Awakening To The Spiritual Life
The Full Discussion
Join us on a conversation with Peter Rader, the producer of the highly acclaimed documentary on the life of Pramahansa Yogananda, Awake: The Life of Yogananda. Peter shares some behind the scenes stories about making the movie, how making the movie changed his life, and some interesting stories about Yogananda himself!
The way people encounter Yogananda teachings, or sort of stepped onto this path, was almost absurdly comical. It was like the book fell off a shelf and hit them in the head. We heard that from at least three people where it was like they’re walking through books in a bookstore, and suddenly this book comes falling down and boom and now it’s in there hand. It’s like, Wake up! Hello!
Namaste, you’re listening to the Sivana podcast. Join us on an exploration of eastern spirituality, yoga philosophy and conscious living for the new age.
This podcast is a production of sivanaspirit.com, where you can find a large selection of Om and yoga clothing, spiritual jewelry and unique fair trade gifts from the Far East. Now here’s your host Ashton Szabo.
Hi everyone Ashton Szabo here and today we’re going to be talking about Paramahansa Yogananda. Our guest is Peter Rader, who is the producer of the recent documentary about Yogananda called, Awake: The life of Yogananda.
Peter, thanks for coming on the show today.
It’s a pleasure.
So, I actually have a quite long history with Yogananda. I grew up in Los Angeles. I grew up surfing, and would go down the beach and Lake shrine is there, which is one of the SRF temples. And before I ever knew what or who Yogananda was, I used to go there. Growing up in L.A, which is super crazy and hectic, I’d kinda found this place and it was just this little oasis amongst the chaos of Los Angeles. And I would sit and I’d meditate, and every now and then I’d pop my head into the little chapel or even the bookstore and see some pictures; some Indian guys and Jesus was there. I was like alright cool, this is nice, but never really knew who he was.
And then actually, my first yoga teacher training that I did was with Peri Ness, and she was coming from Bishnu Ghosh’s lineage, which is of course from Paramahansa Yogananda’s younger brother. You know that exposed me to Autobiography of a Yogi, and that was kind of what inspired a lot of my journeys, in the start of my journey. I was on the path, I thought, to become a Sannyasin, to become a monk. I gave up my possessions and went to went to Asia.
The second teacher training I did actually was with the man David Goulet, who also was very much inspired, back I believe either in the 60’s or the 70’s, by Autobiography of a Yogi. So that was something that was very present in our trainings. He actually lived as a wandering monk in India for about a decade. And in the two trips that I went to India as well, I was initiated through Swami Shankarananda Giri at the Kriya Yoga Ashtam in Rishikesh. And both times that I was in India as well, I made a point to go to Bagorna, which of course is a sacred site in the lineage where the mystical Ashram of Babuji is.
So I’m really thankful that you made this film, just because I think the message of Yogananda and his life is such a powerful one. What actually inspired you to make the film?
Well we were approached to make the film by the organization, and in fact there was one step before that which is, some donors essentially, anonymous donors, approached the organization, right around six to seven years ago and said,
“We’ll write the check to make this movie. It’s time to make a movie about Yogananda.
However, as a condition, we very much urge you to seek outside filmmakers. In other words, people who are not already steeped in the teachings.”
And there’s plenty of super talented film people within SRF. And they certainly could have mined from that pool of talent. But I think wisely, they chose, You know what? Let’s get beginners eyes, beginner’s mind on this. Let’s get a fresh outside perspective.
And so, the organization created a shortlist of candidates that they thought, you know, would be good to make a film about Yogananda, and my wife and I, Paula di Florio, who was one of the co-directors, on the lists, thankfully. And so we kind of went in, and there’s sort of a mutual audition process because we had to be sure that we would be able to have journalistic integrity and really make pro, turn over rocks and kind of get in there, and the organization also needed to have their checks and balances.
So we created a relationship that I think really worked ultimately. I mean it was a fascinating, a really interesting process for kind of the ways in which we stretched the organization, and they also stretched us.
I’ll give you an example of that. All of us, so Paula co-directed the film with Lisa Lehman. They wrote and directed, and the three of us produced together. All of us had spiritual practices before making the film. We were either meditators, or had a yoga practice or both. Myself, I was in the Vipassana tradition. I was, you know, inside meditating. And so certainly we had ways into these teachings.
However, there is a way in which Yogananda himself is so fervent in his embrace of God. God, God is all over his writings, that word: God, God, God. Now, for westerners that can be a very loaded word.
What is God?
I mean, the beginning of the western traditional, kind of conservative, western, interpretation of God is like some dude, with a big beard and lightning bolts, chucking down, you know, fire from above. Sometimes it’s a vindictive God or it’s a sort of an Old Testament God.
So you know, in fact, the story, the actual apocryphal story that actually happened was that, Paula inone of our very first meetings at S.R.F., turns right to the senior monks and says,
“You guys need to know that I have a problem with the word God.”
I like it though, I like it.
Here’s where it got interesting. They didn’t blink. They had no problem with that because Yogananda himself said,
“Atheists are welcome to my talks. I don’t have a problem. Yoga is scientific. It doesn’t ask for a leap of faith. It doesn’t ask for you to believe what I’m telling you. All I do is say to you, try these practices and see what happens. You’re the scientist, it’s in your control. Be the witness to the transformation of your consciousness”
So the word God for Yogananda had a very broad definition, as it does to many people in India.
So for instance, he himself worshiped God in the form of Divine Mother. Now there’s a radical concept, you know, especially from 1920s America, when he came over here.
Divine Mother? Hello? What? Who?
You know there’s a feminine aspect of God?
Yeah there sure is. There’s God in both male and female and you know, omniscient and omnipresent. You know God can be an energy field, God can be a feeling of love, feeling of peace. For Yogananda, it’s like pick your point of entry. Whatever works for you can be your definition of God, and then cultivate this practice of devotion to it, to that force, that feeling, whatever it is; that quality. And in that practice, your relationship will deepen and something will happen, and it’s very private and it’s very personal and it’s really about going on your unique individual journey.
Now, there was something incredibly emancipating to us about that, about that really broad definition of God. And when those senior monastics did not even blink when the director of the film says, “I got a problem with the God word,” they’re like,
“Great! Figure your own way into it and we’re going to have a movie here.”
I love that. It’s kind of sidestepping from the actual topic of God itself, but you actually, in the film, you guys have a few different people present sort of a definition of yoga. Because then we put Yogananda’s teachings in an overall container of yoga.
What is yoga for you personally?
How do you define the term yoga? Or is that too broad of a question.
No, it’s a great question. The definition changed of course in the making of this film. I mean, for so many of the eighteen million people who practice yoga in America, it’s kind of a physical practice. It’s an asana practice, it’s a Hatha Yoga and that’s great, because there’s huge benefits in it.
But you know, as we delved into our research and kind of made this film, we realized that yoga is really a way of life and it’s a very broad thing. In fact, one of the yogis we interviewed, many of the prominent, you know, western yogis of course, most of them ended up on the kind of floor. But we did interview them, and one of them basically had this incredibly broad definition of yoga just saying,
“Any kinetic, anything in this world, in which there is motion is yoga”
So it’s all yoga in a way. But you know for me personally, I’m realizing that yoga is…it’s electing to aspire to a state of consciousness in everything that you do. And making the recommitment on a moment-by-moment basis to an aspect of being serviceable in the world.
Absolutely. And I think that’s also a big part of Yogananda’s messages as well, of save on service and giving back to the world, and that’s something I really appreciate about him. In all the different interviews about him, both with western yogis and people through SRF or anything else, what was the wildest story that someone shared with you about their experience with Yogananda? Whether it was, I mean, I don’t know if there are now still people that were alive when he was. But with Yogananda’s devotees, they have some pretty fascinating stories about interactions even now.
Do you have a kind of an out-there story that someone shared with you?
Yeah you know what, this story kept repeating itself. This one would happen in multiple interviews, which is the way people encountered Yogananda’s teachings or, you know, sort of stepped onto this path was almost absurdly comical. It was like the book fell off a shelf and hit them in the head. We heard that from at least three people where it was like, they’re walking through a bookstore and suddenly this book comes falling down and boom! Now it’s in their hand it’s like, wake up! Hello! Read this book. George Harrison has a great quote in the film where he just said he keeps stacks of those books, and he hands it out to anyone who needs “regrooving.”
Read this book. So that was a recurring motif, is just how, you know, that whole thing about the guru finding you when you’re receptive. It’s like, this guru moves books and has them fall on your head.
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Something that I learned from the film that I didn’t know beforehand was that, apparently, Yogananda had a very profound effect on Steve Jobs. I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit more.
Right, so Steve Jobs is of that generation kind of, you know, hippie late 60’s/early 70’s generation, so many of whom were really seeking. And the place to seek was of course India. And a lot of them headed over there, Krishna Das a lot of those guys, you know, Jack Kornfield, so many of those Buddhist teachers also just headed over to the Far East in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and Jobs was one of them. He read that book, and he did a couple of acid trips. I don’t know whether he read it before or after, but somewhere in there he just said,
“You know what, I got to go to India.” And he, his entire career, was deeply influenced by this book and its messages.
The book is so, for those of you who have not read it, it’s incredibly dense. It warrants about ten reads. Maybe in ten reads, you’re going to get to the essence of it. But certainly every time you re-read it, something new emerges from those pages, and MC yogi, who was someone we interviewed for the film, says that he read it in a halfway house in Brooklyn, where he had gotten into a lot of trouble as a young kid. He’s in this halfway house, he reads the book and he says,
“Magic was exuding from the pages. I was changing as I was reading the book.”
And for someone, back to Jobs for a moment, it influenced so many aspects of how he used his creativity, this idea of seeking inwards, going inward and seeking the inner guidance, and looking for inspiration from within. I mean that’s something that he practiced throughout. And you know, he had apparently, in his last months of life, only one book on his iPad and it was Autobiography of a Yogi. And also he choreographed his own memorial service, the giveaway to the eight hundred different dignitaries who were there, you know including Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, was the Autobiography of a Yogi. He gave out eight hundred of those books to these VIPs.
Wow. So after having made this film about Yogananda, and with all of your experiences communicating with people and interviewing people and going over all the footage, what ultimately to you do you feel is Yogananda’s most important message or teaching? Like, what is he trying to convey through the world, or to the world through his teachings?
If you had to reduce it down to one word, it would probably be Love.
You know he said, when he knew that he was about to leave this planet, he said,
“After me, all that will remain is love.”
And I mean, it’s actually a pretty good word. It’s also kind of a loaded word in a sense. But If you interact with the world and other people with that basic principle, it’s going to serve you. That’s a good default. If you just go with the love thing, that’s really good.
Awesome. You did mention that a lot of things ended up on the cutting room floor.
What was the most fascinating thing that you ended up having to cut from the film? That didn’t make it on the reel, but like was still pretty mind blowing?
There were so many. We had three hundred hours of footage. There’s a mini-series in this movie. We distilled it down to sort of a palatable eighty-seven minutes, for the novice, for the person who’s never been exposed to these teachings. And also, there’s plenty in there, there’s all sorts of layers in the film. Certain people have seen the film twenty seven thirty times. That I think is the record, there’s a woman who has seen it thirty times.
Because certainly for devotees, there’s a tremendous amount of energy in the film. Any time Yogananda’s on screen, he’s kind of rocketing off the screen. But also in the filmmaking process, we literally created layers. Sometimes, for people who know video editing, we had six or seven layers of video. Just subtle kind of Maya, veils, then smoke and other things. Below it all was this one little thing, and it was a metaphor or symbol, and if you know what that metaphor is, it’s going to possibly take you to a state that we were trying to evoke.
But in terms of what didn’t make it, one of my favorite things was we had the honor of actually filming in a cloistered monastery. Actually more than once, but here in Los Angeles, Mount Washington, his main ashram.
For the first time ever, they let these outsiders, not only just outsiders but, like, like Hollywood film-makers, with our cameras, into monastic life. I was not allowed to go into the nun’s quarters, so Paula and Lisa filmed that side, and I filmed with the monks. Like for instance, going into their meditation. And it was so beautiful and profound and just radiant with mystical kind of spiritual energy. It’s just this gorgeous sequence that we cut and didn’t make it into the film, which is monastic life, the life of renunciation. For people who are absolutely convinced that their purpose in this incarnation is to find divinity. Then yes, this is the path. That was really cool.
There’s a moment in the film that I really like as well where I think it’s Herb Jeffries, and he’s talking about his experience with Yogananda. It’s something that I think is a powerful message, especially kind of in today’s day and age, where he’s talking about,
“Hey you know, I’m drinking, I’m smoking, I’m womanizing.” You know, and he’s talking to Yogananda. He’s heard all these things he can’t do in his life, and you know he goes to Yogananda and he says,
“You know I’m still doing these things,” and Yogananda was like, “Yeah, that’s fine you know, you could keep doing them.”
He’s like, “Wait a second, I can keep doing all these things?”
And he’s like,
“Yes you know you can do them, but I can’t promise you that the desire to do them is going to stay there if you keep doing these practices.” And for me, as a yoga teacher, that’s so profound because you have a lot of people that are trying to force from the other direction of like, “You need to do this, this and that. Stop doing this. Don’t eat animals. Do this, do that.” And it kind of shows a lack of trust in the teachings themselves, because if the teachings really have value, they’re going to bring that about naturally, it brings its own transformation. You don’t need to like force anyone into anything.
That was something that is very powerful for me, because I appreciate it so much.
I’m curious within that context of how these teachings work on us, with your own story creating this film. How did this film work on you or change you through the process of making it?
Well you know, it’s a profound question and each of us of the three main film-makers have our unique stories of that. It’s kind of private and for me, it’s really something that’s evolving.
I think the biggest ship for me was this aspect of Bhakti, you know, devotion, and how you can have this really intimate, very personal relationship with something that’s real. I mean it is real, it interacts with you, it’s amazing that in a deep meditation, you could actually have this experience. That was mind-blowing for me. Because, you know, coming from the sort of Buddhist tradition of no mind, of emptiness-so you’re going to the void, you’re going to no mind and there you rest-versus okay, you get there and there’s actually something there, there’s something there that you can actually interact with. That was profound and crazy, and I’m still trying to work with it.
I think that’s something that’s wonderful, not only in a lot of the Indian traditions, but in particular in Bhakti traditions as well. It came through in the film of, you know, having a personal relationship with the divine. A big part of Yogananda’s message, a big contrast to our typical western relationships with the divine, which is always through a priest, through a church.
And so much of what yoga as a whole is trying to cultivate, is a deeper and very personal relationship to the divine, which I think is extremely empowering for everyone because it allows that like, “Okay, I don’t need to do this through anyone, I can do this paradoxically.” Not with myself, per se, because the self is kind of what’s going to get in the way of it all. But that I can have this experience of otherness.
I think you mentioned love being such a loaded word, but I think what can kind of-and heart kind of carries along with love, and is very connected too-and I think we have in our culture the language there already. When somebody has a really big heart, it’s this idea of, “Oh they’re getting beat up in a sporting event, but they’re always doing something more, or they’re always helping someone else.” It’s our capacity in love, to put something else ahead of the ego in the mind.
And so many of these practices are taking that place to help, kind of, dive underneath the mind in all its various thought forms and identities and things attaching to have this greater experience of something. And as you said too, there’s all these different ways to step into it wherever you’re getting into like, “Okay, you want God with form? You want God without form? You want a feminine form? A masculine form?” It’s another thing that, in India, they did so well because I mean there’s literally millions of Gods for them to worship because there’s millions of people. Like, “Hey, I want to interact with a God that speaks to me this way,” and I think is so wonderfully beautiful about the traditions.
So in terms of the film, I mean, I know now it’s on Netflix and there’s, you know, the D.V.D. What are the ways that people can see the film? I mean those are two examples, are there other ways, are there good ways? Are you guys ever going to release any of that extra footage? Is that part of a conversation? Like, what’s going on with all that?
It is. In terms of the bonus footage, we’re thinking about next year or maybe a couple years out, doing a re-release of the D.V.D. with some bonus stuff. But for now, the film is available as you said on Netflix, it’s on iTunes, it’s on our website. You can rent it digitally right off our website, awaketheyoganandamovie.com.
We also have a soundtrack, which is really nice. It’s a sort of a meditative soundtrack that two composers did an amazing job, Michael Mollura and Vivac Maddala. We also have this gorgeous book that SRF publications put out, that we’re calling the “companion book,” which has four hundred photographs and photo layouts, that are amazingly photoshopped, that really give you a sense in book form of that movie. There’s also a complete transcript in there, as well as forwards and afterwards by the filmmakers and also some monks. It’s a really nice book, anyway all of that is available on our website.
But one of the things that we’re saying-in fact we just sent out a newsletter to this effect-is that, fantastic of you to watch this film on Netflix, you know in your home or whatever, iTunes. But there is still something to be said about gathering as a community, and seeing it. So we continue to have screenings, theatrical on-demand screenings and community screenings. It’s available for yoga centers and everything. There’s something about that shared experience. We saw it, you know, we screened the movie probably two hundred seventy-five times or so over the course of last year. And over and over again, there’s this energy in the room that’s just undeniable. It’s really cool
I think you pointed to this earlier too, but the film itself has its own vibratory quality to it. I mean, the photos of Yogananda always exude this, like, force in them. I think they talk about it, some people talk about in the film too with his eyes of just like lasers zapping at you, and whether it was in person or through a film or through photos. I have this photo on my alter of Yogananda meditating. And still even just that, like, you know he’s sitting in lotus, I think he just has like a loin cloth or something like that, and it’s just, like, super powerful of presence. I think that’s exciting that there’s a book of these photos out there as well. For you personally, what’s next for you in terms of your projects? Your production studio is Counterpoint Films, correct? What’s going on for you guys next?
Yes. So we’re in the process of trying to figure out what that next film is, there’s about two or three candidates that we’re developing, and the sort of driving log-line of counterpoint films, is entertainment that empowers the human spirit. Paula was just at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, which for the first time ever had the inaugural women’s assembly. Female spiritual leaders and female spiritual leadership, and talking about integrating the feminine aspect in our dialogue and balancing it. It’s not about taking over.
This to us, is like totally the main theme of what we need to be focusing on right now. It’s this idea of balance leadership and bringing in the feminine principle into kind of the way we approach, you know, these kind of daunting tasks that’s before us. So we have a number of projects that are going to have a hopefully address that theme.
I love that. Well, not only because it’s the way especially in our western culture, it’s important to bring in some more balance of the feminine. I also have a young daughter, reading up about you guys before our talk today, and your wife’s work with sort of these strong female characters and things like that. I think that’s really exciting as well so that women do have, and young girls do have, a strong sense of direction and purpose and examples of that.
But as well, for whether you’re a young boy or young girl, understanding that there are feminine qualities in the world that are extremely powerful, extremely important instead of just all this one-sided very masculine, very rational-minded type of thinking, which sort of predominates the modern world in most parts. In some ways it’s responsible for some of our greatest accomplishments, but it’s also responsible for some of our greatest downfalls that are currently destroying the world. So bringing back the feminine to help nourish the world again, I think, is a really important task for people to be taking on. So that’s exciting that you guys are doing that, thank you.
Well that’s it for today, we will have all of the websites and all of that available and show notes for everybody, so people can check out your website check out the site for all of the things for “Awake.” You said they can purchase the book on there and the audio CD and all that. So they can definitely look for that and we’ll continue to look for your next projects that are coming out.
I really appreciate you talking with us today Peter, I hope you have a beautiful rest of your day.
Thank you so much it was really a pleasure and an honor.
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