Have you heard of Enlighten Up! A Skeptic’s Journey Into the World of Yoga?? Surely by now. We reviewed the yogamentary last year when it toured around popping up on select movie screens across the country. Did it skip your town? Not to worry! The US tour is pretty much over, but now everyone can watch it at home! Released last week, the DVD features 50 minutes of bonus material, plus, you know, the entire transformation-seeking world-traveling yoga adventure. Also last week, we held a contest to give away 2 copies of the DVD and asked everyone to submit their questions for filmmaker Kate Churchill and skeptic guinea pig Nick Rosen, because we got to interview them! It’s true. Many thanks to everyone for their thoughtful inquiries – we did our best to cover each of them and drag out the truth ask Kate and Nick in our politest manner.
We cut out all the yammering (ours), and it’s still a long one, but chock full of interesting bits and maybe some controversy! oooh. Did they prove yoga can transform anyone? Find out how Kate and crew got in to see BKS Iyengar, her thoughts on the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois, how Nick enjoys his celebriyogi status and how he thinks the “real yoga” debate is BS. Oh, and why they both think traveling to India to find enlightenment is superfluous.
(for the impatient, at time of interview, yes Nick is single. Kate is not)
INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER KATE CHURCHILL
YD got to catch up with filmmaker Kate Churchill while she’s wrapping up another project in Ireland.
First off we really enjoyed the film. We hear the US theatrical run has wrapped up, but what about enlightening other countries?
It’s running in Canada in theaters now. We’re in discussions right now with a couple different European distributors.
And the DVD? Australia is waiting very patiently, you know.
It’s in the US and will be available in Canada as well. We haven’t gotten distribution deal in Europe or UK. I would be misleading people if I said there was something in the pipeline. Good news is my current work will be done the week of Thanksgiving. The first couple weeks of December before everyone disappears for the holidays hopefully I’ll be able to get a bunch of international distribution organized. I’ll def tweet or post it.
Great! On to yoga. You were the experienced “practitioner” in making the film, while Nick was the newbie. Do you practice yoga now, and if so, what type? Has it evolved?
When I started making the film I’d been practicing for 7 years, so now I’m up to 12 years because it took 5 years to make the film. When I started the film, I was mainly focused on Ashtanga yoga. Now it’s a much more mixed up version of a number of different practices. There’s a teacher I really like in Boston named Aaron Cantor. He studied Ashtanga for a long time, he studied Iyengar, he’s done a lot of work with Shandor Remete (Shadow Yoga) and he just blends it all together in a very individual practice.
I think what happened is when I was first starting out making the film, I was really bound and determined to find one practice and one teacher. And through the course of this journey and the conversations I had along the way it really opened me up to the possibility that yoga is what ever you choose it to be and the practice you develop is one that should suit you the best.
En route to enlightenment we get that you’re looking for Nick to “transform”. What were your preconceptions and expectations of what “transformation” would be?
It’s funny because I had these really high expectations that given 6 months and the ability to go anywhere in the world that something quite radical would happen. If you’d asked me to define it at the start, my definition would’ve been very vague because it would’ve been that we were going to meet or discover some form of enlightenment. But the interesting thing about enlightenment is if you never define it then you never really know what you’re looking for, and then you can just keep looking, and in fact, may indeed miss something that right in front of you.
And so through this journey I had these expectations, I thought yoga would have a profound impact on him both physically but even more so spiritually. I expected him to, through the immersion and through meeting a teacher who really clicked for him, that it could have a profound impact on changing his life.
Did you indeed see a transformation?
There were two different phases. While I was making the film I was so wrapped up in this kind of odd and idealistic expectation that something radical would happen, like if Nick started levitating I’d be like oh there we go. It was ironic cause while I was making the film I really rarely was ever in the moment. I was always onto the next thing or my expectations were always telling me ‘oh we don’t have it yet’ and I missed a lot of great moments at time. It wasn’t until I started editing the film – and it took 3 years to edit, granted we had 500 hours of material – when I had to dissect it, the tension between Nick and myself, the pressure of my expectations on Nick, when I really had to examine that I started to see Nick making a number of changes that ranged from subtle to actually quite significant. In a way it was in the edit I was able to sit back and learn a lot from Nick that I was blind to in the moment.
This all transpired over 6 months. What do you think would’ve happened if you had more time?
I think more time would’ve allowed a number of things. We did this kind of wild investigation and engaged in this yogic debate with different teachers. but I also think there’s a huge significance to just settling down with one teacher and studying and we did do more of that than you get a sense of in the film.
More time would’ve worked if our journey was different. Two thirds through the way we both get really frustrated and discouraged with each other, and it’s at the point in the film that things start to shift. In away nick and I each start taking our own journey, separate from each other – I give up on trying to force him to fulfill my expectations and he gives up on his resistance to pressure, and perhaps allows himself to be more open. Had that journey continued whether we were together or apart it would’ve continued to be profound. That journey did continue for me for 3 years in the edit room.
You got some pretty awesome interviews with yoga’s VIPs in India. Particularly impressive was your time with BKS Iyengar. How did you pull that off?
We were really lucky that I knew Patricia Walden from Boston and she was really supportive of this film from the beginning. We weren’t able to confirm any interviews with anyone before we got there, so I and the film crew went halfway around the world with no certainty this would work out. It was very stressful. With Pattabhi Jois we literally had to show up on the doorstep of the shala and practiced for a few weeks before we could bring up the conversation. With Iyengar, because we had an introduction from Patricia Walden, we were able to make some progress, but upon arrival were told we wouldn’t be able to see him. I timed our arrival with Patricia Walden’s arrival in Pune and we were staying in the same hotel so I walked over to her room and said sorry to bother you this is what happened. She said, “oh just come over with me.” So we drove over together to his institute. We got there and she opened the door and there she was with her long legs stepping out of the car and Mr. Iyengar was up above us a couple stories in the practice room looking down through the open windows. He sees Patricia and starts waving and saying hello because they’re very close and invites us all in, and there you go! He ended up giving us a 3 hour interview.
Wow. Did you have trouble editing that down for the film?
We have a version that’s 80 minutes that we thought maybe down the road we can do a stand alone Iynegar piece. If the DVD does well enough then we can come out with a collector’s edition. He’s so prolific. The same with gurusharananonda. We also have an hour and half of material with him as well.
Was there anyone in particular you met with that surprised you or ended up not being as you expected?
I think that kinda happened all the time. We walked into Iyengar being ready for a really fierce guy, and certainly he’s intense, but he was really welcoming and lovely and enthusiastic and had a great sense of humor. So this happened to us along the trip; we would go in wondering, having heard what someone was like or having a sense of it based on whatever their shala was like or whoever was handling them.
Like when we went in to see gurusharanananda we had no idea of anything about him, and in northern India we saw so many gurus and saints and babas we were joking about how we would see one or two a day. We saw so many people we didn’t really click with and it was very random and you would have an incredible experience, but it wouldn’t necessarily make any sense. When we walked in to see gurusharanananda we thought wow this guy has a really nice ashram, a lot of people are coming to visit him, it seems very well organized. That’s all we knew. We walked in and here is this man who was so eloquent and really lovely and welcoming, and we just engaged in an amazing conversation. So our trip was full of surprises that way.
Sri K Pattabhi Jois passed away earlier this year. How was your experience with Guruji?
We were based in Mysore for about a month. While we were there for the first couple weeks he was pretty sick so we didn’t have too much interaction with him. Going into our third week we got to sit down for an interview. It wasn’t a very long interview, it was probably about half an hour, 20minutes. It was interesting – there were parts that were really spot on and made a lot of sense and there were other parts where he would kinda go off on a tangent and it was a little hard to follow him. His English is not as strong as Iyengar. I think, too, he wasn’t feeling so well. The thing about Pattabhi Jois is he was just a really sweet man to be around. He didn’t really talk a lot, but he would have a smile and a twinkle in his eye. and you would just feel good. That was strong enough to get, more so than necessarily an elaborate description for debate or theory, from him. He was less inclined to engage in a verbal debate, but he was very active physically.
It was sad when he died, but what a rich life he lived and it’s incredible to think how many people got the opportunity to study with him. At the shala when he was still alive there could be 100-150 people there each morning studying. He had such a huge influence on so many people and had a very long rich life. He really left quite a mark.
A primary chunk of the film focuses on journeying east, and some might say the American teachers in the opening sequence came off looking a bit foolish. Why did you not interview more US teachers? And did you catch any flack from teachers in the film’s opening interviews?
Nick was based in NY so the teachers he went to go meet and study with initially were all NY based teachers that he or I had heard things about and we discussed. That’s how he ended up at Jivamukti, Dharma Mittra, the Bikram studio, Cyndi Lee, Alan Finger. Definitely some feathers were ruffled with the teachers in the opening, but the majority of the teachers were fine with it. Rodney Yee came out to a preview screening in Berkeley and loved it, thought it was really funny.
Nick and I interviewed those teachers [in the opening] at the Yoga Journal conference and asked them all the same exact questions. My point of that sequence was to try and make a collective voice about yoga, but the interesting thing is that when you make a collective voice about yoga there’s not a lot of concrete historical info, in fact there’s very little, so the fact that no one will give you the same answer for how old yoga is – you can get a range from 2,000 to about 40,000 years – doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about, it means that yoga doesn’t have a strong history and everybody has their take on it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The issue of their different products [DVDs, etc] is really just to say, look it’s become big business and everybody has a way to show you their practice. There’s nothing wrong with being a successful teacher where people enjoy your class so much that they want to buy your DVD. It’s kinda great. It’s funny if that seems really awkward or difficult or not what you’re about when meanwhile you’re selling these products.
There was one glaring omission in the teacher crew. Did you try to get an interview with Bikram Choudhury?
We really tried so many different ways to get an interview and it was really disappointing because both Nick and I really really wanted to. But his PR people were just impenetrable, which is odd, because he was the only person who said no to us.
There seems to be a debate on “real” yoga in the West, and there’s an emphasis in the film on traveling to India to seek its roots. Do you think this film could’ve been made a US-only version?
I don’t think you have to go anywhere. Norman Allen always says that. It’s really a matter of your intention and what you do with your practice and how you open your mind to it.
The irony was that we went to India thinking wow this is really the source, but when we go there the yoga that seemed really significant had nothing to do with our yoga. So it’s just a matter of what you want to study. It doesn’t really matter, you could do it in Idaho if you found the right teacher who suited you and if you found the right source of material.
I think ultimately through making this film, to me, enlightenment translates into becoming aware. There’s so many different ways to do that and it’s up to you to sort out how you do that.
Any plans for a sequel?
Not right now. In terms of storytelling the story was told.
INTERVIEW WITH “SKEPTIC” NICK ROSEN
We caught up with Nick to ask him the what’s how’s and why’s of making the film and his reflections now 5 years on. We caught him by surprise as he was tooling around Boulder in his car, but after the initial shock, and YD charm, we dove straight in.
You did lots of yoga on your 6-month journey. Are you still practicing? If not, what else occupies your time?
I practice yoga as much as I can, which is about once a month (laughs) It’s not as much as I can, I’m kinda kidding. I like yoga a lot. I guess I’m just not as disciplined about it as I should be or committed to it like a lot of people are who are really into it. There are all these things in my life that I know are really good for me that I should be doing more of, and yoga falls into that category along with things like eating better food, reading important literature, etc. It fluctuates. Sometimes I go once a week and sometimes I go months without doing it. I really like to run which I find really meditational, and I do my own sort of yoga stretches at home; after I run I do a set of sun salutations and some hip openers. I love climbing too and I do a lot of that out here in Boulder when I’m not working. Mostly I just work. (Sender Films)
So a lot of chairasana! You know “sort of yoga” is still yoga. Good for you.
I do go to studios and I find it’s amazing how many free classes you can cycle through. There’s this whole art of getting free classes. I find I enjoy yoga so much more when it’s free, I don’t know why.
OK. So why?
If I’m paying for it I always feel like I’m doing a cost benefit analysis, but if I don’t pay for it it’s just all gravy.
Did you take a yoga break after India?
Actually that’s when I kept doing a lot of yoga even after the filming stopped. As we all know yoga can be a little bit like crack cocaine – hard to kick – so I kept doing it quite a bit when I got back. It’s kinda sad, I think about how open and flexible my body was at the time. I’m in pretty good shape now that I live out in Boulder, maybe even in some ways better well-rounded shape, stronger in some ways, but as far as my yoga shape, I miss those days when I could just do a forward bend and press my chin up against my thighs. It was nice. But those days are long past.
It’s never too late!
Yeah it’s never too late. I don’t know what would cause me to get back into it. But I could for sure.
Boulder’s a pretty happenin‘ yoga town. Do you get recognized on the street?
Not nearly as much as I want to! It’s rather disappointing. Sometimes I have to be like hey do I look familiar? I’m the yoga guy! I’m just kidding about that. But I actually did just walk into lululemon the other day and I was like ‘I’m the yoga guy’ and they gave me some free shit. That was kinda the most shameless I’ve been about this whole thing.
But no, really I’m not a celebrity of any kind unfortunately. Or maybe fortunately.
How has your yoga journey lingered and seeped into your everyday life now?
Sometimes I would squirm at the idea of these half-baked new-age nostrums I’d learn in yoga class, and despite my resistance they seep in. But they seep in because they’re good. They’re popular because they’re good. I don’t think they’re popular because they’re ancient, frankly. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. I think they’re effective ways for contemporary people who go through life.
There was a lot of great stuff and it was kinda shoey, ok so we’re stretching what does that have to do with compassion or non-attachment? But then I had this thing where I was like OK well because this is like this big experiment I have to keep my mind open and I’m not going to allow myself to resist these positive ideas. That would be a real shame. Just because I had a problem with the way they were delivered or with the qualifications of the person who was delivering them, would I allow myself to miss out on the lessons anyway? Compassion is good. Bringing balance and non-attachment into your life, those are important things to do. So despite my resistance they resonate to this day.
In India you became very emotional about your mom. Do you think it had to do with the yoga, or was it because you were so far from home? Did your yoga adventure change your relationship with your mom and/or other people in your life?
That whole experience did have an impact on my relationship. I think this was something that was going on in my life with or without yoga, in becoming a man and coming to terms with big things like the relationship to my mother and processes that I was working on anyway. It helped a lot that I had this forum to really intensely, and with a lot of intention, address those gaps in my life. Going to the mat everyday as we all know is a very effective way of intentionally bringing it up.
I don’t think there’s anything magical about the yoga, but it’s meditational and you bring intention to it. I might not have had such an effective year of progress in dealing with all my own shit if it wasn’t for that. It certainly was sort of true that the pressures of the film – Kate being angry with me, being out in India far from home – I started to miss my mom a lot. It wasn’t just her though, it was a lot of things and it sort of precipitated and I felt pretty lonely and isolated at that point. I thought nobody likes me and I’m destroying this movie and what am I doing out here? It was helpful for me to think about the people who really do love you.
What’s cool about all this yoga in the way Kate was proposing it – kind of a transformational self-help tool – it was great that it brought up these issues that you should be addressing and you can’t hide from anymore. Five years later I can still go to that. I can still stop myself in the moment where I’m not living up to my ideals, and take a deep breath and, you know, remember to be nice to my mom. (laughs)
Oh you should always be nice!
Oh I know but it’s not always that easy! No she’s a wonderful person and it’s important to remember to tell her that. She obviously loves the movie because it’s a big demonstration of that, in the end.
You were 29 when you embarked on your yoga journey. Did that have any affect on your decision to take it on?
I think that’s why Kate chose me. I took it on because she proposed it and I was like how could I not? It was a transitional stage in my life a little bit – I wasn’t sure where I was going next or why. I don’t know to this day how much causality that project or that year had on my current past. it probably had some practical impact. I stepped out of my life, I was working as a journalist in the field of international relations, I had gone to grad school and was firmly entrenched in this world of NY. I stepped out of that and when I came back to it I didn’t really settle in again. When my friend said hey come out to Boulder and do this company with me I was ready for that and it was partly because of the yoga thing that I had developed an interest in film making.
Was there any person or experience that resonated more deeply than others?
Meeting with BKS Iyengar was fascinating. That guy is really an individual and kind of nuts, and really just fun and interesting. He’s a character. He actually shed some interesting light. Through this whole thing I was really fascinated with the idea of yoga’s historical roots and we were learning some really eyeopening things about that. And he puts the icing on the cake because he was the link between yoga in India and the western world, you know Light on Yoga, which is this hugely influential book.
Gurusharanananda – we call him Baba Claus with his big beard – he was edifying because he told us don’t worry about it. I was freaking out, Kate was freaking out, this felt like a total failure of an experiment and he just told us the experiment was the problem. You are yourself. It was a very simple thing, like Shakespeare’s “to thine self be true.” It took the pressure off. I started to think about it a lot as a kind of self-analysis, and it didn’t conform to a specific spiritual tradition which was constantly a block because Kate kept bringing me to these people who kept insisting that the big deal was god. And that’s not what I believe, that’s not my universe.
What do you say to those who argue their yoga is more “real” than others?
It drives me nuts! When people try to say that their one yoga is more legitimate than another because it has so-called historical lineage or a better pedigree. That is BS. If you look at the history of yoga it is not about that. The ancient yoga is nothing like what we practice; postures were irrelevant. Postural yoga is a very modern phenomenon. The history’s like 100 years old.
Yoga’s anything you want it to be and that’s very freeing. The worst is people saying we’re destroying yoga in America because it’s not spiritual enough. Tell that to BKS Iyengar when he was 25 years old developing this on his own and wasn’t spiritual. I just think that’s sanctimonious hypocrisy and often is a marketing tool more than anything.
Do you think there could be a US-only version of Enlighten Up? After your journey did you feel it was necessary to travel all the way to India?
It was very enlightening to go to India and to see the big yoga shala’s in India were filled with Westerners. This was all new for them like it was for us and you ask people about yoga, like the taxi driver in Bombay, and he says “ah yes, mind control.” There’s not big postural yoga tradition in India. It’s way bigger in the West and some of the classes we went to they were inspired by Madonna. And what is the big state sponsored official Indian yoga? It’s yoga competitions, with gold medals and stuff like that, who can do the best headstand. I had to go [to India] to fully appreciate just how much you didn’t have to go (laughs). I still recommend that people go and practice yoga in India because it’s a great way to travel, but don’t expect that you’re finding something more authentic or better for you in any way. But some people are into that and I think that’s great too. If you want to go and stay in Mysore and practice with Sharath and do ayurvedic medicine and live the whole thing, it’s great. But to me it’s not necessarily more authentic than going to Core Power Yoga. It’s just different. It’s perfectly legitimate either way.
So what about Bikram and the competitions?
I think that would be horrifying. It does not sound fun or interesting, a yoga competition. If you’re not into it don’t do it, but don’t criticize Bikram for importing what really is going on in India. I actually admire Bikram in a lot of ways because he’s no bullshit and he’s not trying to be a spiritual leader. The word yoga is confusing because it’s so many different things.
So did you have transformation or what?
Sure! Well what is transformation? I’m still the same person but did something change? Yes. I’m still totally humbled and unaware of how much. Some days I feel like I’m a kind of a relatively enlightened individual and other times I’m like oh my god I have no clue. It’s just like life. Yoga can be a great vehicle for transformation for people and I met a lot of people through that whole process like who were addicted to drugs or really depressed and yoga created this really intense energetic regular thing to devote themselves to that brought them a lot of stability. That sounds a little more like transformation than what I went through which is like calling my mom more often. but that is big for me, modest but it’s big and if that’s transformation then I’ll take it.
Some of our readers want to know. Are you single?
Yes, I am.
Final thoughts and reflections?
I was so fortunate to be involved in it. I think Kate would admit that the experiment was a disaster, but the film being very honest was a success.
Enlighten Up! DVD now on sale at Amazon