The Kingdom Within is a documentary on yoga and Christianity, exclusively released by Gaia.
Suzanna Brill interviews Director Bob Peck
Q: Tell us about what inspired this film project.
A: The film began as a reaction to several Christian pastors: initially Pastor Mark Driscoll, but a significant succession of articles by Rev. Pat Robertson, Rev. Albert Mohler and a few others in 2010 claiming that yoga was “against Christianity” (Mohler) and even “demonic” (Driscoll).
Obviously not all Christians think this, but certain denominations do. I thought it would be an interesting topic for a film to cover the intricacies of that discussion. My first interview was filmed in May 2011, right after graduating from the University of Texas with degrees in film and religious studies. I had taken several classes on New Testament scholarship and Christian origins, and I had joined the practice of Kriya Yoga earlier that year.
Q: Do you have a yoga practice? Has yoga affected your own spiritual journey?
A: I started out doing yoga, unlike most yogis I’ve talked to, for strictly spiritual reasons. Paramhamsa Yogananda’s timeless Autobiography of a Yogi was my introduction to Kriya Yoga after having read a variety of Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu books in my late teens and early college years. Kriya is very spiritually focused, with a limited physicality to it. It’s more of a meditative practice than exercise. In my early stages of Kriya practice, I held a certain amount of contempt for “American gym yoga.” I was perturbed that these beautiful and sacred spiritual techniques discovered by ancient rishis were now becoming more and more commercialized and commodified to the Western masses like a new Starbucks flavor.
And it took making this film for me to realize how non-yogic those judgmental views really were. These days, it’s very clear that for a lot of people, the physical, secular style of yoga is what brings folks in who would otherwise be more hesitant to do so. Interestingly enough, I have since been diagnosed with a slight muscle condition that prevents me from lifting heavy weights and certain exercises, and my neurologist actually suggested yoga as an alternative for my own physical development. It has really come full circle for me.
Q: How did you find the spiritual leaders and teachers you talked to for The Kingdom Within? Did you have a favorite moment in filming the documentary?
A: The most fulfilling aspect of documentary film is that you start out with a seed and as you water it by doing research, reaching out to people and ultimately shooting interviews, it truly grows into a towering oak of its own. Narrative film is extremely calculated down to the most intricate detail, and is satisfying in its own way of course, but documentary has this mystery to it that can be really compelling to follow.
Several people said no to an interview. Mostly evangelical Christians refused, which made me appreciate the main three fundamentalist leaning pastors that are in the film that much more. I admire their vulnerability and willingness to hold true to their beliefs despite certain ideologies that go against the overall tone of the film. I wanted to make sure that the full spectrum of viewpoints, from fundamentalist to interfaith progressive, were all fairly represented.
There are many great moments from filming, but two especially stand out:
Meeting Richie Flores was incredible. He is an ex-convict turned yoga teacher and small business entrepreneur who had his life completely transformed by learning yoga in prison. His story is inspirational and it was completely cosmic luck that I got him for the film. Rev. Dr. Jayme Mathias told me after our interview that there was a man at Mass asking him if yoga was okay to do, from a Catholic perspective. Rev. Jayme told him that there was a local filmmaker working on that very topic. At the busy mass, he wasn’t able to get the mystery man’s information.
Months later, I was scheduled to shoot an interview with Genevieve Yellin, a former science researcher and yoga therapy teacher. She fell ill hours before our interview and apologized profusely on the phone as I called when I was close to her studio. She essentially said that she couldn’t do it that day, but there was a student of hers present that I would find fascinating. It happened to be Richie, who had also talked to Rev. Jayme months prior, and whose story eventually became the subplot of the entire film.
I was baptized Episcopal at eleven and later left the church around seventeen. I always appreciated the true message of Jesus what I interpret to be universal, unconditional love but the eternal damnation for other faiths finally forced me out of contemporary institutional Christianity. The pastor who baptized me all those years ago, Rev. Patrick Gahan, had relocated to Wimberley a few years prior. After some research, I reached out to him about the project. Not only was he the perfect blend of thoughtful theology and lighthearted anecdotes, he has the best line in the film. A Texas pastor for more than twenty years tells the camera, “I don't know many mature Christians that discount other traditions' holy messengers. To me that's rather arrogant. Who knows what God is up to? Who knows who He is speaking to at different places and times?” A lot of non-Christians have appreciated that quote and that general sentiment in the film.
Q: What response to the film have you seen from churches or spiritual centers?
A: The yogis have loved it and supported the film, which has been fantastic. But most good yogis are pretty at peace with a lot of things… as that’s the whole goal of the practice, right?
The church members who I’ve talked to have mostly enjoyed the film. Very devout Christians have told me that I was fair in my portrayals and they appreciated the insight on not only yoga, but also on Jesus. The Kingdom Within has a lot about yoga, but in order to make the point that it does, it also goes into more detail about the scholarship, and really the mysticism of Christ. With Gaia’s help, I think there are still opportunities to get the film in front of more yoga studios, Christian churches and generally places of spiritual / religious learning, East & West. The whole point is to start a conversation.
Q: What do you hope people of all faiths will take from watching Kingdom Within?
A: The most important piece from the film is that once you deconstruct all the layers of doctrinal, dogmatic differences, there really is beauty in the similarities. It would be foolish to say that these two spiritual systems are the same, because they are different in many ways, and those differences are important (and covered in the film!). But to frame it like Dr. Stephen Phillips, Sanskrit scholar, does in the film, “The Kingdom of God is within you’...that sounds like it could come straight out of one of the Upanishads or the Gita!”
Director Bob Peck on set.
Q: What’s next for your film-making team? Have you considered making a follow up to the film in a different part of the world?
A: I’m proud to say that I have completed two short documentaries since The Kingdom Within. One is A Warrior’s Walk , about a Cheyenne Marine veteran advocating our country’s neglected war vets; and the second is The Blazing Heart, a portrait of the venerated saint, Amma Sri Karunamayi. The third short to come is still untitled; it’s about the Muslim experience in America and the production phase has been very powerful and revealing so far. More Mind Heart Lens projects to come: prison rehabilitation reform, Native American ceremonies,and a few others on the list. Thanks again Suzanna and the Gaia family for the support!