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The opening line of Awake: The Life of Yogananda may serve as a general barometer of how viewers will receive this documentary about the revered titular yogi: “I was conscious in my mother’s womb.” Surely the film will be sought out by disciples of the meditative and (intendedly, at least) deeply spiritual practice of yoga, and they might drag along some skeptics. The former will gasp at the revelation; the latter will snicker. And those who thought they were open-minded will raise eyebrows that may remain continuously arched for the next 86 minutes.
Paramahansa Yogananda was born in India in January 1893 (but, remember, conscious for most of 1892). He’s renowned for introducing Eastern spiritualism to the West when he came to the U.S. in 1920 and eventually settled in—where else—Los Angeles, where he established the headquarters for the educational organization he called the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda gained devotees as he taught seekers how to connect with the divine regardless of their religion. Directors Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman crafted Awake with the usual marks of a documentary: archival footage, re-creations, and interviews with admirers of or experts on the subject (here, most notably, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar).
To give the film a sense of beyond-the-grave mysticism, a narrator (Anupam Kher) poses as Yogananda, and important moments of the yogi’s life are rendered with delicate, painting-like images or simply shots of his face staring—forever staring—at you, often embellished by lens flares or prism/underwater effects. All this reverence and bedazzling cheapens Yogananda’s story, though I’m sure it was meant to deepen it. In a segment where he’s shown outside the residence of his guru (whom, naturally, Yogananda dreamed about before they ever met), you’re expecting the master to stroll past and say, “Wax on, wax off.” After his mother dies, a Stevie Nicks-ian angel floats in to tell him it’s cool, she’s got this, she’ll keep an eye on him. When a sex scandal unmoors Yogananda and his fellow yogis years after they’ve spread their teaching across the U.S., a Miami Daily News headline shouts, “SWAMI TOLD TO LEAVE.” (The directors missed the opportunity to spin the paper first. But another headline, “IRATE HUBBY SOCKS AIDE ON NOSE,” both provides that satiric Simpsons effect and makes a journalist long for the days of the colorful, SEO-ignorant hed.)
One of Awake’s most laughable moments comes during a segment about Yogananda’s advocacy against segregation, which surely fueled some of the backlash he endured. During a comment from author Stefanie Syman about how a white person at that time was “forbidden to marry a brown-skinned man or woman,” there’s a cut to Yogananda staring (again) into the camera as he brushes his long hair behind his ear, all Kristen Stewart–like, in slow motion. Paired with a remark labeling Indian yogis “exotic,” this shot seems meant to frame Yogananda as sexy. It couldn’t be more tacky.
Of course, the film isn’t completely ludicrous. A dean at the University of Southern California reminds us that “yoga isn’t set up to give you flat abs…it’s really set up to understand God.” There’s discussion of how modern science has proved that meditation “rewires” your brain, so to speak; Yogananda, without a lab coat in sight, called this “regrooving,” saying that changing your thinking will lead you to change your actions. It’s funny—in a good way—when a yoga expert says, “Imagine hearing that God is in your spine. In 1920.”
And the benefit of incorporating yoga, both its mental and physical aspects, into your everyday life is nicely summed up in a lecture Yogananda gives to “busy” Americans: “If you spend your time running after too many hobbies, you won’t have any time left for bliss.”
Awake: The Life of Yogananda opens Oct. 31 at West End Cinema.