Michael Hayward's Blog

Review: “Awake: The Life of Yogananda”

Michael Hayward

Although I am not a yoga practitioner, I do own a yoga mat, which I purchased a decade or more ago while under the influence of a particularly virulent New Year’s resolution. During that brief period in my life (now referred to as “My Yoga Years”) I attended weekly yoga classes at Heritage Hall on Main Street, rolling out my mat each Tuesday evening next to one of the hall’s interior pillars, coordinates deliberately chosen so that I might attempt the Salamba Sirsasana pose (or was it the Pincha Mayurasana?) with less risk of toppling over. My yoga years, however, were cut short when I sprained an ankle (a failed attempt at Garudasana?) and later strained a shoulder (an errant Parivrtta Parsvakonasana?); I now rely on a strict regimen of 5BX calisthenics and a steady diet of contemporary and classic fiction to stay limber.

My only other exposure to the teachings and practices of the East comes from a paperback copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, a memoir first published in 1946 by Paramahansa Yogananda, the Hindu yogi and guru who came to the States from India in 1920 to introduce and spread the practice of Kriya Yoga. The book, with its distinctive cover photograph of Yogananda directing his soulful and hypnotic gaze deeply into the eyes of prospective readers, has remained continuously in print since its first publication, and is almost certain to be found on the bookshelves of many of us who are now of “a certain age,” or those who at one time harboured overly-romantic dreams of living an alternate lifestyle (whatever that might mean). Steve Jobs, who admonished a generation of digital consumers to “Think Different™,” reportedly had just one volume on his iPad: Autobiography of a Yogi, which he reread every year (incidentally, the first edition of Autobiography of a Yogi is now in the public domain, and can be downloaded in various formats from Project Gutenberg; so there’s no reason for you not to “be like Steve” and have a copy on your iPad too).

Awake: The Life of Yogananda is a fairly straightforward documentary film about the life and influence of Yogananda. The film had the blessing of (and I’m sure was in part financed by) the Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization founded by Yogananda, and dedicated to the promotion of his teachings. As a result there is a slight glow to the depiction of the central figure, a tincture of hagiography in the reenactment of key episodes in Yogananda’s life. One benefit of this association is the incorporation of rare black and white footage from the period (the 1920s and onwards) when Yogananda was attracting such intense interest from various influential figures in the West, in effect becoming a living and breathing representation of all that was exotic and esoteric about “the mystic East.”

But the film is more than simply a promotional piece for the Self-Realization Fellowship. It touches on racism and miscegenation, and makes you wonder about the unsatisfied inner (spiritual?) needs which caused so many Americans to flock to Yogananda, and to the various yogis/gurus/spiritual teachers who have followed in his footsteps since.

Originally only two screenings of Awake had been scheduled, but interest was evidently higher than anticipated (the screening I attended was sold out), so additional screenings have been added at the Vancity Theatre, between January 16th and January 22. More information is available here.



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