Yoga in Hollywood

Mar 31st, 2015

Charles Rahi Chun, a Hollywood celebrity who has starred in the recent movie, The Interview, and the hit TV series, Scrubs and Everybody Loves Raymond, shares his unique journey of yoga.  Charles once lived in a Buddhist Monastery in Northern Thailand at the age of 22 when he engaged in Vipassana meditation for 12-14 hours a day.  He then practised Zen meditation in the Zen Temples of Kyoto, Japan.  Today, he teaches kundalini yoga and meditation in LA, along with daily practice.

Asana’s Christina Borges talked to Charles about his life, trainings, spiritual thinking, the importance of community, and about the benefits yoga has had on his career.

The Journey

Asana: How were you introduced to yoga?  What were your original thoughts to the practice?

Charles: In the summer after my freshman year at Connecticut College, I was working as an account analyst at the Bank of Boston.  Walking home from the subway, I stopped by a bookstore and was drawn to The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Vishnu Devananda.  I remember flipping through the pages and being fascinated, not only by all of the incredible yoga postures, but also by the traditional Ayurvedic remedies of cleansing the body, from the nostrils, the throat, the bowels, etc.  I sensed this was ancient wisdom of a complete health and wellness system that I could benefit from tremendously.  So, I would come home, lay out my sleeping bag as my yoga mat, and despite the humidity of the Boston summer, try these yoga postures for about an hour a day.

Asana: Can you tell us about your unique experience learning yoga while living in Asia?

Charles: About a year and a half later, I spent my junior year of college in Kyoto, Japan, attending Doshisha University and living with a home-stay family.  I found a Japanese yoga teacher who had studied hatha yoga in India and was offering weekly classes as a benefit for a charity.  At the age of 21, I was very consumed by my mind, so the practice brought  awareness to my body and to my breath really to moments of infinite presence.  It was a small class of 4 students, so the personal attention was magnificent.  More so was my teacher, who would often drive me to the train station after class, sharing his experience of yoga and of his yoga teacher in such a joyful manner.  Those rides to the train station after class were as important in what he imparted to me as the yoga class itself.  As we know, the quality of presence and example a teacher imparts can be amongst the most significant aspects of a practice.  He was one of the first examples I got to witness of a teacher who had dedicated his life to being of service.  The 15-minute yoga warm-up ritual that he taught me some 26 years ago, is the same set I’ve continued practising as my nightly warm-down ritual before going to bed every night

Asana: What did you enjoy most about your time practising Zen meditation in the Zen Temples of Kyoto, Japan? 

Charles: I loved how these traditions of ancient wisdom are alive and well in modern-day Japan.  In the midst of modern day technology and capitalism, there are robed monks who are practising their life’s meditation by preserving these traditions.  It’s important that we preserve and honour this despite, or perhaps because of, the changing pace of our modern-day society.  Experiencing these wooden temples with large halls of tatami mats and seated cushions with the walkway behind the sitting area for the monk to walk by with his hitting stick for waking was like walking into another era.  The meditation itself, of emptying the mind, at age 22, when the activity of thoughts seemed endless for me, was very humbling. 

The Transformation

Asana: What was the greatest thing you learned while staying at the monastery in Northern Thailand?

Charles: My stay at Wat Ram Peung was to engage in a 21-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which is a meditation that was taught by Lord Buddha bringing awareness to the feelings, sensations and thoughts as they are occurring.  I remember being quite terrified once I had committed to the retreat because there was so much, at age 22, that I had repressed emotionally about myself and my feelings towards my family members, that was about to come to the surface.  And as well, because I was so identified with my perception of who I was at the time. 

Although by the 5th day, we were engaging in 8-10 hours of sitting and walking meditations a day, being present to what was happening as it was happening, it wasn’t until the 8th day that my resistance to the process fully surrendered and I let go of the attachment that I had to who I thought I was at the time, which opened up the space for real presence and for the infinite.  It was the 8 days leading up to that surrender, of being present to all of the repressed feelings and thoughts about myself and my family … a lot of self-hatred, anger and sadness coming to the surface, which needed to be felt and experienced, to be released.  So the greatest thing I learned was that in order to expand into newness and the infinite unknown, I had to fully experience what was, by being present to what is. 

Asana: How has yoga changed your life and helped you in your career?

Charles: There is an intelligence beyond the mind that can’t be fully understood by the mind, but can be acknowledged by it.  Yoga and meditation nourishes and informs this intuitive intelligence by inviting us to listen to that greater source and live in communion with it. 

Specifically with my career, the very decision to pursue acting for me was one of those instances that didn’t make any sense at all.  I hadn’t done any theatre in college or high school and was working in public policy when this clarity was so defining, there was no way to deny it.  I simply trusted this intuitive knowing and honored it, left public policy, and enrolled in a full-time dramatic arts program. 

As a working actor, my job involves lots of auditioning, and that means preparing and investing myself into characters’ circumstances in a very personal way.  Yoga and meditation is a practice that encourages me to be fully engaged, yet detached to the outcome, and also provides the constant source of nourishment and wholeness in my life in the midst of the unpredictable ups and downs of a career in entertainment.   It’s the grounding source and force in my day-to-day existence.

The Practice

Asana: Can you share with us what drew you to focus on kundalini style?  Are there other styles that you practise now?

Charles: It’s wonderful that there are many styles of yoga for people to explore what resonates with their body and consciousness.  For me, I love the specificity of how each of the thousands of kundalini yoga kriya sets and meditations are designed to address specific issues, organs, and bodies with such precision.  In kundalini yoga, we are taught about the bodies beyond our physiological one, such as our auric body, our soul body, our radiant body, and how using the breath as the engine, combined with physiological postures and their use of angles, with a mudra, mantra and drishti can affect change in our consciousness.  It’s a science whose wisdom is profound and I feel deeply blessed to have found it and am forever grateful to the lineage of teachers who have preserved it for us to experience. 

To complement this, I also love a good sweat and have enjoyed a hot yoga practice of hatha postures since 2001. 

Asana: What has been your greatest challenge when it comes to your practice?

Charles: The greatest challenge has been to make my daily morning sadhana the priority that it deserves to be.  I always engage in a daily sadhana (yoga and meditation) practice no matter how busy I get, but there are days when it’s later in the day rather than first thing, or more condensed than I would like it to be.  My intention is to continue to step up in my consistency to the quality of my practice, both at sunrise and before going to bed at night. 

Asana: Where is your favorite place to practice yoga/meditation?

Charles: I love my altar and I love practising in front of it.  For me, it’s a way of giving thanks and paying homage to my teachers like Guru Ram Das, the 10 Sikh Gurus, Yogi Bhajan, Osho, Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, who are all represented on my altar and who I get to sit before, during and after my practice. 

I also love practising at Yoga West in Los Angeles, which is Yogi Bhajan’s original yoga studio and where I completed

my teachers’ training.  I can still feel his presence there and it’s a wonderful community of practitioners, teachers, and light bearers. 

Yogi Bhajan advocated our community to gather and engage in our practice together during the Summer and Winter Solstices and the 3HO organization makes sure we get to do this every June and December in New Mexico and in Florida, where we all rise for our daily sadhana practice during the ambrosial hours at 3:40am over the 8 day event, and engage in 3 days of White Tantra, a practice facilitated by the Mahan Tantric.  These gatherings of the international community are amazing and I’ve only missed one of the last 10 or so solstices. 

The Teaching

Asana: After moving to Hollywood, you became a certified kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.   What motivated you to start teaching? 

Charles: I discovered kundalini yoga and meditation, as taught by Yogi Bhajan, through a classmate of mine, Adishakti, when I was enrolled in an MA program in Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica.  She was a practising Sikh at the time, and I asked her what led her path to becoming a Sikh.  She said she engaged in a practice called “White Tantra” and it changed her life.  Some time later, I went to see Snatam Kaur in concert and Gurmukh, who was warming up the audience with kundalini kriyas, said, “Everyone comes to Summer Solstice for 3 days of White Tantra!”  So that summer, I drove out to Espanola, New Mexico from Los Angeles to experience it with 2,000 other kundalini yoga practitioners and, like my dear friend, it changed my life.  It was so cleansing, liberating, and an experience of feeling renewed for me that I joined the teachers’ training program at Yoga West immediately to understand the profound science and technology of the practice and meditations.  It’s become my daily morning practice ever since. 

I love how Yogi Bhajan, who was a practising Sikh and a leader of the Sikh community, emphasises the importance of service and being “the lighthouse.”  When one understands and has received the benefits experientially of this profound practice, it seems natural to want others to also benefit from its wisdom. 

Asana: Do you have plans of conducting workshops or trainings in the near future? 

Charles: Yes!  My colleague Lisa Arshawsky, who conducts monthly women’s circles in Venice, and I just co-facilitated a workshop called “Valentines with the Divine” which involved kundalini kriyas, sacred chanting, and a chakra breathing meditation before leading a 45-minute blind-folded movement exploration of the inner feminine and inner masculine.  We will be offering another one in May at The Electric Lodge in Venice.  

Separately, I also facilitate inner pelvic release of muscular armoring from the tissues and fascia of the pelvic bowl which involves the use of breath, sound, movement and presence to release past trauma, repressed emotions and unhealthy associations from the body.  I will be offering trainings for men to facilitate this process for their beloveds later this year.  There’s a description of the practices and processes involved with this sacred work I hold space for at 

The Acting

Asana: Do you consider there a role for yoga in the acting world and do you believe other actors can use yoga practice to improve their career? How?

Charles: Since our bodies are our instruments as actors, I believe yoga is natural for performers of all arts.  Body awareness, how to channel and use energy consciously, deep breathing, the art of presence, and vibrant health are all benefits of a consistent yoga practice and all assets for the actor.  I know of acting programs that incorporate yoga classes as a part of their curriculum and I believe we’ll be seeing this more and more.  Yoga and meditation are natural complements for an actor’s practice, definitely during training, but most especially when working on sets and engaging with the pressures and responsibilities that come as a public figure in the press and media.  Our leaders need to be grounded and come from a place of benevolence and wholeness. 

Asana: As a celebrity, how do you control the ego?

Charles: For me, it’s more about being aware of the ego’s mischievousness than controlling it, and from this awareness making conscious choices.  I’ll share an example.  In my twenties, my ego was very invested in getting recognition for the work that I did in TV and film and whenever I booked roles, I would share this with my friends, and notice myself feeling good about this.  Well, this is a two-way street, in that, when I wasn’t booking roles, and had nothing to tell friends, I would feel undervalued about myself.  Once I noticed this, in my 30’s and into my 40’s, I never told a soul anything about the roles I booked or shows I would be on, and prided myself on valuing myself for my spiritual practices.  Well, in some ways, this was no different than what I was doing in my 20’s; I simply shifted the emphasis on how I valued myself from booking roles to my spiritual practices.  Today, I feel I have a good awareness of how my ego operates, and I neither judge it nor control it, but I am also not as invested in it, because I see it as just what the ego does.  So today, I can enjoy publicizing roles that I do, and know that this is not who I am, but an environment I get to play in without having an attachment about it, and I can also enjoy engaging in my spiritual practices whilst also knowing that it’s not defining me, but an engagement of how I chose to use my energy. 

Asana: What are the obstacles of balancing acting and yoga practice?

Charles: The ways in which my yoga practice informs, nourishes and supports my acting career far out-ways any of the challenges involved, and I would imagine this would be the case in most professions.  If one’s life journey and purpose in any way involves a devotion and service to humanity, the heart, creativity, honoring one’s truth and intuition, communing with the Divine, then yoga is the very practice from which to access that infinite reservoir.  It connects my awareness to the source of my center, my heart, and to the temple housing my heart which is my body.  This daily practice of keeping this connection and communication line fresh and open will serve anybody in any career.  The challenges I find at times, when my schedule is particularly hectic, only reminds me of how important and necessary my yoga practice really is.

The Lifestyle

Asana: Has your yoga practice influenced you to develop a yogic diet, including a higher vegetarian intake?

Charles: Absolutely.  The better and healthier I feel, the more I want to feel that way.  Our diets are the true medicine for our bodies. 

An interesting experience I had going vegetarian:  Over the years, I had attempted several times to drop all meats from my diet (I had already dropped red meat a long time ago), but when I cut chicken and turkey out, I didn’t feel grounded.  So after some time, I would return to consuming them.  Once I began a daily kundalini yoga practice, these remaining meats simply no longer interested me, and I felt completely grounded and centered.  I was told that the energetic balance kundalini yoga provides addressed whatever ungroundedness I had felt previously. 

Asana: Besides yoga, do you take care of your health through other activities, such as sports?

Charles: I practise a form of movement/dance called 5 Rhythms which was developed by movement pioneer Gabrielle Roth who discovered that when the body moves to 5 specific rhythms of music sequenced in a particular manner, it elicits a cathartic emotional release from the body.  Here in Los Angeles, we have a vibrant, wonderful community that gathers several times a week to surrender our bodies to being danced by the music.  The experience is also referred to as “movement as prayer.”  These gatherings can be found on and www.spiritweaves,com.  I love the combination of yoga, which involves a structure and science of angles for the body, and the free-form expression and surrender to how the body wants to move organically with 5-rhythms movement. 

The Way Forward

Asana: What are your future dreams and goals?

Charles: My dream is to enjoy an inspiring Sadhana practice, which I already have, but during the ambrosial hours each morning (4-6am), channeling this source of energy and light into creating original entertainment content which inspires the soul.  My goals are also to enjoy a fulfilling acting career as a series regular in quality hit television series and feature films which allow me the platform to bring attention to issues of health and consciousness to a world-wide audience.  Lastly, my dream is to create a network of multi-disciplinary creative and healing arts centers for yoga, meditation, somatic sexual wholeness, movement, and being of service.  And of course, to enjoy the journey of this all with my beloved life partner, family and spiritual tribes.

Asana: What advice would you like to share with other practitioners based on your personal experience?

Charles: The importance of getting started in a devotional practice of yoga and meditation, no matter how small – to begin it.  And if possible, to engage in it with community.  We are blessed here in the City of Angels to have so many yoga options and the kundalini sangat in particular is very vibrant and strong.  There are classes and workshops to share with community all the time.  Take full advantage of this because it is priceless. 

Lastly, make your devotional practice your love affair with life and the most important purpose of your existence.  Everything else stems from this as an expression of this love.  This is advice for me to heed myself. 

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