Published Aug 27, 2009I knew virtually nothing about yoga before I watched Enlighten Up!, Kate Churchill's documentary about the history, philosophy and many, many contemporary variations of the practice. Having seen the film, I think I actually know even less. I suppose that's the point. Enlighten Up! entertainingly presents the many facets of the yoga world in a hazy, contradictory manner, ultimately depending on individuals to find their own meaning.
There's a gimmick: Churchill, an avid yoga practitioner, enlists New York journalist and confirmed yoga sceptic Nick Rosen to immerse himself in the world of yoga for six months. Churchill believes it will be a transformative experience; Rosen is unsure. In addition to regularly practicing yoga, Rosen travels to California and India, tracing the origins of the discipline (he learns that yoga in its present form is really only 100 years old), interviewing several of the major gurus (including the spirited B.K.S. Iyengar), examining the relation between yoga and spirituality, and sampling a practically limitless variety of yoga sub-categories. Particularly memorable is Diamond Dallas Page, a wrestler whose "Yoga for Regular Guys" emphasizes the joys of watching women in form-fitting leotards stretching provocatively.
The film could have benefited from more discipline. With Churchill in the role of director and instigator, and Rosen as guinea pig, it creates a jarring conflict of perspective to hear Rosen chime in periodically in the voiceover narration. Several attempts at stylization (including a few dream sequences) feel out of place and I would have cared about Rosen more had I known more about his life outside of the yoga experiment.
But what pleasantly surprised me about Enlighten Up! is that despite Churchill's enthusiasm for the topic, it is not a simple pro-yoga puff piece. Unlike similarly gimmicky first-person documentaries by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, this film doesn't claim to have all (or any) of the answers to the questions it poses. And Rosen is never able to fully embrace or understand yoga — when gamely trying to explain how the experiment has benefited him he doesn't sound very convincing.
At one point, Rosen is told by one of the gurus, "You are trying to understand something that takes lifetimes to understand." That might be the most valuable insight of all. (Kinosmith)