Film Asks If Nirvana Through Yoga Is Possible

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A new film, "Enlighten Up," takes a look at whether yoga really is the spiritual experience it's cracked up to be. Host Robert Smith talks to filmmaker Kate Churchill and subject Nick Rosen about the documentary.


Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

Here's what filmmaker Kate Churchill had for breakfast.

Ms. KATE CHURCHILL (Filmmaker): So I had my green shake, which is papaya, banana, hemp milk, water, raw almond butter and green powder.

SMITH: And here's what her documentary subject, Nick Rosen, ate.

Mr. NICK ROSEN (Writer): I had my breakfast, which is typically - in contrast to Kate's, was a big cup of coffee and a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich.

SMITH: Kate Churchill, no surprise here, is a devoted practitioner of yoga. A few years ago, she had an idea for a documentary film. Pick a subject, a skeptic - perhaps even a bacon eater - immerse him in yoga for six months, and see what happens.

Churchill ended up following writer Nick Rosen from New York to Hawaii to India and back again in the new documentary "Enlighten Up." I asked Kate Churchill what kind of movie she was expecting to make.

Ms. CHURCHILL: Well, what I initially pictured this movie as is radically different than what it turned out to be. Initially, I thought that we were going to go on a journey, Nick and I. We could go anywhere in the world and would have some incredible transformation happen to Nick - and possibly even to me.

SMITH: Well, you know, some people take yoga so seriously, and you signal at the very beginning that this is willing to take them on, let's say.

Ms. CHURCHILL: Yeah, I do. I mean, it's kind of funny to me that people get so serious about yoga or about dogma connected to yoga because in a way, it really feels completely opposite to what's important about yoga.

Mr. ROSEN: And there are a lot of what we call yoga fundamentalists out there, people who do take yoga very seriously and have kind of turned it into this kind of exercise religion that they undertake and that they defend humorlessly and treat it almost with a kind of anti-intellectual bent. They don't like to laugh about it. They don't like to question it. They don't like to inquire into its origins.

SMITH: And anytime you even ask a question in the film, a lot of people sort of dismiss it by saying well, you've just got to do it. Don't ask questions. Clear your mind. Just do the yoga, get in the pose, and the answers will come.

Mr. ROSEN: And I will say, you know, there might be some merit to that, you know? I have to confess a few years later that I was using this kind of journalistic inquiry into the roots of yoga and what's really going on almost as a way of deflecting attention from myself and my journey and the degree to which I was going to transform through this experience. And I think that ended up creating a lot of tension between Kate and I, and it was a defense mechanism. I'll admit that.

SMITH: Well, that must have been one of the challenges of doing the film, which was if you're doing something on yoga, you don't want 90 minutes of peaceful contemplation and enlightenment. You want a little tension in a film. You want a little conflict. And luckily, Kate, you seem to be sick of your subject at least three quarters of the way through the film.

Ms. CHURCHILL: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHURCHILL: Yup. I would say even more, perhaps, than three quarters of the way, but that's when it really got heated. It was funny, Robert. We spent two and a half years editing this movie, and we made three different cuts of it.

The very first cut, I wasn't in at all, and I had never intended to put myself in the film. It wasn't until a number of peers and mentors watched the first cut and said, what is Nick responding to? This doesn't make any sense. There's really something missing, Kate.

And so sure enough, we had to go back to the material. And the material was 500 hours of material, so it wasn't an easy task to go back to it. And we spent five months, the editors and I, mining it for conflict. We covered a huge wall in the office. And we consistently found that the juiciest conflict and the most intense was between Nick and me.

(Soundbite of movie, "Enlighten Up")

Ms. CHURCHILL: (As herself) I don't believe that you really have that much faith in it right now. I don't. I don't believe that you take it that seriously.

Mr. ROSEN: (As himself) Take what seriously, take yoga seriously? Well, I mean…

Ms. CHURCHILL: (As herself) Well, take the potential of yoga to really have any impact.

Mr. ROSEN: (As himself) Well, let me tell you. I don't feel - I don't think that - I mean, well, it depends what you mean by impact. It depends…

SMITH: Because as you're dragging Nick from yoga class to yoga class, from country to country, just watching him on the screen, he seems more and more defensive and haggard. He doesn't seem calmer or more enlightened. He actually seems hassled. And I guess we now know who was doing the hassling.

Ms. CHURCHILL: Yeah, you do, and it's also ironic because here we are, we're traveling the globe. We're meeting some incredible teachers who are fun and have a twinkle in their eye and sparkle, and you know, they're giving us this great insight and wisdom.

And at least for me, I'm totally missing the point because I'm so wound up and determined to see Nick, I don't know, levitate or something, you know, do something that I could capture on film and knew it would be proof of - that yoga could transform anyone, that it wasn't until those years spent in the editing room where I really could listen to these teachers and these gurus and realize wow, listen to what they're saying to us, you know?

And we are not responding, you know; we're becoming more and more conflicted. And that's really being driven by my expectations and what I wanted to see Nick do.

Mr. ROSEN: It seemed like increasingly, even the more wise the holy man, the more they would be emphasizing that yoga is not something that you can have foisted upon you, and that it's always important to follow your own path.

SMITH: The new documentary is "Enlighten Up." It just opened in New York City, and it will be headed soon to theaters across the country.

Kate Churchill, Nick Rosen, thank you so much.

Ms. CHURCHILL: Thank you, Robert.

Mr. ROSEN: Thank you, Robert.

SMITH: Oh wait, I should say namaste.

Ms. CHURCHILL: Namaste.

Mr. ROSEN: Namaste.

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