Yoga is one of the most misunderstood and confusing of modern self-improvement developments of the past 50 years. Those who practice some form of hatha yoga (which I count myself amongst them) know the glazed look when beginning to explain the benefits and pleasures of stretching and breathing and sweating with likeminded people for hours. Although many yogis trace it back to ancient Indian gurus, it’s also a multi-billion dollar American industry with few roots in tradition. Is it exercise? Is it religion? Is it a cult? Is it bogus? Due to all of the confusion, documentarian Kate Churchill decided it was ripe for investigation.
Churchill is also a yoga practitioner, but instead of focusing the film on herself, she explains in Enlighten Up! (currently screening at the IFC Center) that she wanted to find someone who was new to the ballgame. She chooses Nick Rosen, a young, attractive (he looks like Luke Wilson with clear blue piercing eyes) journalist who possesses a skeptical attitude and plenty of charismatic charm.
The film begins by having Nick try out the various schools in New York City—including Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, Bikram and others—then it’s off to L.A.’s bizarro landscape where boobs are just as important as the asanas, followed by a visit to Hawaii and Ashtanga’s grandmaster, Norman Allen (Allen has the best line when he tells Nick, “Go fuck yourself.”).
The personal journey to "enlightenment" only gets more complicated as Nick and Kate take the yoga exploration to India. By the end, Nick isn’t sure he’s converted to the yoga lifestyle (he goes back to mountain climbing hobby), and his development is enough to enrage many a self-avowed old soul who will just want to smack him in the head in frustration. But Churchill believes the film expands the definition of what yoga is and hopes it demystifies the idea that it’s only for those diehard, cultish yogis.
Why do you think there haven’t been more films or documentaries focused on yoga?
There are a handful of documentaries about yoga, many of them straight to video. I watched some here and there. The difference is that many of those made are by bowing down to yoga, and it appeals to a much smaller audience. They reaffirm their own path. I was interested in seeing yoga through the eyes of a skeptic. I wanted to open yoga up and allow it to be inclusive to yoga practitioners and the yoga skeptic alike.
In some ways I expected it to be more critical of American yoga practices. I mean, many people feel Jivamukti is a cult, but there’s not much about these groups before you set off for India.
We did actually go to Jivamukti, spent a weekend with David [Life] and Sharon [Gannon]. But it was really a month spent looking into different practices.
What we were really committed to in making this story, was showing… we spent over two-and-a-half years editing this film, there were three different version of this film. Through the course of it, we committed ourselves to making the most transparent film possible.
What Nick was learning about the yoga he encountered was really the focus. We had over 500 hours of film; we had long discussions. We were way into the deep end of the pool. Film being film, we had to cut it down to 82 minutes. That’s a shoot 320 min. to 1. There was a lot that was cut out. It’s focused on what nick wanted to see. Except when the conflict increased between the two of us.
That’s interesting, and I think that you are just as much a character in the film as Nick. Why did you decide to focus on him and not make the film about yourself?
When I started the film, I thought, ‘One never puts oneself in one’s film. I came from the D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedges school of filmmaking. They are a fly on the wall and so committed to that craft.
For some naive reason, I thought that was how this film was going to be made. I already believed in so many different aspects of yoga, that I wanted the starting point to be a clean slate. What I didn’t realize is that there is a theory that you cannot observe something without affecting it. It became a journey for two people. It was impossible to tell Nick’s story without me getting involved. I never wanted to be in the film. I went into it kicking and screaming. The editors realized we needed to have me in it, and we had to scrape the edge of the footage. If there was material there with me, they would grab it.
Why did you pick Nick to be the subject? I know you had many people to choose from.
There were a lot of reasons, and I debated the choice. Him being a journalist was a huge one. We had met at a conference, like, six months prior when I invited him. We met really briefly, and we had a conversaton about his work and my work. And he told me, that he’d would like to write documentaries. So I told him, ‘Why don’t you send me some of your writing samples and articles.’
I really liked his writing. He was very ariciulate. He wasn’t even on the board at first [when we were choosing]. Then I remembered there was this guy who might be really interesting. The fact that he’s a journalist, and can bring an eloquence and articulation to, I thought that could really be good. When Nick agreed to come on board, I asked him, ‘What would you think about writing, keeping a daily journal about your experience. We could record it along the way.’ Once I decided on Nick, I was constantly thinking about, how can his special skills help us document his trip?
Nick would write pretty much every day. At the end of process, the two of us sat down, and we weren’t really getting along. We then did seven hours of voiceover material in a little room with no heat in winter. That became the narrative source of the film. Anytime that voiceover is in the film, it’s from his journal.
You seemed frustrated with Nick. I asked some yoga instructors who recently saw the film in a special screening and they also hated Nick. Do you think that was caused by the process or that he was really just being stubborn?
I really think it was me. It was my expectations of this radical transformation that was supposed to happen, and I was waiting for it impatiently. The pressure on him for that transformation… his reaction was to dig in his heels, to be really determined to hold on to his identity.
There are times you could say, he’s cutting himself off from a great opportunity. There’s a lot that he gets; things that I’m not giving him credit for. We do preview screenings for teachers in major markets, and there are teachers who are very frustrated and others who love him. Did Nick change or did he not change?
I witnessed this happen with a Q&A and realized it’s less about Nick than about it is about their own life. There are a lot of people who love the fact that he’s resistant and say, ‘That’s what held me in the movie.’ There are others who want to strangle him and brain him. But yoga is individual, and it’s his journey. I think it was my frustration, and it wasn’t until that long period of editing that I realized it. And it was a real detriment to our journey and was responsible for cutting off our relationship.
How has it been with yoga instructors? Do they like the film?
After those screenings, teachers come up to me and say, ‘I like your film, but you really missed it,’ and they say, ‘You should have introduced so and so.’
They remind me of what I was like at the beginning of the movie. I was just chatting with Norman Allen. And he said, ‘People don’t get it. Yoga is not about stretching, it’s about releasing.’ Whenever someone is frustrated and saying we’re not getting it. Let it go.
I know you practicie Ashtanga, and it seemed in some ways that Ashtanga was the main focus—especially with the visit to Norman Allen in Hawaii. Was that because producers or those involved wanted it to be explored or you had easier access?
I have been doing Ashtanga for a couple of years. If I’m going to practice ashtanga, there’s no one else on this planet, that I’ve met yet, that I’d want to do it with other than Norman. He’s unbelievable.
Through the course of making this film and editing this movie, I’ve really opened my practice up and become so much more eclectic. I think some mornings I feel doing Ashtanga. Right now I’m doing a practice that is more homegrown. There’s a young instructor out of Boston, Aaron Cantor. He’s one of those guys who dropped out of college and has a naturally flexible body and is a really fun teacher. We mix things up: some Ashtanga, some Russian calisthenics. I love it.
I didn’t expect the trip to India and the amount of time you were able to spend there. How were you able to finance that and make that segment happen?
India part was the part that both Nick and I were really excited about. I was caught up with the excitement of what we would find in india; that we would go off the grid and find some true yogi. Really bare bones.
There was some expense, but we had a really small crew: For example, I did the sound for the film. In India, you can get by really cheaply. And we captured really beautiful material. Tom and Jeane Hagerty, the executive producers, really believed in this project. It was an adventure for them as well, and they really wanted to participate to some degree: they really were great supporters of this idea.
The moment when you kind of broke down, when you were crying in India, it seemed to be a pivotal point for you and for Nick. Why do you think it was so intense?
At the time, we didn’t know I was going to be in the film. That particular moment was a really private moment, nor was it in my mind to say, ‘Let’s turn on the camera.’ What happened was, when we were excavating the footage in the editing room, we used Nick’s journal, and I also kept a daily journal. That moment in India, I talked about it in my journal and Nick had mentioned it in his as well.
The editor said, ‘This is really important. Is there a way we can bring it in?” It was the point where we both kind of both lost it. I was trying to hit my low; I had given up. I was questioning, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done here.’ I felt really lost. Nick felt completely, really worn out. It was really a difficult moment in recreating that moment.
Do you think the fact that Nick ended up not continuing to practice yoga was better for the film or did it frustrate you as well?
I think the question is really: “What is practice?” Practice isn’t necessarily about yoga. For the folks who ask, “Why doesn’t he do yoga?” He does do yoga. The time we spent, and the journey we took together, was a really important one. I’m just happy that Nick is doing what he wants to do.