Enlighten Up!: The "Reality" of the Documentary

A look at the yoga documentary "Enlighten Up!"

It surprised me reading that Enlighten Up! filmmaker Kate Churchill felt that with her latest documentary, she had removed herself from the picture more than any other film she’s created. While I enjoyed many aspects, there was so much of her in it: her hopes that the new yogi, Nick Rosen, she was transporting around the world would “convert” to the world of yoga; her interviewing herself and closing the film with her in a headstand (granted, in a humbling attempt at symbolic form, she falls out of it); her edits, which didn’t border biased, but charged across those borders with machete in hand. And worse: the decision to allow Rosen to comment on his feelings in a very reality TV-based manner, as if the feelings he was supposed to be having authentically were scripted to fit the format.

There were plenty of good moments with Rosen that could have been great, had the filmmaker decided to explore the concepts of yoga rather than do a quick cut to something to appeal to the short-attention-span generation. At the same time, we have to applaud her for including a too-little-discussed form of yoga: Jnana, the yoga of knowledge. Her interviews with Robert S. Alter, who wrote the illuminating text, Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy, and author David Gordon White, were refreshing, even if Rosen later takes an unfair stab at something White states about the perception of yogis in India. More kudos for showing that the yoga we practice in studios and clubs across America is not 5,000 years old (as it is too often fantasized), but rather for a bit over a century. Her calling out the complete nonsense of the likes of former wrestler Diamond Dallas Page (you say “namaste,” I say “more T&A!”) is also worthwhile.

Perhaps that’s what it takes to make a popular documentary these days: adherence to the script, which is almost always “reality” based. At times I was waiting for Ogden to rush in wielding a bag of goji berries, and I’m not sure that’s a compliment. On the flip side, there are plenty of reasons that I’d recommend this film. While some of the edits, as stated, were sharp and pointed, her critical eye aimed at certain prominent teachers (Cyndi Lee and Rodney Yee declaring how many books and DVDs they’ve made; Baron Baptiste caught deadpan: “Well, I don’t know anything about the history of yoga…”) is well founded. One of the foundations of the practice is discrimination, and too many celebrated teachers are nothing more than what their marketing machines have pretended them to be: public figures, not respectable teachers. Equally commendable is Churchill’s honest exploration of teachers who would not comment on their status in the yoga “industry,” but offer genuine slices of yogic knowledge: B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Dharma Mittra, and, much to the delight of these eyes, Norman Allen, one of Churchill’s main influences and the figure that steals the show.

In fact, it was a single assertion made by Allen that defines so much of the modern yoga practice: “Too many cooks in the kitchen!” he states strongly in one particularly heated moment, when contemplating all the lifestyle fodder and cheap philosophy that’s being passed off as yoga. (While at the local market last week, in the same aisle I could have bought Yoga Bread and Yoga Sprouts, and was then told (sold) by a yoga magazine that I can reach enlightenment in five easy steps, and that it’s great for my fashion sense.) Allen moved to and now teaches in Hawaii to escape this commercialization of a discipline. It shows in every facet of his being. You probably won’t find him on the cover of Yoga Journal anytime soon, which I’m sure is a compliment.

At root, that’s the point that’s hinted at yet never fully explored in what could have been better than a fine documentary: that yoga is a discipline. There is one great moment, when Rosen is hanging out in India with Shyamdas, a westerner who journeyed to India decades ago and never left (although he does come to lead kirtan and talk philosophy in the States). Shyamdas asks Rosen if he really expected to learn what takes a lifetime of honest exploration and rigorous discipline in a matter of a few weeks. Credit Churchill for exposing herself from behind the curtain when explaining that she was using, however unconsciously at first, Rosen for her own means of understanding yoga. But as the teachers in her film say, it’s not something that’s necessarily supposed to be understood; it’s something to be practiced, in every moment of our lives. In all its many and varied forms, the root of yoga is self-realization. What this denotes and how to get “there” remains open for debate; without the experience of being engaged in the process, “understanding” is meaningless. You begin by embodying yoga; over time, yoga embodies you. This is the process of transformation, and Churchill’s film proves to be a nice introduction to the fundamentals of yoga, including a few that do not receive enough attention on the big screen, or most anywhere else in the popular media.

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