Is yoga a path to physical fitness or to spiritual enlightenment? Or is the whole yoga industry just a hype-job? Documentarian Kate Churchill has been practicing yoga for years, and has found profound joy and peace on the mat. Her friend Nick Rosen is a deeply cynical unemployed journalist who’s intrigued by the idea of yoga as an exercise regimen, but rolls his eyes whenever yogis or other adherents start chanting or pontificating about “chakras” or “blockages.” For her documentary Enlighten Up!, Churchill leads Rosen through several types of Americanized and traditional forms of yoga, and while Rosen wants to maintain some skeptical remove while he participates, nearly everyone he meets early in his journey—Churchill included—insists that if he’s not willing to fully submit, he’s not really practicing yoga.
Chances are, viewers inclined to side with Churchill and those more Rosen-y in nature will find Enlighten Up! mutually frustrating. Though Churchill acknowledges that contradictions emerge whenever self-appointed yoga masters try to explain the practice’s history, that doesn’t really excuse her unwillingness to research the matter more fully for her film, or to offer more explanation for the different sub-methods of yoga (beyond just throwing their names on the screen). And though the conflicts between Churchill and Rosen about his lack of spiritual progress may be genuine, her insistence that he keep pushing himself feels unreasonable and unnatural.
Then again, maybe what’s “reasonable” and “natural” isn’t so important when it comes to yoga. Enlighten Up! spends time with pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, who pioneered the spirituality-free “Yoga For Regular Guys” workout, and it spends time with gurus of all stripes (both reluctant and self-promoting) who insist that yoga is inherently spiritual, whether the practitioner realizes it or not. Oddly enough, the closer Churchill and Rosen get to the origins of yoga in India, the more they encounter gurus who say that yoga is a method, not a theory, and that Rosen will be more successful if he just follows the steps without stressing out so much over the why. In other words: the true yoga masters seem to reject the entire premise of Churchill’s documentary. And while Enlighten Up! is entertaining and provocative regardless, it’s too bad that Churchill was so focused on whether Rosen was having his preconceptions shattered that she never stopped to consider her own.