The Birth of the Modern Yoga Movement and
Its Impact on the
World Chronicled
in a New Documentary Film

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interview with the director and co-producer

Shiva Kumar

Shiva KumarHow did you and Joshua M. Greene (writer and co-producer) first meet?
In 1983, Joshua had just returned to New York from India, and he brought to Lincoln Center a puppet show of Indian folk stories. I was working for the television program Visions of Asia as a newscaster. Joshua came to the station to see if we would do a promotion for this program. Not only did I wind up creating a series of specials about his puppet show, but we really connected and started talking about working together. While we were coming from opposite ends of the earth, we found that our working styles were on a parallel.

What is your working style?
We ask the question: How can we tell the bigger story? We always try to look at the deeper story that needs to be told. That led us to do the documentary on the Holocaust and to work with organizations like World Religions for Peace. We found it natural to gravitate to projects with a challenging message—we wish to impart something about how we, as human beings, live on earth and connect with other human beings. We see eye-to-eye on that.

I implicitly trust Joshua in terms of writing and researching the content. He is very involved in creating the rationale for a program, and he implicitly trusts me to take that rationale and find a visual language for it. We seek each other’s responses to what we do, but we respect each other’s areas of expertise. Over some twenty years, that has grown to the point where now we really work as a single unit.

It was similar working with Prem Anjali (executive producer) on behalf of Integral Yoga. We couldn’t have asked for a more connected, synergistic relationship. We never felt that Prem failed to understand the internal logic in our approach to the film. We saw eye-to-eye on how to make the best film based on the resources available. It was a great partnership.

You have very different backgrounds. Did this influence how you approached the subject of Yoga?
Joshua had a typical upbringing in an American Jewish family in the ‘60s—like many seeking answers that were not available in his society, he took a keen interest in Hinduism and eventually lived in ashrams for many years. I was born in South India and was raised as a Brahmin in a traditional Hindu family. Even though I had distanced myself from that when I left home, a lot of the culture stayed with me. I had an abiding love for the stories from Hindu scriptures, and when Joshua and I met we realized we wanted to do the same thing: We wanted to tell stories. The stories we first told were about Indian mythology—the Ramayana, the Mahabharata.

Joshua has a practitioner’s perspective on Indian culture and is very sympathetic to it. On the other hand, I’m quite willing to break traditional boundaries if it means telling a better story. My approach is that of a fast-moving production, and Joshua has a scholarly, content-based perspective. The two of us came from opposite ends of the spectrum and met on a very compatible middle ground.

Had you ever practiced Yoga?
The practices of Yoga such as alternate nostril breathing, standing on your head and Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) were normal activities our parents and grandparents expected us children to do. But I didn’t really relate to the way Yoga was practiced here in America, in its somewhat codified form.

What is your connection to Conrad Rooks?
Around the time I met Joshua, I had a party in my Brooklyn apartment and Alexander Rooks (son of the filmmaker Conrad Rooks, who introduced Gurudev to the West in 1966) crashed the party, along with a few other guys (Karan Kapoor, son of the famed Indian actor Shashi Kapoor, and Rahul Chatterjee). At that point, I and all my Indian friends had heard about the film, Siddhartha, and we knew it had been controversial in India. As teens, we had wanted to see this film, but it didn’t play in India. The fact that Alex’s father had made the film was so interesting to me! Rahul moved to India, Karan went to London, Alex and I maintained our friendship, and I met his father.

What was it like to meet Conrad?
He was a great raconteur and the stories he had to tell were just amazing: about life in Sri Lanka and how, in his apartment, he hosted jams with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar and every other big name in the late ‘50s. Joshua had his own connection to Conrad Rooks from the 1970s. So, when this film became a reality, it was like all these loose strands that had been floating around for some twenty years seemed to weave together.

My son Sarik was to help on our final shoot in Yogaville (Satchidananda Ashram) but, at the last minute, he couldn’t make it. By then, I had worked with Alexander on many projects, and so I asked if he would be available to work with me on this one. It wasn’t Alexander’s first visit to the ashram, but this was his first visit since Gurudev had left the body. It seemed to be a very moving experience for him to be at the ashram and to be working on this film.

How did you approach the making of this documentary?
We began with interviews that we did during Integral Yoga’s 40th anniversary celebration in Virginia in October 2006. We interviewed about 20 people over three days. Those interviews formed the spine of the film. When we sat and viewed the footage later, common themes emerged. It’s like building blocks. You lay a basic foundation and then add to it, piece by piece. The archival resources available for this film were humongous—so many satsangs (programs with Gurudev), so much footage and all the early material. We were shooting in high definition but also incorporating this old footage . To pull it all together and tell a cohesive story was a challenge.

Joshua and I like to think of ourselves as storytellers. The medium may change, but the basic experience of telling and receiving a story remains the same. If we have told a story well, it will resonate with an audience.Over the years I’ve come to recognize my inability to anticipate what a program will look like when it’s finished. When I was younger, I’d make things up, but then I learned that a program has an internal logic of its own. It starts forming itself when you allow that to happen. This project was no different. I had no idea where we were going with it when we started.

How did you come up with the visual look and other elements in the film?
I didn’t start with a design concept . The project started telling me what it should look like. There were so many stories to tell simultaneously and the multi-screen approach seemed an appropriate way to try to do justice to all the things that happened. And, it helped us because not all the archival footage would have looked as good had it been blown up for the big screen. Technically this stretched my filmmaking muscles—it pushed me to try different approaches to telling the story.

The idea of putting in some of the music, like the M.S. Subbulakshmi piece, came when I remembered what I felt like as a child, when I woke up in Madras and heard M.S. singing on my grandfather’s reel-to-reel player. My hope is that, with my involvement in the project, we can show the Indian community that the film is not a project of a western-based organization but rather of a global organization, made by people who came from and understood Indian culture.

What was it like for you working on this film?
There was a strange but extremely comfortable feeling of coming home. I spent so much time watching footage of Gurudev and listening to his voice. There was so much in his cadence and mannerisms that reminded me of the world in which I grew up. The way in which Gurudev states things, his silences, his “hmmms,” were very similar to the way in which my grandfather spoke. It would have been wonderful if, when I was younger and searching for an understanding of our Hindu scriptures and rituals, I had heard some of the explanations Gurudev gave. I’ve come to appreciate his charisma and his wonderful approach. People felt disarmed when they came in his presence.

What did you take away from this experience?
I had often felt at odds with the ritualized aspects of our culture and religion; it’s the deep philosophy that is uniquely meaningful. The way Gurudev explains profound issues really resonated with what I had always felt. As Dean Morton explained in the film, Gurudev wasn’t a Hindu talking about Hindu rituals to other Hindus. He was talking to the world-at-large. He was a global person. I pride myself in having a global sense, which is why I immediately connected with his approach to things. His path was so open and free, there was no coercion. He didn’t make you feel, “I know something that you don’t.” Instead, it was more like, “Let’s discover this path together.” It’s a wonderful feeling. All that had a definite impact on me.

What do you hope the audience might take away from the film?
Producing a film, like a book, calls for laboring in private for six months or a year. Then you bring it out and people make it their own, they find things that resonate with them. Our hope is that the film will have a broad appeal to people of all ages and from many walks of life. Regular people who have never even thought about Yoga might discover how to make more helpful and healthful choices. If, after seeing it, they come away with one or two things that they want to do to change in their life, it would be great. It might be something small, like how Denise Winchester talks about falling off the wagon occasionally, but on the whole, she’s “eating more tofu.” It’s cute when she relays that, but it’s also really real. We hope we present enough real people in the film with whom audiences can relate so that they feel that Yoga is not something beyond their reach. I hope they will realize that real contentment, peace and happiness—whatever you want to call it—is attainable by all.

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If you’d like more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with the filmmakers, please contact email pr@livingyogamovie.org.