Seven years ago, Minneapolis-based photographer Andy Richter decided that his devotion to the practice of yoga was worth a trip to India, where he could explore the wellspring of the ancient physical and philosophical discipline both widely and beneath the surface. “Yoga is more than just asanas,” Richter says. “It’s a spiritual path; it’s a way of life. The postures are important, but that’s not where you stay.”
Richter’s pilgrimage sparked an ongoing relationship with India and its culture, resulting in his series Serpent and the Wilderness and a handsome book from Keher Verlag, as well as photo exhibits on view at MPLS Photo Center, Minneapolis, MN, March 23 through May 1; at Camerawork Gallery, Portland, OR, from March 31 through April 27; and at the Vermont Center for Photography, Brattleboro, VT, from June 1 through July 1.
Andy Richter—not to be confused with the actor/comedian with the same name—points out that much of his visual travelog centers more on the customs and philosophy surrounding yoga than it does physical poses. “I have traveled to places that are historically relevant to its past and others that embody its present, working with many of the world’s great yogis,” he notes. “Many great saints and masters humbly welcomed me, sharing their wisdom over the years.”
Yet Richter adds that the ultimate purpose of the project—and the spiritual journey—is one of self-discovery. “In Sanskrit, the word ‘yoga’ signifies connection or union and is associated with heightened awareness of oneself,” he says. “It’s not just about saints and holy people. While they can be inspirational, we can all be where they are—if we do the work.”
Richter’s recent travels extend beyond India to other locales where yogis gather and practice, such as the “Yoga on the Rocks” retreat in Colorado (above), which annually attracts more than 3,000 attendees. “This ancient Indian science has deep roots in Hindu mythology and doctrine, yet today it is mainstream, global and growing in popularity,” Richter points out. “With this series the idea is to put power in people’s own hands. This isn’t just about Sting or Madonna—it’s a journey anyone can embark on. We all have these capacities as human beings.”
The project’s unusual title derives from a Biblical passage, John 3:14-15, in which Jesus is quoted: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” The phrase also appears in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi: “The word “serpent” here refers metaphorically to man’s consciousness and life force in the subtle coiled passageway at the base of the spine.” Richter says Yogananda’s spiritual, tangential use of the concept stuck with him: “It’s a title that just kept coming back.”
As well as exploring yoga’s roots, Richter hopes this work inspires modern practitioners. “Despite yoga’s worldwide growth and appeal, understanding and media attention tends to be superficial, focused on celebrity yogis, or on the physical, commercial, and health aspects of the practice,” he writes in the book’s Afterword. “Yet this project suggests it is something more: a profound spiritual path and way of life that is both accessible and transcends cultural barriers.”