Awake: The Life of Yogananda

by Nicole Powers

on October 24, 2014

Long before the War on Drugs, the U.S. government waged a war against yoga, and its greatest proponent, Paramahansa Yogananda. Awake: The Life of Yogananda tells the remarkable story of Yogananda and the trials and tribulations he faced on his mission to bring yoga and meditation to the West.

Yogananda traveled to America from India in 1920. His teachings, which took yoga out of the Hindu box and popularized it as a tool for self-realization, were nothing short of a sensation in the roaring ‘20s, and he rapidly rose to prominence, becoming the first superstar guru of the twentieth century. However, he wasn’t without his detractors. His inclusive teachings were at odds with much of the still very segregated nation. His ecumenical belief that God resided in the spine perplexed those who subscribed to traditional Christian dogma. And his support for Mahatma Gandhi, earned him a spot on the government watch list. Ultimately, as the current popularity of yoga attests, Yogananda’s message prevailed, and has survived and thrived.

Awake: The Life of Yogananda draws heavily from Yogananda’s seminal tome, Autobiography of a Yogi, which has sold millions of copies worldwide and been designated one of the “100 Most Important Spiritual Books of the 20th Century.” Bollywood actor Anupam Kher breathes life into Yogananda’s written word for the purposes of the unconventional documentary, which tells Yogananda’s story in the first person. Rare footage of Yogananda provided by the Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization which he founded, is interspersed with footage of those he inspired and influenced, such as George Harrison, Deepak Chopra, and Ravi Shankar, among others. Several of Yogananda’s direct disciples are also featured in the film, the passing of others being a motivator for the Self-Realization Fellowship to approach filmmakers Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman and instigate the film.

Given the ubiquity of yoga, the film is an essential vehicle for those who practice to get to know the humble preacher most responsible for bringing it to the gyms and studios of America. But Awake: The Life of Yogananda also serves a wider purpose, being a meditation on the symbiotic relationship that can and should exist between the disciples and disciplines of science and spirituality.

“Yogananda’s teachings do not require an act of faith or even a belief in God. Yoga is considered a science in India…It is not outside oneself but within and all around us. One needs merely to be open and disciplined enough to engage in practice, using one’s own body as a living laboratory,” notes di Florio. “I saw how brilliant and timely an ecumenical path to transcendence could be in a world where we are killing one another over dogmatic beliefs. A film like AWAKE suddenly felt urgent to me. I was interested in finding meaning at the place where science and spirituality converge.”

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