From New York to Nairobi, Kathmandu to Havana, his photographs capture professionals and prisoners, warriors and children all united in their connection to yoga.
Photographs by Robert Sturman
“I have a regular yoga practice and one thing I know to be true is that yoga opens me,”
says photographer and yoga practitioner Robert Sturman.
“Through asana [yoga posture], I have become more aware of my own actions and how my footsteps in this world leave prints. I have faced everything on my mat. I had no choice. I think that yoga just does that.”
Sturman believes in the universality of yoga and has travelled the world photographing yogis across physical and cultural divides.
“All around us, there are people in every field creating the life they want to live,” he says.
“Yoga has a way of bringing us into our heart.”
These are some of their portraits.
“It’s not just yoga when you’re on the mat. Yoga is in you,”says Jacob Parit Noomek, a Maasai warrior and yoga teacher at the foothills of Kenya’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Through the Africa Yoga Project, he became a yoga teacher and is now helping to bring yoga to different villages in the region. When asked why he calls himself a warrior, he says it is because he has a strong connection to where he comes from and holds a great desire to move forward.
“When you’re pregnant, your centre of balance shifts daily. I think of it as nature’s way of preparing you for the big shift when the baby comes and the centre of your universe is now walking around outside of you,” says Amy Pastore, an American yoga teacher and practitioner.
“Yoga reminds me of what is really important in life and helps me to let go of what is not. It connects me to my source, giving me faith in something bigger. I find a sense of freedom in that.
“One thing yoga can help us with as we age is undeniably the physical aspect of keeping the joints and particularly the spine supple and flexible,” says Patricia Hudacsko, a yoga teacher in New Jersey.
“There is a saying that you’re only as old as your spine is flexible. To expound on that, I will say you are only as old as your spine and your mind are flexible. Yoga provides the means to realise our true nature, which is love.
“Aging is a process of letting go. We learn to give up our attachment to the ‘I will be happy when’ mentality and appreciate what we have in this moment. With yoga we experiment, try new things, do something different, both on our mat and in our day-to-day lives. With yoga as a tool, 65 truly is the new 40.”
“A mistake many of us make when we think of a prisoner, especially one who is serving a life sentence, is that they have all been convicted of a crime of violence. Many people are unaware of the three strike law,” Sturman says about the inmates he met and photographed at San Quentin State Prison in California.
“Three strikes and you’re out of society for life. They are just sitting in there trying not to rot away, and looking forward to the hour-and-a-half yoga class they are permitted to attend once a week.”
“You want to punish a human being? Lead them to their own conscience. These men who have taken the courageous step to come to this thing called yoga, which is not necessarily viewed as the most masculine recreational activity in the prison system, have something inside of them that longs to crumble. My camera is a voice for that man.”
“There was a lot of humour in the class on my last visit. Before class, this inmate R. Askari Johnson pointed to both of his cheeks and told me to make sure I got his good side.”
MC Yogi calls himself a modern-day yoga ambassador to the West. The yoga teacher and hip-hop musician infuses Hindu philosophy in his work and performances.
“MC Yogi and I took a gondola ride to the top of Whistler Mountain in Canada. So many people know him as a rapper in the yoga world, spreading peace and love, but he is rarely portrayed practicing yoga and he has such a beautiful practice,” Sturman says.
“Malaysia banned yoga for Muslims, [who constitute] 60 percent of its population, in 2008. The ban [was] lifted shortly [after] but yoga studio operators are warned not to include chanting and meditation in its classes,” says Malaysian yoga teacher Ninie.
“Our spiritual life in this temporary body is too short to not try to extend the breath and the health Highest Above lent to us — in whatever name we all call Him.
“I am Malaysian and I am Muslim. And I do yoga. And I pray. And I chant and I meditate, in any language I make it a point to know its meaning …. I see God in all of his creation — with my head covered or not, in my clothes revealing or not. My religion teaches love, respect and kindness hence yoga is in every religion, at least in mine.”
“In the toughest moments all we have to do is breathe. Inhale, hold. Exhale, hold. And repeat,” says Officer Milo, a yogi and policeman working in Sturman’s own California neighbourhood.
“He takes his yoga off the mat and embodies what all police officers were originally titled, ‘Officers of the Peace’,” Sturman says.
“The news often bombards us with negativity surrounding police officers. While it is necessary to hold human beings accountable for unacceptable behaviour, it is just as necessary to cherish, celebrate and praise human beings who live lives of excellence, always pointing towards what is possible.”
“A Kenyan prison for women brought me unexpected joy, when the inmates, many of whom are HIV positive, shared that yoga has become a rare source of happiness in their daily lives,” Sturman says.
“After yoga … the women are asked to paint what they feel. Most of them wrote about how much they loved yoga. I tried to capture this joy and the relaxing effects that this practice is bringing into their current reality.”
Tommy is a yogi who had his leg amputated two years ago due to several blood clots in his left leg. His devotion to yoga has helped him to cultivate a strong foundation, Sturman says.
“No matter how much pain and discomfort I go through in a day, I wake up, I go out in the day and I live the day that I have,” Tommy says.
“Yoga provides me a centrifugal force of the mind, body and soul to a breath throughout my physical integrity that goes beyond questions of understanding how, but gives me answers to all possibilities of how to be complete with nature as my guide.”
“Most people would opt out of taking this journey with me in heavy weather. And then, there is the adventurous soul who will insist,” Sturman says.
To Danielle, the subject of this picture, “yoga means a voyage into the depths of connection. It begins with an untethering from the embankment and catches wake of the magnificence of nature”.