FOR THOSE CLOSE TO PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA and his teachings, it was no surprise that a movie was finally made about his remarkable life. The 2014 biographical documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda attempts to summarize the famous yogi’s sojourn on Earth in 90 minutes of fascinating visuals, interviews with celebrities and close disciples. There is also rare footage of him interacting with his guru, Sri Yukteswar, upon his return to India in 1935 after 15 years of teaching in the West.
Paramahansa Yogananda was initiated into sannyas in 1915 after youthful years filled with spiritual visions, intense meditation, seclusion and of searching for his guru. For those unfamiliar, he authored the 1949 spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi, a dramatic account of his own life. Published three years before his great depature, the autobiography introduced millions of Western seekers to meditation and kriya yoga, and it still continues to inspire. Yogananda also founded Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), an international nonprofit spiritual organization based out of Los Angeles.
Awake: The Life of Yogananda is a nonlinear account of the guru’s life and teachings. The movie focuses on his “science of religion” explanation of meditation within mystical Hinduism. The narrator speaks as Yogananda as if in an autobiographical story, but we also hear Yogananda’s own sharp voice during the film. His voice brings energy, and gives us an idea of what it was like to be with him in those exciting spiritual times.
The film portrays Yogananda’s visions of his mother’s death and the first meeting with his guru, Sri Yukteswar, set in a contemporaneous historical theme of Indian and US history. A reenactment of the seeker’s ten years spent with his guru in Serampore, India, places emphasis on the teachings he received, which Yogananda would treasure and teach throughout his life.
Directors Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman created a dynamic visual presentation, giving old, static, archived footage a magical, modern feel. To appeal to a wide audience, as Yogananda himself did, they reveal how neuroscience and physics apply to meditation and wellbeing. Harvard trained physicist Anita Goel and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explain how science supports Yogananda’s method of meditation, which is one of his greatest contributions to the world. The movie also covers the early years of SRF, including legal struggles and the air of controversy surrounding the exotic swami from India.
While the film feels rushed, one can’t help but get lost in this miraculous tale, so far overdue in the telling. For those of us only familiar with Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi—don’t expect to see it in this film. Awake comes from quite another perspective in portraying his life than the classic autobiography so many seekers hold dear to their hearts.