interview with the writer and co-producer
Joshua M Greene
When did you begin your partnership with director and co-producer Shiva Kumar?
Shiva and I have been making films for more than twenty years. It’s rare to find the kind of effective partnership we’ve managed to build. We trust each other implicitly—we respect each others’ intuition and professionalism, and we have a shared sense of purpose about our work.
What do you mean by “shared sense of purpose?”
Media, like all other resources, can be used for material or spiritual ends. Like everyone else, we have to pay our bills, but we’re awake enough to know that there is the spiritual dimension to life and that the proper use of talent is to put something good out into the world.
There are rules for creating an absorbing program, whether the program is intended to sell widgets or promote Yoga. Shiva’s background in the corporate world and my background in India’s Yoga traditions have permitted us to look deeper into a complex subject and find an engaging way to portray it on the screen.
How do you work together?
A little like a marriage (laughs). We’ve probably spent as much time with one another as we’ve spent with our respective spouses.
What’s funny about the partnership is that people say “the Indian guy is more Western than the American, and the American guy is more Hindu than the Indian!” Shiva is a visual person with a real sense of what works with the general public. I’m more conceptual and tend to think in terms of the spiritual crowds. He’s the real litmus test for the bottom line, which is, “Is it good watchable programming?” My head leans more toward crafting the script and assuring that we provide the greatest editorial value to viewers.
Were there any synchronicities with this project?
There have been too many for them to have been chance. For starters, my first contact with Yoga was attending a lecture by Gurudev at the Universalist Church in New York City in 1968. The next time I saw him was at the Woodstock festival a year later. Soon after, I moved to London and lived in Krishna ashrams for the next thirteen years. In a sense, I owe the initial impetus for my spiritual life to Gurudev.
Peter Max was the one who told me to go see Gurudev at the Universalist Church and, when I interviewed Peter for the film, it was the first time we’d seen each other in thirty-nine years! I remember thinking, “Boy, have we aged.” (laughs)
Then there’s the coincidence that Shiva came from the same district in India as Gurudev, and so he brought to the film that insight into the culture.
Isn’t there also a connection to Conrad Rooks?
That’s another so-called coincidence. In 1971, Conrad called the Brooklyn Krishna temple asking if a few of the senior members would come to a screening of Siddhartha, his film-in-progress, and provide him with feedback. Back then, I had no idea that his first film had been Chappaqua, in which Gurudev appeared, or that Conrad would appear in the film we would be producing nearly forty years later.
What’s the George Harrison connection?
In 2006, Prem Anjali, Living Yoga’s executive producer, and I were discussing a biography I’d written about George Harrison’s spiritual journey. She interviewed me about the book, Here Comes the Sun, for Integral Yoga Magazine. About six months later we discussed the possibility of working on this film together.
So we discovered all these unexpected connections and resources for making the film. Some might say that God works in mysterious ways, but maybe another way of saying that is that resources come to our aid in all aspects of life, if we’re not selfishly motivated and if we’re open to the experience. The Yoga message is to be open to that mystery and to the excitement of this moment right now. If we’re lucky enough to have the guidance of a great soul such as Sri Gurudev, then we’ll see the synchronicity everywhere. As stunning as all those bits and pieces coming together may be, in a sense it’s not a surprise.
What was it like to take on this project?
Initially it was overwhelming, daunting. Here is Sri Gurudev, who had dedicated his life to helping people around the world awaken to their true Self—one of the truly great teachers in Yoga history—and here we were, outsiders to the community. I’d studied Bhakti Yoga with my teacher Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and taught Bhagavad Gita, but I’d never had the privilege of studying Integral Yoga®. My hope was that by combining whatever understanding I had of the Yoga traditions with Shiva’s terrific skills as a filmmaker— somehow all that would allow us to adequately portray Sri Gurudev’s extraordinary life and achievements.
How did your other films prepare you?
We’ve been working together for many years. In retrospect, it’s as if everything we’d done before was training for the film about Gurudev. Our films on the Holocaust sensitized us to the workings of memory. Programs we created for the World Council of Religions for Peace made us aware of interfaith efforts going on around the world. Programs we’d done on justice and due process of law taught us about the role of human character in the progress of civilization. I could go down the list and it’s as if everything was providing us with some additional insight for approaching Gurudev’s life with respect and integrity.
Did you have a clear sense of how to proceed?
I suspect that there is a similar pattern to the creative process across different fields—painting, photography, dance and filmmaking—in that you don’t always know where you are going. If you have faith in your abilities and faith that some unseen Higher Power will guide you, then you won’t be afraid and you can embark on what may seem to be an impossible task with confidence. Honestly, when we began, we had no idea where we would go. We knew the project was important, and we were honored to be a part of it.
So, how did you begin to conceive the film?
With twenty years of experience behind us, we knew the drill: Start by listening, ask questions, immerse ourselves in the subject, get acquainted with the terrain, push the envelope, be open-minded to the difference between what we think is important and what the subject says is important. At this stage in our career, we are ready for those differences when they surface. In this instance, there was an added dimension—the guiding hand of Gurudev.
How did you determine who to interview for the film?
We always start with recommendations from those who know best. In this case, clearly some of the senior monastic disciples of Gurudev needed to be interviewed, people who were there when Gurudev first arrived in the U.S. and so on. I’ll admit we had an agenda. We didn’t want to let this documentary become purely a eulogy to Sri Gurudev. We didn’t feel that he would want that. I think he would say, “I’m not important, the teachings are important.”
So while the film had to honor him, we gave ourselves the task of making sure people outside of the Integral Yoga community could watch it and derive benefit. That meant going into the extraordinary applications of Yoga that have emerged in the forty years since Gurudev first came to the U.S. We conducted interviews with healthcare professionals, psychologists, people working with the environment and endangered species. We interviewed people like Sonia Sumar, who does miraculous things with children with special needs. We wanted to be sure viewers understood that Yoga has a contribution to make across the spectrum of our lives.
Were there any surprises along the way in making the film?
What surprised me most was something I already knew but which was dramatically underscored while talking with the many interviewees about their efforts to promote Yoga, namely how little most people understand about the depth of Yoga. Yoga puts us in touch with our deepest, purest Self. It’s troubling to think that people limit Yoga to an exercise class.
What did you take away from this filmmaking experience?
Without wanting to exaggerate too much, Shiva and I have probably watched as many if not more videos and heard more audio recordings and read more books about Sri Gurudev than some of his own students. I admit I can be arrogant about my years in ashrams—“Oh, look how much I know about Yoga”—but after that much exposure to Sri Gurudev’s life and teachings, the realization I had was, “Boy do I have a long way to go.”
Doing this film has also renewed my respect for the physical and psychological dimensions of Yoga. My training has been in bhakti, the devotional side of Yoga. After doing this film, I’ve started attending beginners’ Yoga classes.
Another gift for me was that I felt, I guess, Gurudev enter my heart. I hadn’t experienced anything like that since my own spiritual master passed away in 1977.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from the film?
My freshman class at Hofstra University got a sneak preview. We’d been discussing other books on Yoga and we’d screened some films, but I only got blank stares. After seeing Living Yoga, all the students had questions and I heard comments like, “Oh, we get it now,” and “This really spoke to me.” There was a personal recognition on their part, that somehow this message included them. The value then, from my perspective, in a film that explores Sri Gurudev’s teachings and the application of the teachings in practical, daily life is that people who may otherwise never have considered Yoga might do so now. That’s a whole lot.
If you’d like more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with the filmmakers, please contact email [email protected].