Awake: The Life of Yogananda

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 7, 2014

Awake: The Life of Yogananda

One of the interviewees in "Awake: The Life of Yogananda," Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman's documentary about the life of the guru who was instrumental in bringing the ancient practice of yoga to the West, notes that the point of yoga is not to develop six-pack abs -- "although that is a nice side benefit" -- but, rather, to develop one's sense of the Divine.

True enough, and a valuable point in itself. The film boasts a roster of interviewees, including heavy hitters like George Harrison, Krishna Das, Swami Kriyananda, Deepak Chopra, Ravi Shankar, and Bikram Choudhuri, the founder of the style of yoga that bears his name. The film also includes commentary from Harvard's Dr. Anitao Goel, who is both a physicist and a physician, and Thomas Jefferson University's Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has made a study of the neurological underpinnings of ecstatic religious experiences. (Newberg has also appeared in a couple of other movies, which between them define the extremes of the Amerian religious experience -- "Religulous," in which Bill Maher slams the intrusion of faith into politics, and "What the Bleep Do We Know!?," an earnest, new-agey screed starring Marlee Matlin that claims, among other things, that words written on glass jars can affect the properties of water stored in the jars.)

Inevitably -- as has been the case since at least the 1980s, and evidently is intended to impart some sort of scientific gravitas to the subject matter -- the subject of quantum physics is broached. It's not an easy fit: Yoga isn't about the same things that quantum physics addresses. For that matter, it's not even about religion, at least not in the Western sense of the word. Yoga isn't a church, or at any rate it isn't supposed to be; it's more like another Eastern discipline, martial arts, with "discipline" being the key word. It's the focused application of an individual's mental faculties that's supposed to provide peace, fulfillment, and wisdom, not the Hand of God reaching down to anoint the elect.

Still -- as this biographical documentary recounts -- Yogananda caught the attention and the imagination of Post-World War I America by speaking of yoga in generally religious terms. He attracted huge crowds in Boston, where he spent three years after first arriving in America, and even larger throngs in Los Angeles; all of this is presented in the film as through it simply happened of its own accord, as part and parcel of the predictions Yogananda's teachers made about him and the visions he supposedly had, himself, as a young man -- presentiments about the powerful Americans he would meet, and of the signature American achievement of detonating the world's first atomic devices. (One of the "interviewees" in the film is Robert Oppenheimer, speaking in archive footage about the first test explosion. He utters the immortal words credited to him about having become "Death, the destroyer of worlds," but with an important bit of context: He's quoting from ancient Indian sacred literature, the "Bhagavad Gita.")

In the 21st century, of course, yoga is big business, which in itself is practically a form of faith. It's probably a good idea to have a film like this one to anchor the messages we're marketed about yoga, sublime and crassly commercial as they might be, to some sort of reality about yoga's traditions and original intentions. It hardly even matters if the film in question reflects a shoestring the production, or if its execution is downright hackneyed. (The melange of imagery used to illustrate the film sinks to the depths of superimposing the eyes of children over vistas of landscapes in India rolling by, and of shimmering lake surfaces over skies. And let's not even get into the images that bookend the film -- a train bursting out of a tunnel, just after narrator Anupam Kher, reading Yogananda's writings, talks about the yogi being conscious even before birth; then, after we hear about his sudden death, footage taken from a car of speeding out of a tunnel into a realm of white light.)

Back before World War II, when yoga was still strange and new to America, the paranoid and prurient saw in its practice -- and its teachings, which include the mastery of animal urges -- a cornucopia of temptations and corruptions. Would innocent American women be seduced and brought to ruin by dark-skinned foreigners from a godless land? Those who don't view yoga as either wonder-regimen for physical health or surefire program for spiritual elevation seem to see it in a similar light; some American pastors even condemn it as being antithetical to Christianity. It's almost too apt, then, that Yoginanda himself was, for a time, so vilified, spending years mired in controversy. The film underscores his wisdom and his excoriation, making deliberate use of his long hair and the flowing, robe-like nature of his native Indian garb. If he's not essentially presented as a Christ figure here, he's at least promoted as a sublet for some sort of cultural beatification.

The historic person, however, had a humbler and more practical message than either messiahs or preachers tend to offer. One former student recalls for the camera how he inquired of Yogananda as to what, exactly, human beings are permitted to do in this life. Assured that drinking and sex were okay, the student demanded to know just how such conduct could be squared with the high-minded pursuit of physical and spiritual purification. The answer? If he continued to study yoga, the student was told, he simply wouldn't want to do indulge in the excesses and vices of the flesh any longer. Concepts of sin and punishment aren't needed in this view of enlightenment and higher understanding.

It's simple enough message, but it nearly gets lost here. The risk of any movie that tries so hard to promote claims of extraordinary or supernatural wisdom (which this film more or less does with its subject) is the likelihood that the claims will far exceed any reliable evidence. Far simpler might be to set all the grandiose stuff aside and find a way to sit with the man, and the message, for a time: That's the essential practice of yoga in a nutshell. A movie built around such an approach might not sell tickets, but it might serve its subject a little better.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.