Some people turn to yoga to ease the tensions that knot up their kundalinis. The documentary Enlighten Up! succeeds best when it draws out the tension between the filmmaker and her subject, even though it starts out as a beginner’s odyssey through contemporary yoga practices.
Filmmaker and “Nova” field producer Kate Churchill introduces Enlighten Up! by discussing her personal yoga regimen and her skepticism over the “multibillion industry” and whether it offers just a workout, or a route to genuine spiritual insights. Treating her film as an experiment, she finds a “guinea pig” in 29-year-old ex-journalist Nick Rosen, whom she sends on an extensive immersion in various yoga disciplines, from Manhattan to Mysore, India.
At first Enlighten Up! seems like a tongue-in-cheek first-person exposé like the work of Morgan Spurlock and early Michael Moore. In some yoga classes, wacky sound effects accompany elaborate poses and Rosen looks askance at the pretzled students. (If Enlighten Up! were a feature film, Paul Rudd would play Rosen.) In Los Angeles, Rosen has a session with ex-wrestler Dallas Page, who offers “yoga for regular guys” and says “When yoga opens with ‘Namaste,’ mine’s about T&A.”
The film adopts a less irreverent tone when Rosen meets teachers who eschew the New Agey slogans and provide common-sense advice, including Hawaii’s Norman Allen and a beatific fellow in India whose titles include “The Guru of the Blissful Refuge.” Whether Rosen’s open-minded enough to pursue yoga disciplines to attain transcendent levels becomes a sticking point, and he has slightly testy conversations with Churchill, who accuses him of not taking yoga seriously enough.
Rosen’s yoga exercises and global travels gradually have an effect on him, and at one point he grows visibly emotional at the thought of his parents. Churchill can’t hide her frustrations at Rosen’s lack of deeper spiritual transformation, but her expectations seem unreasonable, given his skeptical nature and the time-consuming demands of yoga practices. But even if Rosen achieved some form of nirvana, it’s hard to imagine how Enlighten Up! could visually capture the inner workings of his soul, so the film’s goals seem misguided from the outset. Enlighten Up! ends on an ambiguous note unlikely to satisfy yoga practitioners or detractors, but audiences can meditate on its lack of clear answers.