Every year, Americans pour billions of dollars into self-help manuals, church collection plates, and pilgrimages both spiritual and secular. For all the flack consumerism gets, our economy reflects the individual's search for meaning. And we shouldn’t deride that. However, it’s typically a search for some undefined goal, some lazy sort of grace that we can discover like buried treasure, some end-all enlightenment that asks nothing from us in return.
In its search for meaning through yoga, Enlighten Up! (Is that really the title of this movie? Wordplay and an exclamation point? Christ on a bike, that’s two, two, two groans in one. What is this, a 1950s educational film about our changing bodies?) falls into this trap of intellectual laziness, and it dooms the film from the get-go. And because it fails to consider not only its end goal, but also its means, the movie is both enjoyable and sloppy.
Director Kate Churchill, however, has a goal: to take a cynic and show him the enlightening power of yoga. The filmmaker follows New Yorker Nick Rosen through his disenfranchisement with America’s “Baskin Robin’s variety of yoga,” onward to India in search of a truer spirituality.
Churchill is oblivious to some of the basic rules of documentary filmmaking, and that compromises both the integrity and the effectiveness of her narrative. Good documentarians either place themselves in the middle of the action or remove themselves from it completely. Think Michael Moore or Werner Herzog as the former, or Errol Morris as the latter. Churchill never fully defines her role. Sometimes she tries to tell her own story, other times it’s as if Rosen were the filmmaker. Mostly she’s a phantom in the background, asking questions from behind the camera, when the interviewee’s responses would’ve been self-explanatory. It feels unprofessional.
The film also can’t decide whether it’s making an observation or an argument. It takes assumptions of American yoga’s superficiality at face value, barely backing the claims with evidence. Instead, we watch Rosen hopping from yoga studio to yoga studio. Humorous music reminds us to laugh. To be fair, these scenes are amusing. One yogi broils his students in a 105-degree studio. Elsewhere, a student tells Rosen she’s had her best orgasms through yoga. In the middle of a workout, pro-wrestler-turned-yogi Diamond Dallas Page suggests Kate get a good shot of his assistant’s cleavage. But to debunk modern yoga'ts spiritual pretenses, Churchill needed to do more than mock. She needed more facts, more expert opinions, and more in-depth analysis of yoga culture and its practitioners.
The final third of the film is much stronger, as Rosen and Churchill travel to Hawaii and India in search of greater authorities on yoga’s tradition. Churchill backs off and lets these sources speak for themselves. And they’re surprising: No self-appointed saints with their ankles behind their heads, they’re instead men of this Earth, more grounded and practical than Rosen, Churchill, or any source in New York. Theirs is a doctrine of self-empowerment and collapsed ego boundaries. The physical diligence of yoga is a means to health and mental diligence. Rosen complains of his existential disarray. Says the yogi, “Go fuck yourself.”
But here again the film’s fundamental flaw comes through. Churchill and Rosen return to America disappointed. They dismiss their search as a failure, just because they failed to feel the hand of God. But Rosen has certainly felt something; no tectonic shift, but the inklings of a new direction for his life. Perhaps that is all enlightenment is. To want an easier path isn’t Churchill’s flaw; it’s in our nature.