June '08 Movies

Enlighten Up!  An Interview with Kate Churchill
By Elise Espat

I recently met up with Kate Churchill, whose trailer for the upcoming film, Enlighten Up!, had me completely captivated. Enlighten Up! will have its world premiere on June 12th at the Maui International Film Festival.  Learn more about the film and Kate at their website and be sure to watch the trailer!  

LM: How did you get into yoga?

KC: I started yoga in the mid-nineties when I was living in Los Angeles. But I didn't really seriously start practicing until the late-nineties when I had moved to Boston. I was living in Cambridge and there was a "power yoga" studio that had opened that became really popular. I got really into it--going every day. (That's where I met the people who approached me about making this film.) After awhile I got interested in other styles of yoga, but it really got me into a daily practice and really had an effect on my lifestyle. 

LM: Where did the idea for Enlighten Up! come from?

KC: There is this couple named Tom and Jeanne Hagerty, whom I knew from the yoga studio where I had been practicing, and they had gone on their honeymoon to Hawaii. In Hawaii they wanted to practice yoga and they were trying to find a class that they liked because they didn't really like the class that they had the hotel so much. So the concierge is like, "there is this guy--Norman Allen". They had read Beryl Bender's book where she talks about Norman, who was her teacher. Long story short, they ended up at his farm and were so taken with him. They spent the next couple of weeks of their honeymoon just practicing yoga with him and it changed their whole experience; he had such a profound effect on them. He is in the movie and he is this really unusual man in that he's just living off the grid and he's really living his principles in a way that I think most of us would never really do. So they came back from that trip and they started to question: "Wow if that guy is out there, then who else is out there?" It had such a profound affect on them that they wanted to make a movie about it. So initially they approached me and said "we want to make a movie about yoga". 

I was kind of like "okay..." That was the starting point. I spent some time developing ideas and trying to figure out how would you tell a story about yoga. But the idea was to look at yoga and really figure out how it changes people's lives through daily practice and to look at it terms of some of the really accomplished teachers and what they've done in their lives. We knew we needed one central character that was on a journey who would be the connecting link between all the teachers. 

LM: How did you find that central character--Nick?

KC: Nick was on the edge of turning thirty. I had met him at a conference and he was just really funny and had a lot of poise and was very articulate--

LM: And cute.

KC: He was very good looking. I was like "this is an interesting guy and he can write really well". What I wanted to do [in the movie] is have some sort of device that we could build the narrative from. And so with Nick, the fact that he was a writer--I thought "oh this is great! I'll have him do a daily journal and at the end, we'll record it all and use it as our narrative material". He's at a very interesting point in his life. He's about to turn thirty. He's feeling like he's
kind of dissatisfied and ready for some sort of change. He was in transition. I was definitely looking for someone I thought was going to have this massive transformation and I really believed that would happen. It was very kind of an idealistic outlook. Nick hadn't done yoga, he was skeptical, he was articulate, he could write about his experience, and he really seemed like he was ready for some change.

LM: How long did Nick practice with each teacher?

KC: In the beginning he was really dabbling. He would go to a class at least once, sometimes twice a day. The very first week we went to Om Yoga, Jivamukti, Dharma Mittra, Bikram, and Alan Finger's class. From that, he chose where he wanted to spend more time. And he basically settled on going to Dharma Mittra's class and Jivamukti and we'd go back and forth...sometimes we'd go to Om again. 

LM: What's something funny that happened that didn't make it into the film?

KC: There is so much! That is such a great question. I could spend hours answering. We had 500 hours of material and ended up with an 82 minute film. There is so much that we couldn't include. There were a lot of funny things that happened in New York. He did a cleanse here that was hysterical. The master cleanse with Sharon Gannon and David Life from Jivamukti had recommended. Because that was part of it. If a teacher said "oh you should do this" and he was interested in this teacher, then he would do it. So the cleanse was really hysterical. We went to see Russell Simons at one point and that was really a very interesting conversation. It was really hysterical. It was Russell kind of talking to Nick about being really spiritual and Russell's style and just kind of him as a person was just kind of funny with Nick. That was something. There was a lot of Jivamukti classes that were very funny because Nick is really resistant to anything really spiritual and Jivamukti has a strong focus. But he really liked the practice and he liked that they played music. he thought that that was really fun. Ultimately, he got into ashtanga because it was just like "stripped down" and he wasn't distracted and so that's why he got into it. He's settled into Guy's [Donahaye, Ashtanga Yoga Shala] class for about a month. 

LM: I got the impression from the trailer that you found that there was a lot of "fluff" involved in the yoga culture in New York City and that was getting in the way of transformation. That there has to be something more.

KC: Everyone has their pitch of what you should do and it is confusing to know what to believe. So I thought, you know, "I just have to go and find the right teacher", a really truly enlightened person and then everything will happen. And I thought we're onto something here and there is probably something better out there. My sense was that it was not someone in the mainstream and the marketing and having to support a 8,000 square foot space and have dvds and be on the circuit. So I threw Nick into the most popular classes in New York and his skepticism was really high. He was really wondering "does it really add up to anything more than a workout and looking good?"

LM: So you went to India. What was your Mysore experience?

KC: We didn't have permission to film at first. Sharon Gannon, Nancy Gilgoff, David Swenson, Tim Miller all called and faxed for us, sent letters, and I was calling, faxing and we couldn't get any response. Finally, Nancy said "just go and sign up". So that's what we did, we just showed up and started practicing. This was in 2004. So, we got to Mysore and we were really surprised with how western it felt. I think we all had a range of emotions. In the movie, Nick talks about his first impressions. We were so busy during the day. We were doing research (which didn't make it into the movie). Nick got really into researching the history of yoga and the Yoga Korunta. We were going to the Mysore palace and trying to get access to the prince's library because we were trying to do the whole "Krishnamacharya shala" and to understand that. We were trying to figure out how much influence gymnastics had. We were trying to figure out how the practice had changed. Ultimately, it became really eccentric and never really added up because we kept running into dead-end streets. So during the day were were running all over Mysore and doing that while everyone else is going to the Southern Star. At the very end, we went there and were like "wow this is how people have been spending their day".

I was really stressed out because we couldn't film. But what ended up happening is we got to know Sharath and explained our project and he decided we could film. But at the same time there was another film crew there and a still photographer and it got really difficult because we would want to film one day and then he would tell them they could film...but we ended up doing a really great interview with Pattabhi Jois. We also have a great interview with Sharath but it isn't in the movie.

LM: What poses did you guys get stopped at in Mysore?

KC: Oh forget it! Marichyasana D. Even for me who has been practicing...I have bad knees. The whole crew was practicing. We had lots of people traveling with us. 

LM: So the whole crew went. All of you. To Mysore in the off-chance that they just might let you film?

KC: Yeah. It was one of those things where looking back now I think there was a lot of audacity on our part. We basically went to India not knowing.

LM: What did you expect the transformation to be.

KC: I really thought we'd find someone who would be like having us levitate or something. I mean, there was a real fairy tale to it. I really thought we'd end up in some magical place and we'd just instantly know [this person] is enlightened and just have this deep sense of peace. And it was funny because in a way...this is the thing about enlightenment, because nobody really defines what it is. As long as you're looking for an "it"... I think in the west we get really attached to "what classes can we take" and "what movies can we buy" and "which cleanses can we do" in order to become like "more at peace" or this or that. Whereas through the course of making and editing this movie where I really had to constantly look at what was personally driving me forward. I had to start to realize that "wow I was so busy looking for it everywhere else". There was this really great guru that we met toward the end that kind of strips away looking everywhere else and keeps bringing it back to us. But even when we met him at the time I was like "well if this guy is really good, lets figure out who else is out there". I didn't allow myself to stop and say "this is the guy for me". For instance, Norman in Hawaii is amazing. I was like, "If Norman is really good, then let's find his teacher and find out what he's like, and then let's go find his..." So it's that sense of keep finding better and better. I think you just have to drop your expectations and just be open to learning from someone and figure out what it is for you specifically what works... And really, I think this is a movie about trying to find happiness. Nick was trying to find his sense of happiness, I was trying to find mine, and we were both kind of using each other to do it which is why it wouldn't work until we stopped doing that. So in a way I kind of played like the "bad guru" to him, because I'm always saying "you have to do it this way". 

Some people who are really set with their practice and believe that yoga is only one way, I think that they might not like this movie because this about really opening up yoga to people, the idea of practice and what does practice bring into your life and its very irreverent in certain places toward yoga. It doesn't glorify yoga. There are a lot of documentaries that keep yoga very precious and this really doesn't. There have people that have seen it that have been insulted by certain parts and feel like we're insulting yoga by including it. But we were really honest. We went on a journey. 

LM: Anything else?

KC: I think the big debate for people is: does Nick change or not. That's where you end up. I like the ending because it really-- some people end up really believing that he's gone through a major transformation and some other people get really frustrated with him and feel like he missed it and he never changed and resisted. And it really inspires a debate about people changing or not changing. I think that's the part that's really intriguing. 

Elise is preparing to embark on her own journey of transformation. Read all about it at www.mysoremusings.blogspot.com.

Pattabhi Jois leading opening prayer in Sunday Morning class in the film, "Enlighten Up!"; The Ashtanga Yoga Research institute yoga shala in the film "Enlighten Up!"; Norman Allen, the first American to study with Pattabhi Jois, in the film "Enlighten Up!", Nick Rosen getting a close look at a snake in Northern India in the film "Enlighten Up!"; Nick at one of his first yoga classes.  Photo Credits: Jonathon Hexner.

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