It is a constant revealing, a constant unlayering or peeling away, to find that essence of who you really are.
The artist Francesco Mastalia has traveled the world photographing tribal, religious, spiritual, and indigenous people. These past couple of years however have found him a bit closer to his home in Rhinebeck, New York, engaged in a deep and divine encounter with the practice of yoga. That immersion has resulted in YOGA: The Secret of Life, a fine art salute to the ancient eight-limbed practice of yoga, to be released in October by powerHouse Books.
“Why are we here? What is our ultimate purpose on the planet?” So begins Mastalia’s inquiry. Like a nomad, he goes on to use the following two hundred or so pages to forage into the mystery. In YOGA The Secret of Life, the author fuses masterfully prepared portraits (captured over a span of 18 months, largely in and around the Hudson Valley) with personal revelations of yogis spanning myriad genres and generations. The practice has long beckoned for an honest offering where art and alchemy divinely collide. That call has been sated, magnificently, by Mastalia with YOGA The Secret of Life.
For its familiarity of faces, as I took a first pass through the book, I had the feeling of holding a class yearbook – personalities the yoga community has long come to revere against page after page. You just want to sit with and revisit each story. Dharma abounds throughout with countless quotable moments such as the insight above of Sarah Platt-Finger in which she equates yoga to a “constant revealing”. With passionate personal reflections on the practice from Kia Miller to Deva Premal to Ana Forest to Tao Porchon-Lynch to Krishna Das, it’s a tall order to convey its survey depth here in the confines of a book review. Here’s just a random glimpse of the testimony which supports Mastalia’s ethereal portraits:
“Our body is our first instrument and we use the body to reach our inner divinity, that inner soul that exists in all of us.” Patricia Walden
“Just feeling calm and feeling stable and at peace with yourself is a reasonable goal.” David Regelin
“Yoga is the state of missing nothing.” Rima Rabbath
“Yoga is a secret doorway into a very full and delightful life.” Wah
And while the narratives serve as a powerful soundtrack, it’s the images that bewitch – the forest serving as the “stage” for most of Mastalia’s captures. As with his previous (photo documentary) book Organic: Farmers & Chefs of the Hudson Valley (powerHouse Books, 2014), the portraits of the yogis were photographed in his signature treatment using the wet plate collodion process, a photographic technique developed in the mid-19th century. The labor-intensive collodion process involves capturing photographs on glass plates and requires that each step be performed by hand. With the use of a large format wooden camera and antique brass lens, glass plates are hand coated to produce one of a kind ambrotype images. The collodion process, when light and chemistry collide, is beloved by many for its ability to transcend viewers to another place, another time – accenting nuances, invoking mystery, and proving to be a perfect tool for conveying the soul of yoga. “The process begins by hand-pouring an emulsion of collodion onto a plate of black glass. In ceremonial fashion, the plate is then bathed in a solution of silver nitrate to render it sensitive to light. Waiting, under the mystical shroud, the ‘wooden-view-camera’ sits in silence, as the glass plate is brought to light. With the subject holding perfectly still, the lens cap is carefully removed from the antique brass lens and the seconds are counted. While celebrating nature’s offerings and absorbing the power of the sun, the breadth of time embodies the spirit. Eager to reveal itself, the glass plate is quickly brought to development. Appearing as a negative, it is immersed into a fixing solution, and as it clears, the inner light magically comes to ‘life’.”
With its long view and its patient portraits, YOGA The Secret of Life parts company with others who have set out to creatively chronicle the odyssey that is yoga. As a photographer and yoga instructor myself, I have for some time fancied a compelling visual account which might weave together words and images and speak some truths of the holy nature of yoga and all its subtleties. Much to my delight, that testament has arrived. A practitioner of yoga himself, the author’s fluency with the practice is evident throughout his probe. In my experiences of capturing yoga with a lens, a command of that vocabulary is essential in drawing out its sacred qualities.
And, as I consider the collective voice of YOGA The Secret of Life and the (many) truths echoed throughout its pages, I find myself recalling these few lines from the poet David Whyte (from the poem Working Together)…
so may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
and look for the true
shape of our own self,
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us
“Look for the true shape of our own self, by forming it well…” This line in particular invokes for me the “secret of life” that Francesco Mastalia has so humbly unearthed in his (very) fine art salute to yoga.
To learn more about Francesco Mastalia, please visit his website: www.francescomastalia.com.
SUSAN CURRIE is a West Palm Beach-based poet with a camera. Her words and images have been widely exhibited and published. She met her muse some time ago when she discovered the ancient eight-limbed practice of yoga. Its way of life continues to inform and imprint the art she makes. The creative workshops she offers throughout the country share her signature approaches for practicing mindfulness in order to connect more authentically with one’s creative voice. Susan is the author of four books —Once Divided, Gracenotes, Breath Taking, and Superflow: Light Up the Artist in You (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2021)—and the creator of CHARMCODES.