“I was conscious in my Mother’s womb, feeling the movement in her body, aware of my helpless state of existence.” These are the opening lines of Awake: The Life of Yogananda, a documentary about the Hindu guru who brought the religion to America. The dialogue is recited over the imagery of the camera underwater, looking up at the sky. We’re hearing the words of Yogananda, the Indian mystic who authored The Autobiography of a Yogi and created a movement in the United States that embraced the teachings of Hinduism, the practice of Yoga and the act of deep meditation.
Those who practice Yoga and are Hindus are, to state the obvious, already familiar with this history lesson. I am not an authority on the religion and skeptical in my attitude towards it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t taken by this documentary, directed by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman. The story of how this long haired guru, who spoke eloquently but presented highly unorthodox ideas, came to be accepted in the U.S. is presented with engrossing historical footage and dreamy, mystical imagery that compliments the subject matter.
Seeing snippets from life of Yogananda, both in well staged reenactments and black and white footage, we learn how daunting his quest was. Receiving an audience in the early years of the 20th century was no small feat, as one of the talking heads explains, “Telling people God is in the spine was a radical thought for the 1920s!”
Exactly how far did the teachings of Yogananda reach the westerners? Among those interviewed are Deepak Chopra, music legend and mogul Russell Simmons and Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga. The one that blew me away was George Harrison, who testified that he couldn’t imagine his life without reading the Yogananda’s book, which he claimed to frequently give away to friends.
Awake is most fascinating when recounting of the Yogi’s journey throughout America, where he began his movement, though there are other eye opening moments. I was intrigued by the Yogi’s stating his affection for Jesus Christ, the argument that science compliments yoga (as it applies to how we’re all made of molecules) and the reminder that Gandhi was a Yogi. In fact, we see footage of the emaciated Mohandas Gandhi, in which his tiny, humble frame is a contrast to the full, imposing figure of Yogananda.
Much is made of the Yogananda’s eyes, which is understandable. In eerie close-ups, one can’t deny the hypnotic quality of the Yogi’s gaze, both warm and creepy. A follower comments on how the Yogi “looked at me penetratingly, he was changing me.” This unsettling aside hints at the more balanced direction the film never takes. Awake is engaging enough for non-believers but it does mean to present a Hindu Sunday School lesson and doesn’t provide a counterpoint or conflicting view to any of the subject matter.
At times, I found the central figure to have the qualities of a cult-like figure, despite the voice over expressing his view that, “when I heard the word Guru, it frightened me, as I know what a responsibility it was.” It would have made this fuller and possibly definitive on its subject, had the filmmakers acknowledged that, perhaps, not everyone believed in “the autobiography of a genuine Indian yoga man.”
This is accessible for the uninitiated, though best suited for those who already believe in the teachings of the subject matter. The film’s best sequence is its last, as we see many believers in worship and/or meditation, from all over the world. Set to Alanis Morissette’s terrific “Still,” it ends the documentary on a strong note. This closing portion more than reminds us just how remarkable it is that the Yogananda’s mission to spread his beliefs and instill a new mindset, have been carried out, a century later and all over the planet.
Photo courtesy Awaketheyoganandamovie.com