By Sonika Jain
Sonika Jain highlights the essential teachings of yoga by correlating it to the film, Gravity, where the protagonist learns the vital importance of sukham (stability) and sthiram (good space)
We are physically grounded on the Earth because of the gravitational force, which we take for granted. Without it, we would be floating aimlessly, devoid of stability. Sukham is a Sanskrit term meaning stable, and sthiram is a Sanskrit term meaning good space. Yoga, which is the integration of mind, breath, and body, brings the forces of movement and stability into balance.
600 kms above planet the temperature
fluctuates between +258o and -148o Fahrenheit
There is nothing to carry sound
No air pressure
Life in space is impossible
(Opening credits of the film Gravity, Alfanso Cuaron, 2013, 91 minutes).
There are moments in the film Gravity, which mirror the iconic concepts of the yoga philosophy found in the Yoga Sutras written over 2,000 years ago by Sage Patanjali. These are a collection of 196 aphorisms, each one concerning an aspect of human nature and the path to enlightenment. It elaborates on the eight limbs of yoga including the two most commonly known – breathing (pranayama), and bodily postures (asana). Yoga, according to the Yoga Sutra Chapter I.1, is the practice of focussing the mind (citta in Sanskrit) away from distractions (vrttis in Sanskrit for fluctuations). The protagonist, Dr Stone, of Gravity, struggles to find focus, stability (sthiram), and good space (sukham), and her journey can be understood with the yogic perspective offered by BKS Iyenger’s (yoga master, commentator, and practitioner) classic translation, The Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (2010).
In Gravity, mission control in Houston warns the veteran astronaut Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney) in command of the spaceship Explorer, about a chain reaction forming a cloud of debris in space and travelling at high speed towards them. The debris strike the space shuttle, detaching astronaut Kowalski and his colleague Dr. Ryan Stone who is on her first mission (Sandra Bullock); leaving her in a state of free fall. She tumbles aimlessly in space while her oxygen levels reduce rapidly. While reconnecting, after temporary loss of communication between them, Kowalski instructs Dr. Stone to slow down her breathing. By focussing her mind on her breath, she is able to give her whereabouts, and Kowalski is able to locate her, attach her with the tether tied to him; and return to the Explorer – all the while reminding her to relax her breathing.
When they reach the Explorer, they find the dead bodies of the remaining crew floating in space. Kowalski motivates the saddened Dr. Stone to leave the wrecked shuttle immediately – and start their onward journey to Earth by reaching an international space station (ISS) in another orbit – before their oxygen levels exhaust and high-speed debris destroy it. He nudges her to dig into her inner reservoirs of stability (sthiram) amidst the instability of the situation. En route, by engaging her in a sensitive conversation, Kowalski keeps her mind from drifting towards her fears, and depleting the oxygen cylinder. He realises that Dr. Stone is emotionally suffering because of the loss of her young daughter. Her “sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing shakes the body, creating instability, which in turn brings mental distress. These cause distractions, which agitate the mind and consciousness” (BKS Iyenger, 2010: 79) Yoga Sutra I.31.
Her painful past blurs her ability to make clear decisions or embrace life and its challenges (absence of good space or sukham). On the contrary, Kowalski has a feeling at the outset (a premonition) that this expedition would be unsuccessful based on the good space sukham) he has within him. The unfolding events prove him correct. Kowalski is able to share insights based on his intuition and experiential knowledge and constantly offers advice and encouragement to Dr. Stone. He personifies “correct knowledge [which] is based on three kinds of proof: direct perception, correct inference, and testimony from an authoritative sacred scripture or an experienced person” (Yoga Sutra 1.7, BKS Iyenger, 2010: 53). Kowalski’s persona of concern, quiet determination, humour, clarity, and courage are a result of having healed himself from his share of suffering because of which he can face the present moment with confidence.
As they approach the substantially damaged but still operational ISS, they see its crew has evacuated, and the capsule has become useless for returning to Earth. Kowalski suggests that they use it to travel to the nearby Chinese space station, Tiangong, and board one of its modules to return safely to Earth. Out of air and maneuvering power, the two try to grab onto the ISS as they keep flying away. Their tether is broken and Stone’s leg gets entangled in the module’s parachute cords as she grabs a strap of Kowalski’s suit in desperation. Despite Dr. Stone’s protests, Kowalski disengages himself from her, as the cords cannot carry the weight of two people. Dr. Stone is loosely tied to the ISS and is pulled back towards it. Kowalsk floats away into the silence and vastness of space. However, his commitment to protect her remains unshaken. He keeps prompting her with instructions and coaxes her to believe that she will touch the Earth – as a genuine commander of a ship or a spiritual guide would. Kowalski’s approach to life and death is spiritually evolved: he maintains his purity and detachment, and simultaneously has deep compassion for others.
Both have contrasting personalities. Dr. Stone is anxious, fatigued, introverted, unable to let go of her losses, and inexperienced as a space astronaut. Kowalski, on the other hand, is on his last mission before retiring. Because, he is self-reflecting (svadhyaya is a Sanskrit term meaning self-study, reflections of one’s own self, and study of scriptures), he has the emotional space within (sukham) to see the external reality with clarity and respond in a wise manner. He is a yogi who has transcended the fluctuations of the mind (citta vrttis) and can “direct the mind exclusively towards an object (in this case reaching Earth safely) and sustain that direction without any distractions” (Yoga Sutra 1.2, KYM, 2000:1). He knows when he must pursue their journey with relentless effort or tapah (in Sanskrit meaning self-discipline and burning desire to reach perfection), and when he must surrender to the universal spirit or Ishvara pranidhana (in Sanskrit meaning surrendering to prayer or profound meditation or higher soul, Yoga Sutra I.23, BKS Iyenger, 2010:73). For him, the journey is the destination and he can enjoy the beauty of heavenly objects, a joke, a story, and a crisp conversation in a moment of crisis. Kowalski’s gift to Dr. Stone is not just her life, but also his yogic approach, which she carries in her heart as a legacy. Their understated yet deeply moving relationship is refreshingly unromantic and spiritually elevated.
Dr. Stone enters ISS alone, having lost Kowalski, and among the many hurdles that she crosses, she realises that she cannot resolve the problem of a fuel-less engine. Stone resigns herself to being stranded and shuts down the cabin’s oxygen supply and the lights. In her semi-conscious dream, Kowalski appears to give Dr. Stone technical tips to propel the capsule, and encourages her to gear herself for surviving somehow by freeing herself from her failures in her professional life, and her losses in her personal life. Stone shines through after this moment of self-reflection (svadhyaya), and is able to connect to the courage, calm, and clarity within (balancing sthiram and sukham) to face her unending challenges. Dr. Stone recalls the lessons taught by her mentor, and combines them with written manual instructions in different languages as well as her own intuition – wisdom from insight (prajnabhyam). In other words, “this truth-bearing knowledge and wisdom is distinct from and beyond the knowledge gleaned from books, testimony, or inference […]it is intuitive knowledge [… which] is inherent in the person but obstructed by a turbulent mind” (Yoga Sutra 1.49, BKS Iyenger, 2010: 95).
Stone’s voyage highlights the divinity of the omnipresent Earth, gravitational force, and human life, which is usually taken for granted. She touches the surface of the Earth because of her heightened sense of responsibility towards her life – when she combines zealous effort (devoted practice or abhyasa) with objectivity (detachment or vairagya) [Yoga Sutra 1.12, BKS Iyenger, 2010: 57-60]. The film ends with her expression of gratitude for being able to touch the stable surface of the Earth. The roller-coaster journey of Dr. Stone and Kowalski encourages the audience to revisit and acknowledge their own suffering, which triggers the process of healing and growth. Gravity is a familiar story told in an unfamiliar manner: a cinematic and spiritual experience that touches deep within to transform, restore happiness and health, and to engage with the external world with renewed faith.
|Sonika Jain is interested in cinema, yoga, bird-watching, running, writing, and devotional music. She works as an academic at the University of Delhi.|
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