Review: Enlighten Up!

By Gopala dasa

Documentary filmmaker Kim Churchill’s project Enlighten Up! begins with a promising, but perhaps overly ambitious, plan: find an average guy, subject him to a program of yoga practice, and expose him to world-renowned yoga teachers. This regimen, it is hoped, will yield pro-yoga testimony from a profoundly transformed person, and prompt viewers to take seriously the positive—even spiritual—outcomes of the practice.

In the process of revealing a great metamorphosis, Churchill (who serves as occasional narrator and interlocutor) seemingly intends to separate the yoga charlatans from the yoga saints. She opens her film with a sequence featuring some of the more famous Western yoga teachers. Those teachers’ comments on topics such as the antiquity of yoga, their publishing prowess, and their jumbo-sized studios are spliced together in a way that is unflattering, and perhaps unfair.

Early in Enlighten Up!, we are also introduced to the yoga experiment’s “guinea pig,” a twenty-nine year-old unemployed journalist and self-proclaimed skeptic named Nick Rosen. Churchill, an avid yoga practitioner herself, hopes to prove through Rosen’s example that yoga is much more than physical exercise, boutique clothing, and big-name entrepreneurial teachers. Although the journalist Rosen may be a master of the written word, it becomes clear that elocution is not among his strengths. As such, the viewer may struggle to grasp Rosen’s rationale for appearing in the film and undertaking Churchill’s experiment. He seems not only skeptical of the capacity of yoga to change his life, but also rather uninterested in such a possibility.

Rosen begins his disorganized sixth-month yoga “journey” by crashing a number of New York City yoga studios. He sweats it out in a Bikram Yoga session and sits in on classes with Dharma Mittra and Alan Finger, among others. While the smorgasbord style of practice helps Churchill capture the diversity of instruction in New York, her human subject engages in little more than localized yoga tourism. Arguably such sampling is fine for a novice, but the approach is not one that most yoga teachers would endorse indefinitely. Therefore, when Rosen confesses that dabbling in yoga a few times a week has not upended his worldview, the viewer is unlikely to be surprised.

After New York City’s shooting locations are exhausted, Churchill hauls Rosen to LA where he meets up with a lewd ex-professional wrestler-turned-yogi. The crew travels onward to Hawaii where Rosen’s practice briefly intensifies under the watch of the comically foul-mouthed Norman Allen. While spending time with Allen, Churchill (from off camera) beseeches Rosen to “Ask about moksa.” Rosen responds, “What?”  At this point in the journey, Rosen has apparently not mastered a new vocabulary.

From Hawaii, the crew heads to India in search of greater wisdom and authenticity. In Mysore and Pune respectively, Rosen lands face time with Patabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, two of the most famous students of the Sri Vaishnava teacher and scholar, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. While students familiar with the work and influence of Jois and Iyengar may enjoy seeing these well-known personalities on film, Rosen comes across as somewhat unprepared for such meetings—if not unengaged. When Rosen poses questions such as “What is yoga,” he seems to be humoring the director and her interests, rather than pursuing new knowledge with any sense of urgency or necessity. Rosen’s persistent use of the term “enlightenment” (which is far more associated with Buddhism) even several months into the experiment suggests that Churchill’s chosen student remains reluctant to do his homework.

Fortunately, by means of a Western resident of Vrindavan named Syamdas, the film makes a brief but important distinction between bhakti-yoga and the primarily physical practice emphasized in the balance of the film. However, the full significance of that distinction is likely to be grasped only by viewers with prior knowledge, as Churchill changes topics, venues, and scenery with unfortunate haste. Although Syamdas totes Rosen to various teachers in Vrinadavan, curiously (at least on camera) Rosen does not sit before any teachers of theistic, devotional Vedanta. As Vrindavan rose to prominence as a spiritual center on account of the influence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in particular, such an omission is something of an oversight. Moreover for a film that tries to show something of the diversity of yogic practices, intentions, and ultimate ideals, a more thorough examination of bhakti-yoga (by far the most prevalent spiritual engagement in India) might have been useful.

Unfortunately for Churchill, the transformation narrative that she has in mind for Rosen does not play out. The film’s eclectic sideshow of famous (and not-so-famous) yogis leaves the viewer with little more than an impression of a range of contemporary teachers and their various idiosyncrasies. Such outcomes are not without some value and interest, but neither makes for very good storytelling. Churchill tries to salvage the narrative by suggesting that the project helped Rosen restore his relationship with his mother (a Shamanic healer) and pursue his passion for rock climbing documentaries. Even if that is true, such a “transformation” is unlikely to prompt viewers to unfurl their yoga mats and cheer.

Enlighten Up! is a film of enormous, but ultimately unrealized potential. Issues of authenticity in yoga teaching and yoga philosophy, and connections between physical practice and spiritual life are topics worth exploring. It would be gratifying to see and hear the story of someone who begins a process of physical exercise and ends up going much, much deeper. Indeed, that is a story playing out in yoga studios the world over, where “skeptics” become “converts” every day, taking up practices such as kirtan and study of sacred literature. Unfortunately for Churchill, her test subject never truly immerses himself in practice or introspection. As such, Rosen is ultimately not a vehicle for telling what might have otherwise been a very enlightening story.


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3 Responses to Review: Enlighten Up!

  1. Not a glowing review, and you did a great job showing us why. To do such a documentary well requires deep insight into not just the world of yoga but the Western psyche as well, neither of which it sounds like the film maker had. Unfortunately some people will form their opinions about yoga and maybe even spiritual practice in general from such films, in which case this film really didn’t do anyone any favors.

  2. I had trouble with the beginning of the movie but then it got more interesting. I am not sure that no transformation occurred, but maybe it is not what we or the filmmaker expected. A precipitous transformation is suspect. The pendulum inevitably swings to the other side. The in-vivo experiment was, in essence, concentrated on the external and visible changes we only got some glimpse of what was happening internally to the subject of this movie. I was struck by a few things. First, it was immediately after attending his first kirtan that Nick decided he was going to stop drinking and make some other important life style changes. I though that was important, no one told him to do that it came from him.
    Secondly, although he has been taken to many places around India he did end up in Vrindavan which was significant. He could have been taken to Venares or who knows where. We could see that he was very much internally affected but what he saw there even though he did not understand what was going on. My point is that the true changes are slow and are internally located. They are not in dress, yoga-mats, or flip flops. Perhaps Nick missed an opportunity to gain more from visiting the Vraj, but one thing is sure no one can leave the Vraj unchanged. We don’t really know what he gained. His life did change externally in some significant ways, but maybe those are more important for his spiritual life then turning himself into a pretzel every morning. Maybe some seed of transformation is there and at the end of the movie I felt I wanted to be generous with Nick hoping that he will transform, perhaps not on command and for the audience but for himself. This movie did manage to transform me from a skeptical and deriding stance towards Nick to a more generous, accepting one and that’s a feat.

  3. . . . good for U . . .

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