Stuck on the road to enlightenment

He opens his chakras, but his mind won’t follow: a skeptic’s journey to yoga boot camp

Stuck on the road to enlightenmentIt seemed like a good idea at the time. At 35, Kate Churchill had been making documentaries for nine years, and practising yoga for seven. Yoga was her passion. “The purest, most peaceful moments of my life,” she says, “have happened on my yoga mat.” So in a bid to mix métier and mantra, the Boston filmmaker set out to make a documentary that would prove yoga can lead anyone to enlightenment. She recruited a novice to sign up for a six-month boot camp that would take him from the upscale yoga studios of Manhattan to the ashrams of India. Her guinea pig was Nick Rosen, a 29-year-old journalist from New York City with a well-rooted suspicion of anything flaky. Born in what he calls “the middle of nowhere” in Quebec, he’s the son of back-to-the-land hippies who divorced when he was two—his father is now a criminal lawyer, his mother a shamanic healer.

Rosen looked like an ideal subject. He was cute, congenial and curious. And as a rock-climber, he was willing to stretch. But his body turned out to be more supple than his mind. After spending half a year with Churchill, running a global gauntlet of yogis and gurus, mystics and tricksters, Rosen remained stubbornly unenlightened. In the end, it was the filmmaker who would undergo the more soul-searching transformation, as she performed three years of contortions in the editing room, trying to twist 500 hours of footage into a movie that would reach some narrative closure. The result is Enlighten Up!, a semi-comic documentary that’s almost as frustrating to watch as it was to make—the tale of a six-month bad date between an earnest filmmaker and her skeptical student. The road to enlightenment hits a dead end, but it turns up some wild characters in exotic postures, and shatters a few popular myths.

The central idea that emerges from the film is that there’s a vast gulf between the yoga fads in the West and the ancient Eastern practices from which they’re derived. In North America, yoga is less than a century old, but has blossomed into a self-improvement industry catering to some 19 million people. As Churchill points out, there’s a “Baskin-Robbins variety” of yoga styles on the market—including classes for kids and dogs. She introduces Rosen to an eclectic range of celebrity teachers, from OM Yoga founder Cyndi Lee to former pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page—who created Yoga for Regular Guys, a macho workout with busty babes that stresses T. & A. over transcendence. While Page is an unusually crass example of dumbed-down dharma, North American yoga is most typically a fitness regime designed to build flexibility and strength.

“But once we got to India,” Churchill told Maclean’s, “we really didn’t find many Indians practising yoga as we knew it. In the large cities, power yoga studios are cropping up—they’re becoming quite popular among the upper classes because Madonna does yoga. But that wasn’t at all the common thread. The yoga we saw in modern-day India was much more a devotional practice.”

In India, Churchill tracks down some of the country’s most eminent gurus, including Pattabhi Jois, who introduced Ashtanga yoga to the rest of the world during the 1970s. His advice is straightforward: “Practice, practice, practice . . . whole life is practice.” The director also introduces her student to the legendary B.K.S. Iyengar, the 86-year-old godfather of modern yoga, a formidable figure with vast eyebrows and gold chains who bats away Rosen’s boneheaded questions about body versus spirit with lines like “the channels are open both ways,” and yoga “is a subjective way of eradicating the instinctive weakness of human being.”

Afterwards, Rosen tells his director he wants to date a cute girl from Iyengar’s class. “I haven’t been alone with a girl for months now—except you,” he tells Churchill, refusing to let her tag along with a camera. So after travelling halfway around the world in search of enlightenment, and coming up blank, Rosen—like any number of “sensitive guys” among the predominantly female ranks of North American yoga classes—just wants to get laid. Halfway between India and America, he receives the best advice in Hawaii, from Norman Allen, a wise-guy guru who was the first American to study with Pattabhi Jois and master Ashtanga yoga. Summing up his philosophy with a tantric joke, he tells Rosen, “You know what you gotta do? Go f–k yourself.” Clearly that will require more patience, and practice, than the dude has time for.