Yoga Medicine – Interview with Vikram Zutshi

Dec 5th, 2015

Written by Meera Grace Hoon

Yogi, blissful moksha. Slave, unspeakable suffering. These pairs of words seem worlds apart and yet have a divinely deep relationship. I began to understand this upon starting my journalism career years ago reporting on human rights abuses, while simultaneously immersing myself into the yogic lifestyle. At first, I was ambivalent toward this new insight, but as I learned more, my heart overflowed with gratitude for being shown the intersection and simple truth of two seemingly separate spheres of the darkest dark and the purest light.

Sex trafficking survivors revealed to me in heartbreaking interviews the depths of their tragedy and suffering. In between these interviews, yoga was pulling me out of a severe depression, empowering me with a sense of freedom in myself and in the divine. Immediately I dedicated myself to helping bring the liberating qualities of yoga to abused, traumatized populations.

I transitioned from a journalist to sexual assault counselor, delving deeply into research studies by professionals who used yoga and meditation as an intervention in the recovery process of traumatized individuals. My life was changed forever by the overwhelming inspiration I found in extraordinary individuals and organizations who are bringing peace, joy, love, recovery and, ultimately, freedom to abused populations around the world.

I found remarkably compelling articles on organizations teaching yoga to demobilized Colombian militia members and their brutalized victims; a child survivor raped and tortured in a pedophilia sex trafficking ring in Belgium who is bringing yoga to guilt-stricken inmates with gut-wrenching criminal records in maximum security American prisons; women civilians struggling to survive daily life in war-torn Palestine, while dedicating themselves to bringing yoga to their community; U.S. military veterans who are haunted by images of their bloody, dead brothers during Iraq combat and practice yoga to relieve their symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and inner city New York teenagers surrounded by gangsters and crack cocaine but no role models—who have become yoga teachers and are bringing the practice to their peers in the New York City public school system.

My research eventually led me to Vikram Zutshi, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is connected with all of these individuals and organizations. Zutshi is using film as a platform to tell these survivors’ stories in a feature-length documentary film that will highlight the universally adaptable and timeless qualities of yoga and its transformative effects in traumatized communities across the globe.

Melissa Grace Hoon: What is your film about?

Vikram Zutshi: Yoga is a household name in the West with at least 20 million Americans devoted to a regular practice. It has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry, numerous brands and franchises, and thousands of slick studios proliferating American cities and towns. This feature-length documentary (currently untitled) will explore a side of this phenomenon that is little known in the West: Yoga’s power to transform and heal people from diverse communities who have experienced unspeakable tragedy, often in places one would never expect to find yoga. This film will show how the ancient practice has made it possible for scores of people to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.

Melissa Grace Hoon: Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that being a creative person requires that you give back or tell a particular story or not do something else? Why or why not?

Vikram Zutshi: Cinema is the most powerful artistic medium that exists and it is the duty of every filmmaker to deploy it in a responsible manner. Cinema is a strong cultural glue, one that has the power to bring together the diverse and varied peoples across the globe like none other. It has the ability to press emotional buttons, often the wrong buttons if one is not careful. It is only too easy to be influenced by subliminal messaging in the form of incitement to violence, bigotry and intolerance, as opposed to their polar opposites—compassion, empathy and inclusiveness. The story often finds the filmmaker and not the other way around. You have to care about the subject strongly enough to give it the kind of prolonged focus and attention it requires.

Melissa Grace Hoon: What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

Vikram Zutshi: I discovered firsthand the incredibly healing and transformative properties of yoga when I was going through a particularly toxic phase in my life. That was a catalyst for the current film. The most important lesson I learned from yoga is the sense of constant renewal and wonder, the feeling of being rendered anew after practice, that tomorrow is another day and no matter what happens today, you can always start from scratch tomorrow. Yoga has the ability to wipe out residual memories, accumulated neuroses, grudges, complexes and useless baggage that weigh many of us down. This can be seen in extreme environments like maximum security prisons, Palestinian refugee camps, drug rehab facilities, crime ridden inner cities and Colombian militia groups where these techniques are being deployed to amazing effect.

Melissa Grace Hoon: What universal themes or archetypes are explored in your film?

Vikram Zutshi: Each of the protagonists in the film embodies the classic hero’s journey as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell: the grand cosmic narrative common to all cultures, in which the archetypal hero ventures forth from a mundane existence into an unknown world of supernatural wonder where he must survive a gauntlet of severe challenges upon which he is bestowed with a “boon” to help his fellow men in the ordinary world. The quest to transcend the quotidian and elevate one’s consciousness is an evolutionary imperative central to all wisdom traditions. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Shiva, Krishna and the tales in the Hindu Puranas are examples of this “monomyth.”

Melissa Grace Hoon: What emotions do you feel your film will bring forth in viewers?

Vikram Zutshi: Most people have to go through a series of challenges in life, some more extreme than others, which make us what we become and define our worldview. The human journey is one of loss, redemption, renewal and epiphany. My hope is that this film will provide the tools to make this often harrowing journey more bearable. I could see myself in these people and rejoice at their victories over insurmountable odds, and I’m sure the audience will do likewise.

Melissa Grace Hoon: What sets this film apart from other films made on yoga?

Vikram Zutshi: This film will show yoga being deployed as a transformational tool in communities where one would least expect to see it. It will tell human stories of grief, loss and redemption set in diverse cultures unified by one single thread—yoga. The film will look at the findings of cutting-edge scientific research being conducted at leading universities in the West juxtaposed with vignettes of yoga in its traditional setting—in ancient temples, Himalayan caves, the banks of the Ganges or the jungles of the Deccan. Interviews with scholars, neuroscientists and swamis, combined with compelling real-world human narratives will enable us to flesh out a three-dimensional portrait of this phenomenon that is taking the world by storm.

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