Long before yoga became known in the West for its muscle-honing, gravity-defying postures and see-through stretch pants, it was a very different practice in the West. In the 1920s, a swami from India, Paramahansa Yogananda, traveled around the United States teaching the benefits of meditation and urging Americans to tap into their inner divinity. As the dreamy, entrancing and occasionally overstuffed documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” shows, yoga took hold back then just as it has now.
Thousands flocked to Yogananda’s lectures and visited his Los Angeles-based ashram on Mount Washington. Calvin Coolidge invited him to the White House. And although most modern American yoga practitioners focus on the physical form, Yogananda’s influence remains very much alive more than 60 years after his death.
That legacy includes a number of devotees interviewed during the movie, from Deepak Chopra to Russell Simmons (who is mysteriously not identified), a Jesuit priest and a couple of scientists. There’s archival footage of George Harrison (who died in 2001) proclaiming the brilliance of Yogananda’s book “Autobiography of a Yogi” and a clip of Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff talking about how attendees at Steve Jobs’s memorial service received a copy of that spiritual memoir. As a Harvard-based professor of medicine and physics explains, Yogananda’s “writings are very appealing to a scientific appetite.” The swami described the phenomenon of neuroplasticity decades before scientists were studying it.
An impressive array of archival footage of Yogananda is woven through the interviews. The man was fleshy and androgynous, with long, wavy hair and dark, piercing eyes, which even through grainy black-and-white footage seem to penetrate a viewer’s deepest layers. Harrison says that when Ravi Shankar handed him a copy of “Autobiography” with a photo of the swami on the cover, Yogananda “zapped” him with those eyes.
The documentary also sprinkles in surreal reenactments of Yogananda’s dreams and visions, and while such material can be hard to pull off, directors Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman are masters of atmospherics. Their slow-motion images coupled with sitar music send the viewer into an appropriately trancelike state.
That meditative vibe tends to get broken up by a narrative approach that’s too all-encompassing. There’s a sense that we’re racing through Yogananda’s life and a slew of historical events — the start of World War II, India’s independence movement — without delving deeply into the moments that were most meaningful.
Nevertheless, Yogananda’s story is a fascinating one. And although the documentary will likely attract a discrete group, it has the potential for broader appeal. For evidence, look no further than an old photo of oil tycoon James Lynn, sitting on the ground, meditating alongside Yogananda in a double-breasted suit.
★ ★ ½
PG. At the West End Cinema and the
Angelika Pop-up at Union Market. Contains adult themes, some violent images and brief smoking. 87 minutes.