Heather Elton is a yogini, yoga teacher and photographer who lives in London. She was first taught how to use her Nikon FE by Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer, Bruce Surtees, while working on a film set back in the 80s in Canada. Photography has become part of Heather’s spiritual path and she makes time for photographic and spiritual sadhana.
As a yogini, Heather tries to integrate yogic techniques into the photographic process. For her, photography is a physical and spiritual act where she uses Dristi (gaze) to try to ‘see’ through the veils of Maya (delusion), and filter out the stain of perception, or conditioned ‘view,’ towards the emptiness of Self, or the pure essence of what exists.
Heather finds the discipline and commitment of a yoga practice, and the ability to be at ease in the face of aversion, useful skills on her photographic sadhana. Whether she treks a 5000m mountain pass, sits in a Milarepa cave, climbs up the 650 stone steps to Shravanbelagola, or watches sunrise atop a Mayan temple, Heather believes that the effort it takes to get somewhere makes the experience of being there more profound. There is a residue of embodiment or authenticity in her images.
Photography allows Heather to watch her mind react to difficult situations. She tries to practice Santosha (contentment) and be happy with what she encounters in the present moment, rather than wish the angle of the sun was different or she’d had chosen a better location. The big challenge is not to be greedy and insatiable in taking the images, but to practice Aparigraha (non-covetousness).
Photography, like yoga, can easily pull one out of the present moment and thrust you into an act of obsessive desire for perfection and covetousness of the moment. It can be so seductive sometimes she feels that she hasn’t really experienced the moment unless she’s captured it digitally. Then, she turns off her Nikon D 800 and Leica D-Lux 5, turns her gaze inwards to quiet the grasping ego and empty the mind so she can look at the world with fresh eyes.
Ultimately, Heather’s intention with photography is to reveal the spirit of ‘the place,’ whether that is found in nature, the eyes of a deity, a Himalayan landscape or the intrinsic devotion of a stone carving. She tries to see the essence of the subject in front of her. She hopes to share a sense of AWE that she feels in sacred places. It’s about the ‘decisive moment’ when she loses all sense of Self and merges with the object in her lens – into a blissful samadhic state where the Yogi is immersed in pure awareness, Purusha or Dharmakaya.
The great cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, once said, “Photography is writing with light.” For Heather, the light is the Guru and photography is a spiritual journey to merge with the divine light within.
About The Work:
Bhakti, or Devotion, wasn’t something that came easily to my existential way of thinking. Only through practicing Astanga yoga in Mysore, taking refugee as a Buddhist, and embarking on various pilgrimages did this path unfold for me. When I first started studying yoga philosophy I found it difficult to remember the various deities. The physical act of climbing the mountain to Hanuman’s shrine at Hampi was a profound experience as I realised that the effort put into this ensured that I’d never forget the legend of the Monkey King.
I began to think of India as a sacred landscape, a vast body cosmos where certain areas are believed to have sources of divine power. These are places of great legends that have been worshiped for centuries, by pilgrims who come to be purified and closer to the divine. In the Hindu world, these power places are called tirthas, meaning ford or crossing, in which you can cross over from ordinary reality to other dimensions.
In his book, Travels through Sacred India, Roger Housden describes a sacred place as “one that is graced with the presence of unconditional being; where the unfettered domain of the gods makes itself known in the finite world.”
Over the past decade, I undertook a series of photographic and spiritual sadhanas in India and Nepal. Wandering through Dravidian temples in Tamil Nadu and having darshan, sitting at Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi contemplating death, seeing a Bodhi leaf gracefully fall into my lap while sitting at Bodhgaya, walking the outer Pradaktion in Varanasi, the Kora in Dharamsala or Boudhanath, circumambulating Arunachala, the Holy Mountain, in Tiruvannamalai, sitting in a cave where Padmasambhava attained enlightenment, or tears streaming down my face from joy at Tabo Monastery in Spiti Valley when I finally understood the profound devotion of the beautiful murals on the walls – all of these experiences helped me to cultivate Bhakti and fall deeper into yoga, understand the essence of the Deity, and bring me closer to my own inner guru. I feel more connected to my own innate nature, but also to all sentient beings.
My wanderings have led to a true yearning for Buddhist dharma. I’m immensely grateful to Dzongsar Jamyang Khentsye Rinpoche who has provided context and laid the path bare. My Devotion gallery contains small acts of bhakti encountered along the path.
Before I ever knew about yoga or Buddhism, I felt a tremendous connection to Nature and the Earth has given me refuge on my spiritual path. As I Canadian I grew up skiing and hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Often I would venture into Nature feeling confused or upset, and after immersing myself in silence and the grandeur of the landscape I would emerge with my ego diminished, a sense of balance, and true perspective on my life. Nature has always been my teacher and has taught me about impermanence, how to be present and express gratitude in my life. I have experienced moments of true ‘awe’, a Samadhic state of total being, enraptured by her beauty.
The Kingdom of Mustang, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Guru Rinpoche travelled through this mystical landscape on his way to Tibet. He slew the famous demoness, the Balmo, near Ghemi, her liver and blood staining the Dhakmar cliffs red, built a mani wall from the intestines, and buried her heart under Lo Gekar monastery, which is the first Vajrayana monastery. I travelled through this spacious landscape on foot and horseback visiting local villages and monasteries, enroute to the medieval mud-walled city of Lo Manthang.
I visited Myanmar in the mid-90s and was astonished to find a place where time had stood still. I was entranced by the extraordinary Buddhist civillisation of Bagan with a thousand of temples spread across the Arywaddy plain, and along the backwaters of Inle Lake with the traditional fisherman and the ancient Buddhist stupas at Indein.
Publications & Representation:
Heather’s photographs have been published in Rough Guides and Fodor’s, as well as international magazines like National Geographic, Esquire, Marie-Claire, The Times, Sunday Times, The Guardian, Home & Garden, Namarupa, and Yoga Journal. Her photography is represented by Designpics/Axiom Photographic Agency in London AND now Dharma Eye.