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Awake: The Life of Yogananda

New documentary explores the dimensions of yoga through the life of the man who brought it to America.

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Yoga just may be the newest great national pastime. In 2012, Yoga in America found that 20.4 million Americans are practicing yoga, up 29 percent from 2008, and 44.4 percent of non-practitioners aspire to at least try it out. A common offering at both specialized studios and everyday gyms, this popular practice is becoming a part of the background of American life. However, much like American staples such as pizza and jazz, Western yoga is a new take on a set of traditions from a very different time and place. Yoga, which developed around 5,000 years ago in Asia and has become integral to several religious traditions and cultural communities, first came to the United States during the early 20th century. One of the principal figures in this movement was Paramahansa Yogananda, who was born in East India in 1893 and by the 1930’s had introduced hundreds of Americans to the spiritual teachings of kriya yoga. The new documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which opens theatrically in October, tells his story of bringing this ancient practice across thousands of miles and through thousands of years to the West.

With the opening shots of the film, it becomes clear that Yoganada’s important role in yoga’s history was no accident. From his foretold birth to his own visionary experiences of future events, Yogananda’s life was wrapped in destiny and meaning. Given the emphasis Awake places on the many powerful moments of the swami’s life, as the film unfolds, his great success in bringing yogic teachings to America seems inevitable. Interviews with everyone from rock stars like George Harrison to physicists like Harvard Professor Dr. Anita Goel explain the profound impact of Yogananda’s teachings, both in the 1920’s and today. For Yogananda, the spirit was more real than the body, and spirituality was a science. New scientific discoveries, in fact, helped him explain a way of thinking that was entirely unknown to Western thought. He shocked audiences during his time in America by challenging limiting conceptions of God, and changes lives even today through the influence of yoga and through his book, Autobiography of a Yogi.

Not all of Yogananda’s work was immediately influential. The film describes the struggles he faced in building spiritual communities in America and in reaching his own enlightenment while still in India. Whether learning, teaching, struggling, or thriving, Yogananda was constantly a visionary and an embodiment of the self-realization he taught. Awake highlights this in his progressive teachings, his intuitive understanding of people’s needs and culture, and even his use of cutting-edge systems like air mail to spread his message. Beyond this, though, Yogananda was a visionary within, dreaming and searching ceaselessly for events yet to come.

Although the film tells the story of one man, it is also the story of a tradition in transition. Some Americans will find the yoga that Yogananda taught to be familiar, but it’s likely that many will see a big difference from how it is most commonly practiced today. Yoga in modern America often focuses on physical fitness, with practitioners citing flexibility and general conditioning as the top two motivations for becoming involved. Awake reveals that yoga began as a predominantly spiritual practice. The physical activity of yoga that is so popular today is framed as simply a component of the larger teaching of yoga, a method through which to attain certain mental and spiritual goals. Rather than focusing on Yogananda’s practice of the physical aspect of yoga, the film focuses on the lectures and discussions that he gave and the ways that he meditated and interacted with others, and explores his beliefs about how the science of self-actualization could change everything. While toned muscles may be a positive side effect and an aid to overall wellbeing, Awake explores the deeper dimensions of yoga that make it the powerful and unique practice that is still so compelling today.

Without Yogananda and others like him, yoga might not exist popularly in America in any form at all. This is a key underlying message of the film: to share a teaching is an extraordinary responsibility, but also an amazing power. Just as Yogananda’s guru transformed his life by teaching him yoga, Yogananda was able to transform the lives of many others by bringing yoga to America – and in the process, yoga itself transformed into something new that resonated with a new audience. This process of sharing and redefining yoga has been constant over millennia, and Awake captures it on all levels. We see these spiritual teachings grow and change from person to person, generation to generation, and culture to culture. Even from Yogananda’s time to ours, people have continued to both preserve and adapt yoga. Perhaps one of the most important lessons Awake gleans from Yogananda’s life is that yoga is for the spirit as well as the body, and to honor that we must find deeper meaning in it by shaping and sharing it with others.


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