The pushy premise of "Enlighten Up!," a documentary about what happens when a 29-year-old New Yorker half-heartedly embarks on a six-month quest to let yoga try to change his life, is apparent right from the get-go - that emphatic exclamation point in the title. Forget about the organic way that yoga might allow new strength to alight into your life. Make a plan! Take it on! Transform!
Cambridge filmmaker Kate Churchill, who will be at the Museum of Fine Arts with the movie for its local debut this weekend, lays her bias out in the film's opening minutes. "My name is Kate," her voiceover starts, as we see her walk out of her triple-decker apartment. "I've been practicing yoga for seven years. The purest, most peaceful moments of my life have happened on my yoga mat."
There may be a sea of conflicting teachers and studios and DVDs and theories about yoga and its wondrous payoffs, but Churchill thinks that somewhere in all of that noise there's a yoga for everyone. Or, as she says in the movie, "Despite its obvious contradictions, I still believe there is a true yoga, a life-changing practice, that can lead a person to happiness" - and, she adds in a perky kicker, "maybe even enlightenment!"
"As I look back at it four years later, it was naïve thinking" says Churchill today. The construct of trying to push your way to having enlightenment delivered to you on a timeline? "Therein lies the flaw of the premise," she admits. "It took me making this film to find that out."
The volunteer for the journey was one Nick Rosen, a journalist who had enough free time and few enough commitments to give himself over to the project. Churchill follows Rosen with her camera every day for half a year as he tries out a huge variety of yoga classes and teachings in New York City and Woodstock, and then in Hawaii and Los Angeles, and finally in India. He spends time with yoga bigwigs Norman Allen, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Madan Kataria, the man behind laughter yoga. Rosen even visits with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, who says he's all about yoga for the regular guy ("You say Namaste, I say T and A").
It's a funny set-up, trying to foist a conversion onto a cynic. "Because I came at [the project] as a yoga practitioner, I wanted the person I was focusing on to be resistant," says Churchill. "It really wouldn't be much of - well, I wondered how much of a search it would be if someone was really gung-ho on yoga."
Rosen, a ringer for David Duchovny, is a skeptic, for sure. "I don't expect any earth-shattering changes," he says early on. Later, he notes that yoga is changing the lives of untold Americans, but "do I want to change?" Still, he's game enough, contorting his body into pretzels on demand, sweating out his asanas, listening with looks that mostly range from bafflement to bemusement as he meets with yoga superstars around the globe.
The spark for the project came from the film's executive producers, Bostonians Tom and Jeanne Hagerty. "They had gone on their honeymoon and met Norman Allen in Hawaii," says Churchill, "and they were so blown away by how his study of yoga had taken over his life that they approached me and said 'We want to make a film about yoga.' "
Churchill was an obvious choice. After attending Connecticut College and working in Chicago and Los Angeles, the Cambridge native returned to work at NOVA and WGBH in 1995, where she spent six years as a producer and director. Today she runs her own company, Nama Productions, based in Somerville. One of her early jobs was to produce instructional DVDs for local yoga teacher and entrepreneur Baron Baptiste.
In addition to the five MFA shows, which Churchill will be at (along with Rosen for the first four), "Enlighten Up!" will also play a week at the Kendall Square Cinema starting next Friday.
Partnerships are also providing marketing: the Kendall screenings are being co-presented by REI,