Sunday, April 5, 2009

Movies: Enlighten Up!

Yoga fanatics might say that the serendipity that landed me in the theatre to watch this movie was a sign from the Universe (I hadn’t heard of the film, but needed to kill a few hours, and it was the first show playing at the closest theatre). But the film doesn’t take that naïve, new-aged approach. Though the filmmaker, Kate Churchill, is a committed yogi, who has been practicing for seven or eight years, but she recruits a newbie for her experiment: a young, cynical New Yorker—a journalist, nonetheless. Her plan is to fully immerse him in the waters of yoga for six months, and to see whether that immersion inspires any positive changes in his life.

Nick gamely tries a variety of teachers, classes, and styles in New York. Most of these instructors (particularly the few that Kate interviews for the film’s introduction—famous instructors whose names have become brands) immediately demonstrate conflicting theories, histories, and practices. Nick continues attempting not only to twist his fit but inflexible body into strange contortions, but also to elicit the meaning of yoga—and the meaning of spiritual life—from these instructors. The only New York instructor who says anything worth saying about yoga is Sri Dharma Mittra, a seventy-year-old Indian.

Kate decides to take Nick on an investigative mission; they go to India where Nick is introduced to the Mysore Ashtanga tradition (which involves a grueling practice each morning at six), introduced to Bhakti yoga (which does not involve physical postures at all; rather a constant devotional praise, often in song, of the divine), and given an audience with BKS Iyengar, likely the most famous living yogi. Whereas yoga in the US seems to be generally about physical fitness, yoga in India is about communion with the divine, which enables us to be better people. The American instructors suddenly appear rather immature, and completely unqualified to teach yoga (as I’ve found most yoga teachers to be!)

After six months, Nick has not found the magic seed that will grow for him a spiritual life. He does, though, reconnect with his family (he finds himself missing his parents terribly while in India), and decide to leave New York. In spite of her disappointment with the experiment (Nick does not continue to practice yoga after his six months are up), Kate continues to practice, certain of the change it’s made on her.

As a yogi myself, it’s clear that Nick failed to see the twinkling lights only because of a lack of patience—if yoga teaches you anything, it’s that there is no fast-track to enlightenment. As soon as you’ve mastered the pose you thought you would never even be willing to try, there is yet another, more challenging variation. And this is how we learn patience, and non-attachment to result, which somehow leads to bliss. Nick is clearly a brain-person, but yoga is a way for brain-people to shut off their brains. In that way, an intellectual investigation of yoga is necessarily bound to fail. That said, rare is the opportunity to hear great men say great things, and Kate gives us access to the entire pantheon of living gurus. If only for that, I’m grateful the film was made.

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