Archive for March, 2009

Enlighten Up! The Quest for a Story

“At teacher preview screenings so far there’s always someone who gets angry,” says Kate Churchill, writer, director, and producer of Enlighten Up! A Skeptic’s Journey into the World of Yoga, a yoga documentary that premieres in New York on April 1, 2009.

By teachers, she means yoga teachers.

In 2004, Churchill, a die-hard yogini, chose yoga-skeptic Nick Rosen to go in search of answers to the questions many people ask about yoga: what is yoga? and what can yoga do for me? Kate directs Nick’s quest, selecting places to visit, books to read. The journey becomes an accelerated initiation that progresses from first yoga classes in Manhattan to the homes and ashrams of sages worldwide. Both Kate and Nick wonder: will Nick shed his skepticism?

While there is also a lot of laughter at the teacher screenings, Churchill says, some yoga teachers think the film is superficial. “They think the movie is belittles yoga.”

You just want to say, lighten up folks.


Personally, I found the device (skeptic against believer) effective—and probably the best way to make yoga appealing to non-enthusiasts. Still, I wondered why Churchill didn’t make a documentary of herself searching for these gurus?

Churchill, who began making documentaries for TV in 1995, is a long-time yoga practitioner (4x a week under normal conditions, every day under stress). However naively (she says herself), some time before 2004 she wanted to find a truly enlightened being. This yogi would be the last word in yoga and would put her on a direct path to samadhi, or as the Buddhists call it, nirvana: enlightenment.

When the opportunity to make a film arose, she considered it a chance to find that being. The only tiny little teensy-weensy obstacle would be shaping her own quest into a compelling story, while using something — or someone — else as a subject that everyone could relate to.

When Nick Rosen, a 29-year old journalist, agreed to be her guinea pig, and executive producers (who she had met while practicing yoga in Boston) already on board, Churchill began what became a 5-year odyssey.  It wasn’t what she’d bargained for.

I spoke to Churchill on a Friday afternoon, a few days before the April 1, 2009, premiere (see interview following).

For full disclosure, I will say that Nick’s interview with Iyengar, the Indian sage, basically sums up my feeling about yoga (you can get the spiritual benefits from the physical practice; benefits come slowly for some, quickly for others, there is no rush, keep practicing) which gave me a warm fuzzy, feeling inside.

But I also had a few problems with the film. First, why was Kate being such a bitch to Nick? He seemed willing enough and, for a skeptic, pretty reflective. “We’ve been throwing around the word ‘transformation’ a lot,” he says. A reasonable comment. (The yoga world often does toss out big concepts without defining them or even understanding them.) Still, Kate’s not pleased.

I also wondered how any newbie would deal with such a fast-track to the yoga stars. In my first six months of practice, I was just happy I could do chaturanga with a herd of other sweating yogis. Flying around the world to meet the most influential men in yoga today could set the stakes freakishly high for anyone. 

Lastly, I wanted to know more details from Nick himself about how his journey might have affected him—or not—in the long term. The film ended on a weak note. (post script, April 15 Nick writes his commentary on Huffington Post.)

Within the world of yoga documentaries and commentary, Enlighten Up! isn’t as acerbically insightful as Yoga, Inc, John Philps’ 2006 documentary on the entertaining contradictions of the yoga business. It isn’t as earnest as Gita Desai’s 2006 documentary Yoga Unveiled nor as funny as gentle mockeries from The Onion (see below), or McSweeney’s, nor as freakish as some of the stuff on YouTube such as  Kung Fu vs. Yoga.

But I enjoyed it. It was a humanizing look at a couple of impossible questions: What is yoga? We can’t really tell you. How can it work for me? You’ll have to find out for yourself.


The Onion Mocks Yoga

© Copyright 2009, Onion, Inc.

Interview with Kate Churchill, writer, director, producer, Enlighten Up!

Yoga Nation: What benefit did you think you would get from Nick’s journey?

  Kate Churchill: I believed I was going to be exposed to encounters with these enlightened masters. In yoga, there’s a lot of talk of coming to a sense of peace and transformation—jivan mukti, liberation of the soul—I was caught up in the promise of yoga: if I could find the right practice I could get all these great benefits. At the same time I wasn’t on the line—the camera was pointed at someone else.

YN: At some point, it seemed you felt you had to push Nick to get him to say meaningful things. For example, later in the film, in India. What happened?

KC: In the beginning, I really thought this is going to be amazing to have this guy who is a challenge to yoga—he’s a really good writer and researcher—who would press hard and investigate. He’d bring his investigative skills to it—dig into and find great stuff. It began as a journey of mutual inquiry.

But through the journey, my expectations made me more and more antagonistic to Nick. I became more wound up and agitated about what was happening. Nick became more determined to cling to his own identity.

The relationship became more conflicted. I was not getting what I wanted.

At the time, we were learning really great lessons from yogis about letting go, about how no one else can tell you what to do, you go on your own trip. Yet there we were muddling along ignoring them.

YN: How does Nick think yoga affected his life? He doesn’t say much about it at the end.

  KC: What we tried to do with documenting this story is to ask, well, how do you think he changed? It’s open to debate. We like to let the audience decide.

YN: But the possibility of change runs throughout the film. I was wondering what Nick himself thinks of how he changed.

KC: Nick has said at other screenings that it’s inevitable when you step out of life and take a journey that it impacts you in many different ways, even in ways you can’t even recognize. I think the biggest was in starting to accept his mom….

He had a knee-jerk rejection of any spirituality. He associated it with his mom— she’s a healer. He moved more towards accepting his mom’s work instead of automatically dismissing it. He became more accepting of various practices that others are doing.

YN: How did making this film affect your yoga practice?

KC: When I started this film, I was bound and determined to find the one yoga practice that would work for me. What I realized is that no one practice that would work for me. No one had the ability to tell me what to practice, and I couldn’t tell anyone else what to practice either.

I had to go with whatever practice or teacher worked for me—and I couldn’t tell anyone else what would work for them either.


Are you a “Whole Foods Woman”?

Do you do yoga?

Do you have “eco-guilt” (it drives you to buy expensive products because they are green and good for you)?

Must you have a reusable water bottle?

Is buying conventionally-grown produce a betrayal of your core values (even when organic is twice as much)?

 If yes, then you might be a WFW–a Whole Foods Woman. 

The “Whole Foods” woman (in New York, at least) has existed since the supermarket/lifestyle chain opened its NYC location on 14th street in Union Square a few years ago. Once we got over the shock of having a centrally-located grocery store that was clean, offered edible produce, and wasn’t overrun with rats, we started to develop preferences and tendencies never before possible. (Goji berries? Organic flax seed oil? Say wa?) 

WFW’s counterpart, according to this article on Sigg water bottles, is the “Geek Chic” guy, who is still proudly into Radiohead and Converse sneakers (so over already). (Although, I think the write might be off about this pairing. The WFW seems like a single professional, whereas the GCG seems like he just graduated from high school. Or am I really in denial about the differences between men and women?!?!)

One thing the writer is definitely *not* off about is the crazy profits on Sigg water bottles. This Forbes article is  worth a read. Since 2005, Sigg has enjoyed 130% increase in sales each year. The article says, “At $70 million, the U.S. market represents over 70% of Sigg Switzerland’s overall sales.” Yikes, guys! We forget that doing good, going green, still makes someone a lot of money: We are all just consumers after all. Bummer.

And get this: they jacked the price by 25% to make us buy the damned bottles. Yes, we’re all a little bit gross. 

True confession: I own a Sigg bottle. It is cute, but also heavy, and I don’t love the narrow mouth. Maybe if I had the best-selling, Bollywood-influenced design called “Maha,” though, I’d feel differently. For now, I prefer to sip from the wide-mouthed Nalgene when I’m at my desk.

(I’m just racking up bills pursuing my consumer rights to sample them all, aren’t I?)

Fatwah on Yoga continues

This latest installment is from the NYTimes. (See my earlier blog posts.)

Bali, the Hindu island in Muslim Indonesia, defies the fatwa banning the practice of yoga with a week-long yoga festival. Different Indonesian cultural sects now fear crackdowns on their traditions because of recent edicts from the fatwa-loving religious council. Yoga is one of them, and especially yoga in Bali (’cause, you know, see Eat, Pray, Love).

A refresher on the issue, “The Muslim Council’s yoga ruling came in a package of fatwas issued in January. The council deemed the ancient Indian poses and exercises incorporating Hindu chanting or rituals a sin for Muslims. Similar fatwas have been issued in Egypt and Malaysia. In all three countries, the religious leaders said they were concerned that practicing yoga could cause Muslims to deviate from Islamic teachings.”

The head of the council promises not to enforce the laws, but it’s scary that they now exist.

Fierce Club Opens in Nolita…

On March 4, I attended a free first class at Sadie Nardini & co’s new Fierce Club (a yoga studio) in Nolita, and on March 5 I dropped by the opening party. Wow, there were a lot of fancy people there. Yoga connections, artsy connections, just an all around “I-know-people” kind of vibe.

I got the sense that the Fierce Club intends to bring rock-n-roll back to downtown yoga. Both the class and the party reminded me of Jivamukti in the old days of butt-kicking classes, tiny changing rooms, and a fight to be seen.

Faramarz bartends opening of Fierce Club

In the photo above, FaraMarz, founder of Om Factory, serves up drinks with Dana (who I think I’m supposed to know, but don’t) at the opening party bar. A band played, the awesome mural was admired, and we shouted at each other over our coconut water.


Culture of Kirtan

A NYTimes piece on the appeal of quasi-spiritual, sing-along kirtans.

KirtanHere seen in Montreal…. 

The Times says, “And an increasing number of Americans seem to be connecting with kirtan. At the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., attendance to its Ecstatic Chant festival has doubled over the last five years. The numbers are also up at Integral. Jo Sgammato, 57, the center’s general manager, said the Friday-night kirtan would have about 25 participants 10 years ago; now the center will sometimes host 400 in a single weekend when kirtan stars like Krishna Das, Jai Uttal and Wah! perform. At the Jivamukti Yoga School in Manhattan, 700 people came last September to see Krishna Das, setting a record for kirtan at the center.”


… here in NYC.