Given the partisan tumult of 2017, many Americans probably feel like they could use a cold shower or a hot bath. In stressful times like these, it can help to find a relaxation regimen, which might explain the popularity of Eastern traditions like tai chi, qigong and yoga.
The photographer Andy Richter, a Minnesota native and former ski patrolman, has been devoted to his yoga practice since 2004. In 2012, he set out on a mission to deeply explore yoga, including visiting with many masters.
“The times we’re living in, there’s a lot of pressure on us that is really nonstop,” he said. “We need tools and ways to be able to control our inner state. I’m not just there trying to illustrate a posture or pose. I’m trying to tune into what’s going on before me, and really transmit this inner experience that the yogi in front of me is having.”
After five years of travel — and likely some sore muscles — during which he photographed everyone from enlightened beings to pregnant teens, his resulting project, “Serpent in the Wilderness,” was published by Kehrer Verlag and will be on view in several exhibitions this year.
He spent time in India, where yoga originated, but also photographed in places like Denver, Colo.; Encinitas, Calif.; and a longtime Sikh community in northern New Mexico. Together, the photographs present a diverse look at an ancient practice that has been adapted to our contemporary times. It is also a personal perspective.
"These pictures represent my own walk through yoga,” he said. “They’re not all-encompassing, or representing yoga all around the world in all of its forms. It’s my own exploration, my own contemplation, and where I’ve been led to. I feel grateful for opportunity to have been in the presence of all of these amazing people.”
The book is rendered in warm, glowing colors: yellows, tangerines and ochres. Whether they show richly-hued cotton robes, vibrant flower petals or light reflecting off the Ganges, the series of photographs is stunning.
While yoga has been associated with wisdom for more than 5,000 years, in American society, it has often been co-opted and commodified. But Mr. Richter thinks its greatest benefit is priceless, in more ways than one.
“None of this is bought or sold, what we’re talking about here,” he said. “None is even available for any cost. It requires us to slow down, to still our minds, and to find a way to get our senses under control.”
He is trying to veer away from this commercial view, which often is a humorously-expected-vision of yoga.
"Often in photographs, it is a beautiful woman in soft light, in a studio context, with certain branded attire on,” he said. “It’s not representing anything, in terms of what depth of what yoga is.”
One image in the series depicts almost the exact opposite of that stereotype. In 2016, during one of his many trips to India, Mr. Richter found himself in a situation that sounds like something out of a storybook. He was in a cave, photographing a silent hermit who lived there, isolated from the world. They’d known each other for years, so he made sure to bring tobacco, fruit, and milk, along with his tripod and cable release.
"It was pretty incredible to be sitting there with this silent yogi, who basically wears a loin cloth, and lives in the forest,” he said. “We’re listening to music from all over world on my phone. I’ve been waiting for a long time for anything like this to happen. He’d never done yoga for me. He’d never meditated. It was amazing, and it happened very fast.”
Fittingly, given the almost postmodern nature of this tale, despite yoga’s health benefits, after 15 minutes of practice, the silent yogi was pooped.
"He did all these yoga poses, these headstands, and more dramatic asana, and then he was huffing and puffing,” he recalled. “So he lay down, and lit up a cigarette, and was like, that’s it.”