This is a review of the film “Enlighten Up”, about the transformational potential of yoga. I will be going through the details of the film and giving my thoughts, so, you know, SPOILER ALERT!, and all that. This post may give you too much if you plan to see it or it may give you just enough to make you want to take a look and see for yourself what the agenda really was. It’s up to you. Having said that,
I have strongly mixed feelings on the documentary “Enlighten Up”, an independent film by Kate Churchill. My feelings in fact varied quite a bit between my first and second viewing of it.
In “Enlighten Up”, Churchill seems to have made a young man, Nick Rosen, her guinea pig in an experiment to see if yoga CAN change a person’s outlook…on yoga. Nick was strongly skeptic about anything spiritual going into it, yet strongly interested in yoga in its potential physical and mental benefits, i.e., hatha yoga. At a few points in the film when more of the meditative and spiritual aspects of yoga came into play, Nick wondered “how is this even yoga?” So he learned a lot, and various misconceptions were dispelled for him, as well as for the film’s viewers if previously unaware of the scope of yoga.
Upon first viewing the film I immediately saw two issues but was still captivated by how it played out, and willing to give it a chance.
1. The “experiment” lasted six months. One-hundred ninety days was what it turned out to be. As one of the yogis Nick visits during the course of the film explains, Nick was trying to learn something in a a matter of weeks what is a life-long commitment. Though I now think that six months is enough to “grab ahold” of someone, and yes possibly change them for life.
2. Nick came into the experiment with a strongly hesitant and wary attitude toward yoga. His mother was a “shamanic healer”, a concept which he scoffed at. He referred to the Kundalini Yoga teacher as “kundaloony” and “a bit too new-agey” like his mother. Granted, with this particular yogi, numerology and astrology was a big thing, and Nick, like many, could not identify with it.
As I said, Nick worked with a variety of different kinds of yogis and one of his favorites from the early stages was Alan Finger who openly spoke of the 1,000-Petaled Lotus, the highest of the chakras, and a deeply spiritual concept in Hinduism. Unfortunately the film portrayed that Nick was most interested in the idea that this type of yoga could lead to a tremendous orgasm. And don’t get me wrong, I think the concept of the “sacred orgasm” is a valid one. But it is not the goal, obviously.
Early in the film, Nick made a comment that he felt the asanas, the Hatha yoga poses were “a preparation for something.” This was later confirmed to him by Hatha master B.K.S Iyengar who said that “Asanas were a preparation for receiving the spiritual.”
Dharma Mittra was the first of Nick’s teachers to use the word God, and the first to say “Namaste” to him, at least that the film showed. Interestingly, Mittra was the next teacher that Nick seemed to really enjoy. This may, however, have been because of the very precise instruction that Mittra gave Nick on poses. Mittra was also the one who told Nick that some of the greatest masters were the ones who said “I know nothing.” This may have had an effect on softening some of the attitudes that Nick had to that point.
The next group Nick sat in with actually sat down together and discussed what they were trying to get out of yoga. Nick was looking for “evidence”, something he could feel to dispel his doubt. This group assured him that this is precisely why yoga is different from “religious” paths. It was at this group’s kirtan that Nick met Shyamdas, a Westerner who had lived in India for 30 years. Somehow Shyamdas seemed to break down some barriers with Nick, telling him about how “Once you see Krishna, you’re never the same” to which Nick (without a hint of sarcasm responded “What do I have to lose?” He almost appeared to be enthusiastic by such a prospect, in the moment.
At this point in the film, Nick meets two professors back to back, one of whom, Dr. Joseph Alter, anthropologist from the University of Pittsburgh, informed Nick that Yoga as currently practiced is merely 100 years old. If that were not misleading and incomplete enough, the next person he spoke with, Dr. David Gordon White of the University of California-Santa Barbara said that if you go to India or Nepal and ask around amongst villagers, they will tell you that yogis are “the boogeyman” and that “they steal children.”
These meetings had Nick, “trying to come to [his] own conclusions” and understandably so.
For what I can only imagine was for comic relief and to lighten the heavy mood, the next yoga teacher Nick met was former pro wrestler “Diamond Dallas Page.” DDP taught what he called “Yoga for regular guys.” He openly made fun of the chanting of mantras, and told Nick that in his class there was no “Namaste”, there was “T and A”. Not that DDP is not a legitimate yoga instructor of sorts, but I was really at this point starting to feel for Nick in how much confused information he was getting.
In the next scene, when Nick confided with the filmmaker that he was “no closer to buying into anything supernatural or spirituality” she seemed to scold him for being “lackadaisical”, but I could not blame him. But she had a point in questioning why he was still clinging to the idea that yoga had to be about a “world-view.” Odd, he was clinging to the idea that yoga was simply a workout but at the same time that it was a “world-view.” I think the variety of yogis he was presented with back to back would easily confuse anyone.
Nick’s next visit was in rural Hawaii with Ashtanga yoga specialist and massage therapist Norman Allen. Allen, contrary to what Nick would later hear from Iyengar, told Nick that there was no connection between Hatha and Enlightenment. In fact yet another yogi would later tell Nick “You cannot gain any energy from asanas.”
But Norman Allen did give Nick extensive training in poses while waxing philosophical about the Bhagavad-Gita, the first reference to a Hindu scripture in the film. While Allen gave Nick a post-yoga massage, they discussed karma, with Nick expressing some concerns he had about his “small self” – his propensity toward becoming “hungry, horny and jealous” namely. After considering the issue at hand, Allen delivered the “punchline” of the entire film.
He said “You know what you gotta do?”
“What’s that?” Nick asked.
“Go fuck yourself!” said Allen with a boisterous chuckle.
After Nick regained his composure, it was revealed that what Allen meant was that Nick needed to let go of “needing another entity to confuse the matter.” Food. A mate. Etcetera.
Here, Allen mutters something about there being “too many cooks in the kitchen”, a reference to the many desires vying for Nick’s attention, surely, but also maybe a recognition that Nick had been talking to too many different yogis, sampling many different perspectives at once. In this way I found Allen to be the most wise of the bunch. It is good, no doubt, to consider different philosophies, but the film made it look like Nick took it all in at a frantic pace. Allen also noted to Nick that there is no fast way. No easy way, something later confirmed by Shyamdas, Dr. Madan Kataria the founder of “Laughter Yoga” and Norman Allen’s own guru, Pattabhi Jois. So fortunately by the end some of the messages Nick was receiving were beginning to gel rather than contradict one another. Unfortunately it was the meeting with Pattabhi Jois in India that Nick would later refer to as “a cult atmosphere.”
Now nearly 150 days into the experiment, the filmmaker asks Nick whether he takes seriously the very notion that yoga has the potential to transform him. He responds that he doesn’t feel that it is a path to transformation necessarily but that that there are “benefits along the way” toward “something.” Though he does not personally feel transformed, Nick concedes that his experience is not necessarily definitive, which I think was progress.
Though B.K.S. Iyengar had just confirmed for him that asanas were a preparation for receiving the spiritual, Nick soon after tells the filmmaker that he’s come to the conclusion that “our consciousness is in no way a conduit to enlightenment or anything else” which appeared to leave the filmmaker stunned. As it did me. This for me confirmed that Nick was from the very beginning unwilling to lower completely his shield of skepticism that he’d no doubt been building up since childhood with his mother, the shamanic healer.
Turned out though, Nick just needed some time off. He went out for a night by himself without the cameras following him, and not thinking about yoga for what appeared to be the first time in over five months.
Upon return, Nick reveals a few things that were quite stunning. He revealed that his meditations had been opening up channels to subconscious emotions he did not know where there. I myself have experienced this as I am sure most who have meditated with any degree of earnestness have experienced. The emotions had to do with his family, which did not surprise me, given my hunch that it was his mother’s vocation that made him so skeptical to begin with. Nick also reveals something about how meditation has given him a secondary perspective on himself, which again, many practitioners of meditation have reported. Observing one’s own thoughts from outside. Watching the watcher, all that. Amazingly Nick gets that which he said very early on that he yearned for. Something he could see for himself, not just be told to believe. Evidence.
In the end I am not sure he understood the vast scope of what yoga IS. But he was given valuable advice when his last yogi told him that in order to make use of what he’d learned even though he was a “Godless guy from New York City” one should just “be your true self.” The closing scenes revealed that Nick believed that yoga had had an impact, though he’d stopped practicing. Others observed a definite positive change in Nick. Hopefully he made a closer connection with his “true self” than ever before.
Jai Hari Aum