Film Review: Enlighten Up!

A fast-moving, often humorous documentary about a young man’s search for his “higher self” through yoga.

The February 23 edition of The New Yorker includes a cartoon on page 50 in which a woman says to her husband, “Not tonight, honey. I had a yogasm in class.” This leads us to wonder if India, the land whose Slumdog Millionaire captured eight Academy awards, is trying to cash in further by conflating yoga with the Kama Sutra. Yoga, introduced to the West by that South Asian nation, boasts that the discipline employs as many positions as those described in the Kama Sutra. In fact “sutra” means “yoga,” while “yoga” means “to join together.” So, no conflating is needed after all! Practice your yoga asanas (positions), but don’t hold your breath waiting to duplicate the benefit enjoyed by the woman in the New Yorker cartoon.

Well, then, what can yoga do for the 16 million Americans who practice it regularly—and for the large numbers throughout the world who have adapted the teachings for themselves? There’s quite a lot to gain if you’re a serious student. Or is there? Is yoga all mumbo-jumbo nonsense that appeals to cults, or do practitioners come away from their gurus changed in some important ways? Kate Churchill’s fast-moving, often humorous documentary Enlighten Up! may not rival anything that Michael Moore has done for entertainment value, but at a relatively brief 82 minutes (edited down from hundreds of hours of takes), it never wears out its welcome. What’s more, journalist Nick Rosen, the principal subject Churchill uses to anchor the entire film, exudes a sympathetic vulnerability along with his adventurous spirit, a 29-year-old fellow who seems well-liked by the yoga masters with whom he studies and should be by the movie audience as well.

As Churchill and Rosen travel with cinematographer Jonathon Hexner from New York to California to Hawaii and ultimately to India before Rosen returns to climb rocks in Boulder a half-year later, they encounter so many types of yoga practice that we cannot blame them if they are confused about what the system is really about. In India, the filmmaker, the student, and probably the movie audience will be startled by one particular form of yoga that is probably nonexistent in the U.S. That is Dr. Madan Kataria’s Laughing Yoga, in which the crowd of mostly women raise their arms as though bopping to a rock band and giggle. “By raising the spirit, we become spiritual,” notes Kataria, which sounds logical enough, reminding one of the psychological theory that people can control how they feel by mimicking particular emotions: Laugh and you’ll feel happy; smirk and you’ll feel cynical. In Hawaii, they run into a fellow who could have been cast in the movie The Wrestler. He’s Diamond Dallas Page, who, having aged beyond the year that he could safely be hit by his opponent with a trash can outside the ring, became a yoga teacher. He counsels Rosen, “There’s no chanting. If anyone you meet in your travels chants, blast ’em!” Not much spirituality there, but Page’s class appears composed exclusively of nubile women.

Among the others Rosen encounters in the Indian cities of Mysore, Pune, Mumbai, Chenai, Vrindavan, Gokul and New Delhi, he learns as many different interpretations of yoga as there are masters: A) Yoga can deliver you to the most beautiful path; B) Yoga engages your mind; C) The workout is what counts, as fitness equals happiness; D) You’ll sleep better; E) You’ll have better sex; F) You’ll make more money.

At the end of the six months, Rosen is more confused than ever. He’s not sure he’s that much fitter. We don’t know whether he’s having better sex. He is certain that he has not become the person who is non-violent, non-lying, non-covetous, non-sensual, non-possessive or is pure, content, austere or even able to fix his attention on a single object. It might take him another 20 years before he can merge his Atman with the Great Brahman. But as we watch him scale a rocky, jagged peak in Colorado at the end of the story, we can be fairly certain that mountain climbing is putting him in better physical shape than would bending himself like a pretzel, standing on his head for ten minutes, or reciting OM a hundred times a day.

Rosen’s dad told him the secret of life years back: “Get rid of what you are not. Be yourself.” There’s a sound bite that, properly absorbed, can do more to transform a soul than a few years of holding a leg two feet over your head for a half-hour in Mysore’s 120-degree heat. But yogis have to make a living, don’t they?