It’s no secret that documentaries have finally gained some currency in the American media. With the help of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and a very cold bunch of penguins, docs have increased their audiences by railing against injustices, exposing political and corporate malfeasance, and inviting us into hidden worlds. Naked in Ashes, a quiet piece of work by writer-director Paula Fouce, falls into this third category. Careful and patient, it travels into the godly universe of India’s thirteen million yogis, observing without judging and noticing without advertising. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see such an honest and humble piece of work. On the other, well … it’s a snooze.
At apparently any time in his life — though usually while he’s young — an Indian boy or man might decide to become a yogi. (There appear to be no female yogis, which the movie never addresses.) A yogi is a spiritual seeker who trains under a guru to live in the service of God and other beings. A yogi’s life is characterized chiefly by the renunciation of the material world — not merely belongings but also shelter, food, clothing, and often physical comfort of any kind. Some yogis live alone, high in the Himalayas, and meditate. Others move from place to place to avoid attachment or comfort. Almost all live in a state of near-nakedness, smearing themselves with ashes from their sacred fires for warmth and spiritual energy. They depend on donations for food.
The most fascinating (and sensationalistic) aspect of yogi life is the performance of austerities. Raman Giri, for instance, is a 21-year-old disciple of Shiv Raj Giri (the film’s central “character”) who is attempting to stand for twelve years. Day and night, he neither sits nor reclines; for support and during sleep, he hooks the top part of his torso over a raised swing. At the time of filming, Raman Giri has been standing for six months, and the veins in his left leg have burst through the skin. He seems delighted. Another yogi, interviewed later in the film, claims to have been holding his arm above his head for thirteen years. Sleeping, he reports, can be difficult.
The point is transcendence. Many yogis explain that their spiritual practice is often painful at first, but over time they reach a communion with God that relieves the pain. When they give their bodies over to God, they cease to care what happens to them, as their spirits are filled with the joy of connection. At the same time, some yogic rituals can and do begin in pleasure, such as bathing in the sacred Ganges River — which yogis treasure with a relish that’s fun to watch — or entering a simple yoga pose.
Still. It’s hard not to question the extremity of the yogic practice, or at least to want more information. The tradition is remarkably old, and after five thousand years it clearly has relevance. Some yogis speak of the damage that humans are doing to the earth, noticing that many people today suffer from a lack of connection with their spirits, and there’s plenty of obvious wisdom in Shiv Raj Giri’s protest against land development. On the other hand, did he have to do it by pulling a fully loaded Jeep with a particularly delicate part of his body? (“This penis control exercise is not for everyone,” he notes.) Sure, it got publicity, but what did it do for him spiritually?
The real problem here is that Naked in Ashes never really explicates what happens inside a yogi’s mind. We see plenty of footage of the practice of austerities, but we never hear about what meditation is like, or how a yogi does it. Some mention breath control or the control of sexual urges, but how is that done? What is it like to meditate for 36 hours on end? Where do you begin, and what happens to your mind while you do it? How does one learn the practice of meditation, or of service? And are there yogis who leave this path and find another? (One notable comes to mind: Buddha.)
Naked in Ashes is a companionable film, but it’s not, in the end, a deep one. And this lack of depth results in some tedium. After a half-hour with the yogis, we’ve seen most of what we’ll see; we’ve heard about the renunciation and the Ganges and the commitment to service, but we haven’t seen anything to truly get us involved. Sure, the film’s climax at the Kumbha Mela (the world’s largest gathering of yogis) is quite something: hundreds of thousands of naked men rushing excitedly toward a river. And there is some gorgeous imagery of the Himalayas, especially as the yogis begin their ascent. But other than that, there isn’t much to mull.