga is that reminder.”


Follow @F_Mastalia and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Francesco Mastalia is also on Instagram. You can also find Lens on Facebook and Instagram.

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