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Lights! Camera! Asana!

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San francisco yoga instructor Jason Crandell had, in his words, “never modeled anything except bad behavior” before. His colleague Autumn Alvarez had done a few modeling gigs but had otherwise never been in front of a video camera. So when the pair were selected to appear in our recently released video series, Yoga Journal’s Step-by-Step: The Total Guide to Beginning Your Home Practice, they didn’t know quite what they were in for. Both Crandell and Alvarez found the production, which was filmed last summer in Boston, at once exhilarating, tedious, challenging, and rewarding, they indicated in a recent freewheeling conversation.

During the two-week shoot, at which the entire three-video series (Session 1: Foundation Poses for Strength & Stamina, Session 2: Bending & Twisting Poses for Flexibility, and Session 3: Balancing Poses for Focus & Energy) was filmed, Alvarez and Crandell served as on-screen assistants to presenter Natasha Rizopoulos. Alvarez was the model for hands-on-adjustment demonstrations, and Crandell demonstrated pose modifications for less flexible practitioners.

Rizopoulos brought an unusual combination of credentials to her role as “star” of the videos: She teaches at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California (where she completed the advanced teacher training program), and has studied with K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India; she also has some acting experience, having performed with the 42nd Street Collective in New York and with Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. This was reflected in both the yogic skill and on-camera poise she showed during the shoot. “Natasha was trained as a professional actor and had spent far more time than either Autumn or I had in front of cameras,” Crandell says. “Since we had all been working in the yoga business for a while and had been practicing seriously for even longer, I felt we were peers as far as the yoga component was concerned. But really, it was amazing to watch her—she was able to look good, sound clear, and remain sane during the stress of constant performance. She’s an excellent yoga instructor, but she works very well with the camera too.” Alvarez agrees with Crandell’s assessment: “Natasha possesses an exceptional charm. Her eyes glimmer when she speaks into the camera, while she captures and draws the audience in through the harmonious sound of her voice. I was inspired to learn from her.”

Although a tremendous amount of planning preceded the shoot, the days of filming were nonetheless full of fits and starts. “Everything was carefully and explicitly scripted,” Crandell recalls, “but there was a constant revision process that occurred while we shot.” The sessions were thus characterized by frenzied activity, technical problem-solving, and numerous takes, interspersed—for Crandell and Alvarez, at least—with periods of extended waiting (for the next shot to be set up, for example), practicing, munching, and attempting to stay loose for the moment they would need to take a pose instantly as though they were in midpractice. That’s harder than it sounds. “We used four cameras that needed constant calibration,” Crandell notes, “and the lighting was always being adjusted. The poor make-up artist was attending to our sweaty brows moment to moment. And all of us needed to be attentive and somewhat warm after having been sitting or snacking or reading for the past 20 minutes.”

All of which illustrates the sharp contrast between the finished product and the process by which it was created. “The filming was choppy and discontinuous,” Crandell says, “but the video looks really smooth.”

Apart from tedium, the models faced challenges large and small, from striving to take poses skillfully to figuring out how to position themselves so that the cameras could fully present them. The script called for Crandell to use specific props but not how to manage them while filming (so they wouldn’t block any shots, for one thing); that meant he had to deal with positioning them on the fly.

Alvarez’s greatest challenge came when she was required to model the arm balance Bakasana (Crane Pose), which she calls “my most hated pose.” She had been practicing up to three hours a day off the set to enhance her ability in this and other poses, but still dreaded the moment she’d have to move into Bakasana on cue.

When the time finally came, she says, “everybody held their breath. The camera focused on my buttocks lifting and tucking, my arms strong and unshakable. There I was for a full three seconds, living a glorious triumph over my most dreaded pose. Then the director, Michael Kirk, yelled, ‘Cut!’ and I collapsed in relief to cheers and applause. Everybody walked onto the set and, instead of handing me flowers and tossing confetti, they each did Bakasana, as a tribute to me and my dread.”

Under the circumstances, the most remarkable thing, surely, was that Crandell and Alvarez were able to summon the presence of mind to perform yoga so adroitly. “I was surprised,” Crandell remarks, “at how internal I felt while we were filming.”

YJ asana editor Todd Jones, who attended the shoot as a “spotter”—helping the models adjust their poses just so—elaborates: “When you’re really doing yoga, you drop within yourself, and anyone who’s watching can see that happen. When you’re doing a video, there are all sorts of technical requirements, like precision of the pose, lighting, sound, and camera-angle adjustment. Somehow, the models need to be aware of all that and still drop within and do yoga. And Autumn and Jason just nailed that.”

YJ senior editor Phil Catalfo is the star of his own ongoing production.