A creative force in the fitness DVD industry, James Wvinner is a photographer, filmmaker, yogi, blogger and self-proclaimed “Spiritual Knucklehead.” Based in Los Angeles, Wvinner has gone from directing Playboy films and commercials to becoming an award-winning producer and director of over 100 yoga and fitness films. His titles range from Chakra Balancing Yoga to Bollywood Burn and incorporate his vision of translating the beauty of the practice onto the screen. His photography is both ethereal and gritty, celebrating the grace and strength of the human body.

Wvinner’s passion for yoga has propelled his creativity, his career direction and spiritual journey. His yoga practice helped him recover from life-threatening injuries and has inspired him to teach yoga and spirituality to prison inmates. His journey is fascinating and inspiring, and reminds us of the importance of following our vision and passion.

Can you tell me how you got started as a photographer and filmmaker?

I grew up in a family of artists. My father graduated at the top of his class at art school. In those days it meant hand lettering 25 alphabets, being able to paint in oils and water colours, and draw realistically. His father [my grandfather] was a successful painter who exhibited at prestigious galleries such as the Art Institute of Chicago. It was intimidating for me to think of pursuing painting. My father worked in advertising and photography, which was really exciting back then; there was no digital photography and lots of ingenuity. Inspired by this, I began taking pictures.

How did you go from directing Playboy movies to becoming an extremely successful and innovative health and fitness filmmaker?

Starting out, I directed commercials and worked out of Los Angeles and Toronto—but I always wanted to work on longer format material. I looked for projects that would allow me to work on the longer stuff and saw that Michael Bay [director] was doing Playboy—and I thought this could be a cool opportunity. Playboy hired me based on a yoga calendar and my commercial work. Playboy was where I learned multi-camera filming. I also learned how to stretch money and ideas to meet the needs and requirements of longer projects. Although I learned a lot at Playboy, I was in love with yoga. I envisioned making a yoga video that felt like the actual practice. At that time, people were (and still are) lazy in the fitness production business. I wanted to show that you can make beautiful programming for the same money as the boring stuff. Acacia Media was just starting a fitness line and I was hired to find authentic master talent and make award-winning programs—which is what we did. The line was a success and the company came away with six times return on their investment. It is still my goal to make any work with the human body look as good as it feels. People and companies are starting to catch on.

How would you compare your philosophy on film-making back then to what it is now?

I’m very seasoned now after making over 100 fitness and yoga titles. The equipment has made it easier to work lighter and smaller and still makes beautiful things. The funny thing is that now anyone can read the 5D Manual [the go-to guide for micro-budget film-makers] or use post-production software like Final Cut. What people don’t seem to understand is that DVD production is film-making. You may know the 5D manual but you have to think outside the manual and create. I know several companies that make DVDs without a trained creative person on the team and their work looks and feels it. It’s a business about numbers so some people overlook the creative portion of the process and do these lame over-lit rooms without a thought that they’ll be watched by the same discriminating people who watch movies. Why not make these DVDs beautiful? I used to think that beauty cost a certain amount but what it really takes is dedication to the task and creativity.

You have talked about a near death experience after being hurt in a fire and how yoga helped you recover. Could you share some of this story and what role yoga played in your journey?

After being burned in a house fire, I began practicing yoga to heal myself. Physically, recovering from burns requires 3,500 calories a day but my body only requires 2,000. I gained 30 pounds and only lost 10 when my feet healed and I got back into shape. Yoga taught me self-care. I began to know my body and energy and learned to really watch what I ate and drank.

You became a yoga teacher and co-founded an organization that brought yoga to prisons and underprivileged schools. What prompted you to want to give back like this?

I went and saw a group of Tibetan monks working at one of the youth prisons in L.A. They were working with the youth with sand mandalas and I knew I could do the same type of thing with yoga. My partner and I decided we could bring yoga classes to many facilities in the area with our company, Yoga Inside—and that’s what we did.

How was yoga received by the prison inmates?

With over 1,100 men incarcerated and an average sentence of 15 years, Terminal Island [correctional institution] houses all sorts of men. They had a lot of bank robbers and white collar criminals. Also there were many “big stripe” inmates who had done “good time” at maximum security prisons. Maximum security prisons average six homicides a year, so men who came into this prison from there had done serious time in violent places.

THE BEAUTY OF THE BODY: An interview with photographer James WvinnerThe inmates came to the yoga class voluntarily. Although they didn’t smile much—a sign of weakness in that culture—they were always polite and eventually became friendly. Most of them had lots of muscle, gang tats and looked tough—you have to in that environment. The classes were in the chapel, which is the one place races can mix, without incident, in prison.

When I first started teaching there I was scared. Walking across the prison yard, I imagined myself as a new inmate and felt the loneliness and fear. By the time I crossed the yard though, I was as down with the vibe as I could be.

One day during a random census check, I ended up being confined for two hours with two inmates. One of them was doing “life” for a crime he did not remember and the other was near the end of a 12-year sentence he caught in his early twenties. They spoke to me about their experiences in prison—the dehumanizing prison bus rides, being handcuffed for 24 hours while being transferred to new prisons and baloney sandwiches for meals. They talked about the boredom in prison and how volunteering brought some relief from this as well as a sense of safety.

After this I had my own experience with safety issues when I left the chapel without the guards or the chaplin, by mistake. The inmates milled around me like I was a new inmate. No threats, no leers, but no good vibes. It was my turn to have a few minutes in their world. After about 10 of my longest minutes, an inmate with a swastika tattoos who I’d gotten to know during the census check came and sat down a ways from me. His presence changed the energy. It was unspoken but clear—don’t mess with the yoga guy. The vibe changed and no one walked too close or even looked my way. A little while later, the chaplin came over and had a guard to escort me out. Before I left, my “protector” came over and said, “You’re fine now,” and gave me the prison handshake—something I will never forget.

That inmate became one in a thousand according to the chaplain. He turned his life around from violent offender to peaceful and sober. He took a vow of nonviolence, finished his sentence and married his long-suffering girlfriend. This weekend I’m doing his 7-year-old daughter’s pageant pictures. He has parenting buddies who are cops and also ride Harleys. His swastikas are now mandalas.

According to the chaplin I taught under, our yoga program and my influence of being a “spiritual knucklehead” helped lots of other inmates transfer a physical existence into a more spiritual one through asana yoga and simple ideas of spirit.

One of your first yoga shoots was on location in India with Shiva Rea. How did this come about and what was it like to work with such an inspirational woman in India?

Shiva had been my teacher since she started teaching. We became friends and I helped her with her visual image. I told every teacher who I was drawn to that they should be making pretty videos of their practice. Shiva listened and added to that vision. It was like working with your sister when we went to India. What I learned from Shiva and other great yoga teachers: follow your heart; follow your vision.

You have worked with some of the most influential yoga and fitness teachers. These people must have a lot to teach and share; what are some of the most important things you have learned from working with them?

They are all strong people who have a deep belief in what they are doing. They show up. Their charisma is why so many people practice now. It is contagious how well yoga and fitness make us feel. The big travelling teachers got so popular first by showing up to their local studio, over and over, until student numbers built and word of mouth brought them elsewhere. This group of the big teachers started before everyone was online. They were some of the first teachers whose work spread on the whisper stream, not the Internet—they are very authentic in work, practice and teaching. When yoga became popular, you saw teachers with less study and bigger personalities. I was never attracted to these teachers. The great ones got there through practice, practice, practice.

How do you come up with the concepts for your films? Is it a collaborative effort?

Some people are great collaborators and some just want to hear my vision. I have a huge library of images both online and offline and use these as well as movies and natural textures for inspiration.

THE BEAUTY OF THE BODY: An interview with photographer James WvinnerWhat is the most difficult thing about your work?

Seeing others do crappy work with a wonderful teacher. It frustrates me—I want every teacher’s work to look amazing.

What are the most motivating and satisfying parts of your artistic process?

I love when I get an idea that fits the project. Shoot days are wonderful—a group of talented, skilled people working together and creating! Seeing that idea come together and bring someone’s yoga/fitness work to life.

What do you hope that your audience takes away from your work?

I want them to get what they need from the program with a smile because we all worked so hard to bring beauty into their practice.

Yoga is increasingly entering the mainstream in North America. Where would you like to see yoga in 5 or 10 years in our society?

Beyond seeing everyone practice yoga, I’d like to see more yogi-owned businesses. I’d like to see fewer big corporations owning the practice rooms and clothing lines—less polluting spandex and more organics on students’ bodies. It is really our practice.

You must have a busy schedule; what is your personal yoga practice like now?

I love to work out, so I run and interval train. I practice yoga afterwards when I’m warm for 30-60 minutes, five days a week. Almost all of my practice is at home unless I’m travelling. The big classes in L.A. aren’t where I’m most comfortable. Yoga has become more private to me.

You have a great blog called Spirituality for Knuckleheads. Where did this idea come from and who do you want to reach with this blog?

I think a lot of people who call themselves “master teachers”—Muktis, Gurus, Rams, Dasses or coaches lose the way. Just because they have a lifestyle around yoga/massage/healing doesn’t mean that the rest of us do. I live a normal-ish life but use tools from the real masters. The “Spiritual Knucklehead” builds a toolbox for life themselves and when they need guidance they read or go to a super-skilled and knowledgeable person—not someone who will teach you everything in an afternoon. The “Spiritual Knucklehead” wants to feel good in life not just after some inspirational class or book.

What’s next for you?

I’m just about finished writing a movie—an action movie with heart.

By Catherine Gillespie-Lopes. You can explore James’s photography and work further at www.jameswvinner.com or visit his blog Spirituality for Knuckleheads.