At the movies: Enlighten Up!

1202585I’d been curious about the 2008 yoga docudrama Enlighten Up! and finally saw it today.  You probably know the setup: Filmmaker and yoga fan Kate Churchill chooses a non-yogi, out-of-work journalist Nick Rosen, to immerse in yoga for six months. Her objective: to see whether he’ll undergo any transformation.

The film opens with a montage of quotes by famous yogis, including Rodney Yee, Cyndi Lee, Natasha Rizopoulos, Baron Baptiste, and Gurmukh. (With their words cut into sound bites, they all come across as idiots. Whatever you think of Yee, he appears the most likable and least la-la-land-ish.) Once Churchill chooses her “guinea pig” (she obviously chose the dude with the most star power), she throws him into New York’s yoga scene, where he sweats and struggles through classes with big-name teachers from witty human pretzel Dharma Mittra to the iconic boho power couple, David Life and Sharon Gannon.

On the road, he meets a former pro wrestler who promises him that yoga will guarantee T&A. He’s given a memorable, unquotable nugget of advice by Ashtanga yogi Norman Allen on the Big Island of Hawaii. Finally he travels to India, where interviews with the late Pattabhi Jois, a benevolently smiling dictator, and with BKS Iyengar (the “lion of Pune,” then 90 years old and magnificently formidable) made the movie worth my nine bucks.

Through it all, Churchill quizzes Rosen on his progress, like a mother pushing a wayward son to buckle down and get serious. Some criticize her presence in the film as grating and I must agree. Her obvious dismay over Rosen’s lingering rational-man skepticism is misplaced. A documentarian shouldn’t ask such leading questions or have an agenda. Can you imagine British documentary filmmaker Michael Apted  (Up Series) growing annoyed with his kiddie subjects if they strayed too far from expectations? He has the neutrality of a scientist and the subtlety of an expert interviewer, not to mention the patience to wait for real life to unfold. Enlightenment does not happen in six months, lady! (And if she wanted to make a personal documentary, why cast Rosen?)

The questions posed, however, are important:

  • Is asana practice really yoga? In the north, Rosen meets yogis who practice only bhakti yoga (devotion to God), who believe that asana practice leads only to physical improvement. But Jois advises Rosen to “practice, practice, practice” and states that all one learn is asana and pranayama (“outside” yoga), while pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana (“inside” yoga) cannot be taught or corrected. BKS Iyengar asserts that one cannot reach for spiritual enlightenment if one’s health is poor and one is struggling simply to stand up. So he, too, focuses on asana as being a necessary practice; later, one can choose to do asana for enjoyment or to reach higher levels.
  • Why do you do yoga? She interviews lots of people off the street, both in New York and in Mysore. Answers range from “God” to a stammering, groping speechlessness. Many people love yoga but can’t quite pinpoint why. But for those who do find words, spirituality (whether stated as “God” or not) is almost always mentioned. Why are Westerners so drawn to yoga as a form of spirituality. What is lacking in their own European (or other Asian) cultures that yoga fills?

Ultimately, the film concludes that yoga means different things to different people. The right practice for one person will differ from that for another person. Churchill’s film is open-ended about yoga. Is anyone surprised?

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2 thoughts on “At the movies: Enlighten Up!

  1. Probably best not to analyze too closely. Those who don’t know will simply enjoy an unusual documentary, and those who KNOW will take what they need and leave the rest.

    I mostly enjoyed Norman in HI and the many real gurus in North India, plus, of course, Pattabi Jois and Iyengar.

    1. I spent two months in a small town off the beaten path where the only “yoga” was more like calisthenics. The teacher meant well but was clueless.

      I mentally berated myself at first that as an relatively experienced practitioner — of Hatha in its many forms, and of Raja in its manifold presentations and inner growth — that I did not accept and observe without judgment. But I couldn’t. Yama? Niyama? Pacing? Breathwork? Nah.

      Recently I read that someone studied yoga for asthma therapy. “After 4 weeks, no improvement was seen… on this basis cannot be recommended…” and I was reminded that yoga is a discipline, a way of life, not a one-shot or time-limited deal.

      The “student” in the film is not a true student, merely a tourist. And for that reason, only saw the surface and was not perceptibly transformed.

      DISCIPLINE means “thorough study”; immersion, even if not necessarily an obsession or hermetic practice. Compare to true musicianship.

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