DOCUMENTARY EXPLORES THE LIFE OF AN INFLUENTIAL YOGI WHO CAME TO THE WEST
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG, Grade: A
Spiritual lessons come from a variety of sources. Quite possibly, the one truth is that we must simply be open to whatever form or practice the lesson may take. That notion lies at the heart of “Awake: The Life of Yogananda,” the documentary biopic from Paola di Florio (director of the television series The Adam Carolla Project and “Home of the Brave”) and Lisa Leeman (“One Lucky Elephant”) about the author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the Hindu spiritual guru who left India to come to the United States and usher in a new form of enlightenment that would focus on developing a true awakening of the inner spirit.
Arriving in the U.S. in 1920, Yogananda saw a way to attract new disciples by bridging Eastern mysticism with the West’s more empirical nature. He spoke of the spiritual journey as akin to a scientific quest. Peace and connectedness, he preached, came from an awareness and ability to tap into the electrical impulses in the brain and the nervous system. On a deeper level, he believed that becoming one with all meant understanding and appreciating that there might be an all-powerful consciousness in every single molecule of our beings.
The yogi’s words – narrated from his autobiography by Anupam Kher – start off immediately with his own sense of himself and his awareness of light and darkness while in his mother’s womb.
Hearing these words, right away, reminded me of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic “Dune,” where much later in the narrative’s tracking of the emergence of a messiah who comes to truly know himself through the ingestion of a spice-like drug, a child in the womb – the messianic figure’s sister – develops immediate consciousness from the drug as it goes from mother to child. In “Dune,” such early awareness drives the unborn child crazy because it comes with a connection to the consciousness of all of her ancestors. It is the opening of a torrential floodgate of voices and experiences that is far too much for one who has not even drawn her first breath outside the womb.
But here, for Yogananda, the knowledge is merely the first seed planted in his tiny body and mind, fertile ground for it to take root. It compels him to seek out a guru to guide him, to help him break down his own ego, to show him how to keep his eyes open. Ultimately, it is this guru that sends him off to the West to spread the word about this practice.
It should be noted, though, that the practice of meditation to achieve such peaceful connectedness is more than contorting the body in pretzel-like poses for all to see, which is sadly what passes for yoga in today’s selfie-driven world of social media. Taking pictures of poses in urban centers and proclaiming to be “practicing” is not how Yogananda imagined his teachings would evolve.
This was a man who defied the social norms of his day and age – he opened meditation centers in African American communities when he realized black folks could not practice or hear his teachings alongside white folks. He also reached out to Gandhi, who he recognized as a yogi brother and a Hindu who embraced Jesus as either an incarnation of God or a supreme yogi.
Yogananda showed his acolytes how to merge spirituality and science while living in an ever-changing world. His example of being awake speaks to being present, which is hard to remember, from age to age.