When award-winning filmmaker Hilary Pryor set out to make a documentary comparing Western and Eastern approaches to slowing the aging process, she discovered what really keeps us young and makes life precious.

Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine
Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine

When the definition of success changes > Hilary Pryor of May Street Productions has been producing award-winning documentaries and feature films for 27 years. She’s perhaps best known for hard-hitting films like Smudge, about a young woman with Down syndrome and her stray puppy; Checklist: A Measure of Evil, which investigates the phenomenon of the psychopath; and The Fires That Burn, which explores the life of prison activist Sister Elaine MacInnes. Pryor has written, directed, filmed and produced for nearly every broadcaster in Canada, and has an armful of accolades. Now, she has another credit to her name: she can hold a side plank for over two minutes.

How a project turned personal > For her latest documentary, Pryor decided to explore the dichotomy between Western and Eastern approaches to aging. It all began when she heard about a 4,000-year-old Ayurveda practice called Kuti Praveshika, a rigorous anti-aging regimen promising up to 30 years of restored life, renewed health and other benefits. Patients pay big bucks to sequester themselves for 90 days in the dark isolation of a treatment facility in India on a diet of cow’s milk, special herbs and chanting.

“I guess I did the math and realized I may have a limited amount of time to do all the things I want to do,” she says. She discovered the next patient scheduled for the Kuti Praveshika treatment was her age and a filmmaker from India looking to improve his own aging conditions.

“Everyone thought it was a grand idea for both of us to undergo our own 90-day regimes at the same time,” says Pryor. “Not as a competition, but as a comparison of sorts.” The parallel would become Taking Back The Years, a six-episode Vision TV documentary series.

How she began taking back the years > So Pryor flew to India to film Rajendra Patel’s experience with the Eastern Ayurvedic practice in a chamber where he would be sequestered for the next three months. She then returned to Canada to absorb her own Western age-reversal advice from scientists, fitness experts and aging specialists. She reduced her caloric intake by 30 per cent and started her first-ever exercise routine.

“I’m not someone who likes exercising for exercise sake, so I was really hoping to avoid that,” she laughs. At first, she could barely hold a side plank for 10 seconds. But after 90 days of weight training and cardio, she could hold a side plank for over two minutes. “It really showed me how quickly our bodies respond,” she says, “even at my age.”

Why sincerity is as valuable as science > Pryor has had previous incarnations as a social worker and a clown (yes, a clown!), so she keenly understands how environment affects mood. Still, she was surprised by Rajendra Patel’s success in India only weeks into the project. In a windowless clay building, with only enough holes for air and a mat for sleeping, the man who was suffering from tuberculosis and other chronic conditions could now walk and even run without coughing. His only contact with the outside world was staff who brought in rationed portions. His only task was to clear his mind and chant. Patel’s isolation came to an unexpected halt at day 50, however, when he was subpoenaed to appear in court over a civil matter. While his departure ended the project prematurely, a patient from Prague agreed to help Pryor complete her film. His experience did not yield the same success.

“The doctors in India were very sincere, but there isn’t the evidence to support some of the claims … Rajendra’s improvements were very impressive, though,” Pryor says.

How she sat in the fountain of youth > While the answer to age reversal may hide somewhere between Botox and yoga, Pryor decided to test a safer route: seated meditation. She joined a study founded by Deepak Chopra that focused on the benefits of meditation for first-time practitioners. There, Pryor learned that special chromosomal sections, called telomeres, shrink as people age. The evidence suggested telomeres could actually be lengthened by meditation. But that doesn’t make it an easy fix. “… I’ve come to the conclusion that you just shouldn’t obsess and worry about aging. Enjoy the now, and that is what will give us a few extra years.”

Why she doesn’t want to live forever > Pryor has had plenty of discussions about a reality where age could be treated like a disease, as one expert suggested. The idea gave her chills. “There are people who believe we will soon have the technology to live forever, but a world without young people just seems awful to me. Besides, if you were a procrastinator who said you would do something in the next 10 years, now you’d just say you’d do it in 50. We’d all get so bored. The fact that life has a time limit is what makes it so precious.”

Her secret to buying time > Pryor says time in her garden, time with her grandkids and time with her puppies keeps her young — though she admits she struggles with some gripes that go with aging. Still, some messages from her documentary have stuck long after the camera was turned off.

“I learned that I should exercise, even if I don’t like it, and that it’s important to enjoy each day as it comes. In Victoria, we live in such a beautiful place, but how often do we stop and look at it and let it rejuvenate us? You have to take the time to do that.”

By Danielle Pope