I’m grateful to my yoga student and friend, Steve Marzullo, who recommended the 2008 film “Enlighten Up” to me a while ago. It finally made its way to the top of my Netflix list, and I watched it this week.
As a journalist and yogini, like both the director and star of the film, I found the premise captivating. The director – documentarian and avid yoga practitioner Kate Churchill – sets out to demonstrate that yoga can transform anyone. To keep it challenging, she chooses as her subject Nick Rosen, a skeptical, 29-year-old writer with obvious conflicts that appear to stem (at least in part) from his bipolar upbringing by a shamanistic mother and materialistic father (divorced at the time of filming).
Kate takes Nick all over the U.S. and India, introducing him to the best-known living yoga teachers of our time, from Alan Finger, Sharon Gannon and David Life, to B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Her hope is that exposing Nick to what he calls the “31 flavors of yoga” will lead him to the one that transports him to a higher place.
This doesn’t exactly happen, although toward the end of his journey in India, Nick does at least appear to drop the eye-rolling dismissal and take a more thoughtful attitude toward the gurus who spend time with him.
It shouldn’t surprise viewers that Kate doesn’t get the magical “Aha!” moment she seeks. Nick admits up front that his own yoga practice had previously been superficial, that he feels no connection between the physical and spiritual, and that he is not “on a religious quest.” He stops practicing altogether after the film wraps.
What unfolds in “Enlighten up,” and how it unfolds, has been the subject of some debate among movie critics and yogis. (For examples, click here.) Certainly, Kate’s intention is clear from the opening, when she illustrates what she calls “contradictions” in the yoga world with snippets of interviews with famous American teachers such as Rodney Yee and Cyndi Lee mentioning their merchandising exploits.
Set aside criticism of the direction and story, however, and you find food for thought in this film.
My initial idea while watching was that Nick wasn’t making any breakthroughs because he approached the project with a closed heart and mind. Although bright and charming, his attitude toward classes made him seem determined to not make any progress, for reasons that were unclear, since he didn’t seem all that happy either.
This reminded me of both the first of Anusara Yoga‘s three “A”s (attitude, alignment, action), and the Hindu saying so often cited by yogis, “When the disciple is ready, the guru appears” (see for instance, “The yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” translated and commented upon by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Sutra II.40).
It’s not to say that Nick was destined to fail, but that he got out of it what he was really looking for: better physical fitness and dates with cute yoginis (not to mention an all-expense-paid vacation to practice with the best yoga teachers in the world).
This doesn’t necessarily make it wrong or mean that Nick is small-minded. It simply means that he mapped his journey himself, despite Kate’s best efforts to intervene – and much to her frustration.
In the most enlightening moment of the film for me, one of the gurus Nick visits points this out to him. The question “What is yoga?” must be rephrased as “What is yoga to me?” points out Mahamandaleshwar Pujya Swami Gurusharananandaji Maharaj (Maharajji). Using the example of pointing West, Maharajji explains that so much depends on your perspective, where you’re sitting, which direction you’re facing, and ultimately who you are.
“You are the most important person under the sun,” he says, affirming not so much the importance of ego as that of relativism. I read this as a comment on the necessity of coming to your true self, regardless of the means or the teacher, in order to live as meaningful a life as possible.
In other words, it is unlikely that Nick will spend his days bowing and placing rocks before a shrine, like one devotee is shown doing in the film. If Nick does achieve union, it will more likely be while scaling a cliff face, as he’s shown doing during the closing frames.
Does that mean it’s any less yogic? Not in my understanding. Restraint, compassion, physical discipline, focus, meditation, enlightenment – these activities and accomplishments are not restricted to yoga mats.
You are the most important person under the sun, and the sun shines on yoga studios, ashrams and the rest of the world just the same… sometimes even when cameras aren’t rolling.