enlighten up

Enlighten Up! A Skeptic's Journey into the World of Yoga (2008 film)

Filmmaker and yogi Kate Churchill believes that yoga can transform anyone, and tests this theory by following a new yogi, Nick Rosen until he finds a yoga practice that transforms him. The film presents the diversity, contradictions, humor, and depth of the yoga community, and through our journey we encounter beautiful places, unexpected surprises, and thoughtful insights.

Nick begins the six-month experiment near his home in New York City. As he tries numerous modern urban yoga studios, he encounters the pretentious, the devout, and the mystical, but he still has difficulty connecting with any yoga practice. As a skeptic, he seeks evidence to prove that yoga is more than a physical workout, that it has some deeper meaning. Thus Nick, Kate, and the film crew begin their travels throughout the world to interact with more experienced yogis, including Sharon Gannon, David Life, Norman Allen, B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Gurusharananda. Each yogi gives their perspective on the illusive quality of yoga, that it is more practice than theory, that it is so important, that a lot of it is a joke, that it is more about the mind than the body. The film ends with a poignant conversation with Gurusharananda in India, leading Nick to abandon his yoga quest and returning to the United States, with questions and reflections for Kate and the audience to ponder.

Typically a documentary film strives to make the subject visible and the filmmaker invisible, but the producing, directing, and editing in this film blurred the lines and exposed tension between Nick and Kate and challenges in the way the “experiment” was framed. The goal is to find Nick a path to enlightenment in less than six months, but common traditions suggest this varies between people, sometimes taking years or lifetimes. In interviews, Kate asks many leading questions to push and prod Nick towards realization and acceptance of yoga. Kate becomes frustrated as Nick stops practicing asanas, becomes more academic reading books and seeking evidence, and abandons yoga to return to his own pursuits from romance to urban life. She even has a breakdown where she cries and tells the camera that she is sick of yoga. It is an irony that as a practicing yogi, she maintains an attachment to the belief that yoga can transform anyone, or perhaps more precisely, attached to the vision of capturing this evidence on film. Perhaps a documentary film budget, schedule, and deadline contributed to this fixation. However, the film ultimately is a growth opportunity for Kate, and she even laughs at herself, ending the film with her practicing an inversion and falling down.

The most poignant moments for me in the film (and the extended interview in the DVD extras) were within the conversation with Gurusharananda. He provides a kind, gentle, light, yet practical approach to the exploration of yoga. Especially in the way that we (Kate, Nick, myself, and the West in general) focus so much on finding the absolute and perfect answer to how we should live our lives (as a moral, ethical, practical, and spiritual matter), he provides a delicate counterpoint that can balance our worldview. There's genius in his rhetoric and approach, so I have captured an abridged transcript to reflect and study.

Gurusharananda: And luckily God arranged for me... I'm a science student too. I'm a science... I'm a student of philosophy also. And I'm a student of religion also. I also, in a very important ashram in Rishikesh, I was a yoga instructor there. Yes. And so, you can ask any type of question as many times as you want.

Nick: If I ask anything that's a stupid question or in any way offensive, please forgive me, because I don't know.

G: Answers are stupid. Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid. Yes, my child.

N: What is your impression of the way that we are practicing yoga in the West.

G: I'm really not acquainted how you are really doing ashtanga yoga in West. And most of the time these asanas are used for physical strength. Asana is more of the thoughts, more of the inside, very less outside. And what we are doing is ninety-eight percent outside, maybe ten, two or three percent or one percent inside.

N: So I'm looking at the bhakti yoga, and I'm wondering, what is the connection between what I'm practicing at home, and this. They seem not only worlds apart, which they are, but they seem almost like separate philosophies, separate practices. If they all have different practices, and different objectives, it almost seems like they're... the only thing they have in common is the word yoga.

G: It's a very good question you are asking, my dear. Let me put it this way. You came to meet me. You could have come by cycle, you could have come by car, you could have come by elephant, you could have come by foot. To reach here, there are so many directions. That depends on you, where you are at present. Because, let me say... You are the most important person under the sun. What is east? From where does east begin? You are the center point. From you, this is east. For me, east could be different. This place could be west to you, but for me it is east. So you are the most, or let me use my word... most-est important person under the sun. Why we say that, it's not important what you are doing. It's important why you are doing.

N: What do you mean?

G: You can prepare food for your... just consuming. You can prepare food for somebody you love. And you can prepare food for your Ishta, Bhagwan, The Lord. So the action will be the same, physically, but inside it will be different. And, if you are forced to do some cooking for somebody you don't like, you will do it, you will cook. But you won't enjoy it.

N: The same thing could be said for yoga?

G: Anything, my dear. Any, anything absolutely under the sun.

N: And why in your conception should we be doing yoga?

G: That could be different from person to person what you seek. Yoga may help you, naturally, to concentrate so that you can make better decisions. It will tone up your muscles so that you can do more actions what you can commonly not do. That's okay... and you can have that. But yoga is not really meant for it.

N: I think that my goal is perhaps modest in terms of yoga.  It's simply to be happy.

G: You say the word happy, and you want to be happy. Are you sure you'll be happy by attaining any or all of this? By money you can purchase bed. Very comfortable room, but you cannot buy sleep. You can buy very nice food, but not appetite. You can buy a body, yes. You can rent a body, but you can't buy love. Not by power, not by power of any. By money, by political power, by physical power. You can abuse, yes. But you won't be able to enjoy. You can be happy only if you can make others happy.

N: Making other people happy is the key.

G: Well, yes. You can try. You eat a burger yourself, and you feed somebody a burger who is really hungry, and see the difference of joy. You'll see yourself. These are all practical things.

N: So is there a natural path from the yoga I've been doing to here?

G: You just love. And anything will just follow. If you love somebody, you need not to do. It happens. What is love? Isn't fighting love? Is not cooking love? Isn't eating is love? Isn't it giving is love? Isn't taking accepting is love? Anything could be love. Any practice could be love if I want love. And, we don't want to force anything. No teacher will force someone. It will have to come from within, and it cannot be given from without. I can only help you. I can simply assist you, rather, if you say, in making a decision, but decision will always... should always be yours. We always pinpoint this. So, you should first see what can bring you happiness to you onto your life.

N: What you're basically saying is, find what's good for you and do it, there are no rules. Is that what you're saying?

G: The door is same. You can enter through door to me, or you can go away also from me. So, it depends on you how you are using this door. Door is not important. Again, what I'm trying to stress is, you are important. Everything depends on you, hangs on you. So you should feel the importance of yourself. You are the most important person, for any decisions, all the decisions, all the practices, or any practice. And again you said how to attain happiness, yes, that's important. Let me put a little stress on it. How much hard you are working there, is there any happiness there? You will have to question yourself. Where is it? Where can we get that happiness?

N: ... you said take what feels comfortable, what feels right. I'm a, you know, godless guy from New York City. It doesn't make sense necessarily for me to embrace bhakti and Krishna because it's not my own...

G: Don't embrace him! I never said to you that you embrace Krishna! No, never embrace, never do it. If you don't like it, don't do it. Go on practicing what you are doing. If you want to believe in God, believe. If you don't want to believe, don't believe. And still you could be a religious person.

N: And what would make you religious or spiritual?

G: Be yourself. Be your true self.

N: It's not so easy for me to just... sometimes, I don't trust myself to say, okay, I'll just find my true self. Are there specific practices that one can engage in to help find what we're looking for?

G: We don't have any ready-made suit for you. I've got cloth, I've got needle, I've got scissor, I'll cut according to your size and shape, and your liking. If you want open vest, okay. Double vest, okay. You want up to this? Any fashion you want, any design you want, which suits you, we'll cut according to your size, and shape and liking. Whatever you feel good in doing, that's fit for you.

N: You have any suggestions of people or places that I should go in my yoga journey?

G: Your heart will tell you. The best guide is your heart. You'll be your own guide. And you will see, yes, this is the right place, where I can surrender myself. Go try and find it out yourself. So, I don't think I could be a very good guide. You'll have to be your guide.

G: As much as possible try to get rid what you are not and you are unnecessarily wearing on yourself. Try to get rid of this. Happiness not outside. It is within us. See for instance, our sweet Kate is here. She is the same person, she'll be the same person. Somebody will see her and he will simply jump, “Oh Kate, you have come!” “See, Dirty Kate has come again to see me.” Has she made any change? It's ourselves. Kate is a very lovely person, but not for all.

N: I think I'll call her Dirty Kate from now on.

(everyone laughs)

Gurusharananda is observant, interactive, and articulate. He calls out the tension between Nick and Kate. He calls out Kate's attempt to force Nick into yoga practice. He calls out Nick's attempt to tune out his inner voice and get a formula for happiness. He calls out the flaw in seeking the perfect one-size-fits-all practice that works for everyone. He uses metaphor to inform that each of us must look deeply within ourselves to find our true self, our true happiness, because each of us comes from a different place, has a different perspective, sees things differently. He encourages us to laugh and have a sense of humor about it. He encourages us to let go of our baggage and be authentic.

Both Nick and Kate agree on a conclusion: “Yoga has no simple definition, and that's the beauty of it.” And they agree that it is a tool, to become more compassionate, patient, and understanding. Maybe each person practices a variant, a different activity, even with a different name that is not necessarily yoga. For Nick it may be rock climbing and journalism. For Kate it may be filmmaking and ashtanga yoga. Regardless, the current incarnation of the phenomenon we call “yoga” does seem to bring us together, directly or indirectly, but towards a common goal of understanding the meaning of this shared life.


Churchill, Kate (Director). 2008. Enlighten Up! A Skeptic's Journey into the World of Yoga.

Smit, Estian. 2012. “Enlighten Up! Another Yoga Sceptic's Thoughts on the Film”.

Enlighten Up! on Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Rotten Tomatoes

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