“Awake: The Life of Yogananda”
“The Father of Yoga” in the West”
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” is a documentary by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman that looks at life and work of Paramahansa Yogananda. His autobiography (1946) is considered one of the instrumental works in bringing the teachings of yoga to the West.
The movie was filmed over three years with the participation of 30 countries around the world and it examines the world of modern and ancient world of yoga in the East and the West and explores why millions today have turned their attention inwards and the pursuit of self-realization.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) is known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.” In the film we learn about the extraordinary life and work of the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. As a boy Yogananda had visions and felt that the Divine Mother was watching over him and had great plans for him. As a young man he spent many years refining meditation practice with his guru and Yoga master Sri Yukteswar. Then in 1920, Yogananda came to America where his first teaching was on “The Science of Religion.” He knew that the major challenge facing him was to make the ancient Vedic teachings relevant to modern day needs and concerns. He discovered that many Americans were open to his fresh messages about energy, the body as a vehicle for God consciousness, and the spiritual significance of will power.
In 1925, this zealous spiritual teacher turned his attention to California where there was a huge interest in his renditions of the riches of the Eastern spiritual tradition in the West. Yogananda went on to spend fifteen years in the United States speaking, teaching, and setting up centers. He was one of the first yogis to share techniques for controlling and rewiring the brain.
Di Florio and Leeman have put together wonderful interviews on Yogananda, his life and legacy. Among those featured are Kirtan master Krishna Das; George Harrison of the Beatles; bestselling author Deepak Chopra; Jesuit priest Francis Clooney; Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California; Sri Daya Mata; and Philip Goldberg, author of “American Veda and many others.
The film is an excellent overview for those who know very little or a lot about the man and his message; frustratingly incomplete for everyone in between. It is more of a hagiography than a biopic; there is nothing about Yogananda’s private life or personal habits and even his sudden death
in 1952, is treated as inevitable. The film does explore early parts of his life, much of the focus is on Yogananda bringing Hindu spirituality to America, and eventually the world. Yogananda teaches an all-inclusive form of spirituality, and the practice of yoga and meditation is very much a mystical, dreamy practice. We feel this coming through in the film, and it slowly penetrates the viewing experience until we feel ourselves swept up in the love, kindness, and spirit of Yogananda.
The film jumps back and forth in time and some may see this as a fault but I found the film to be fascinating throughout. In the same way that Yogananda would teach his beliefs with pressure, the film allows audiences to experience what Yogananda was teaching, and allows them to decide if it could be a path for them to follow.