You might have heard about the movie Awake: The Life of Yogananda, screening in various locations throughout the US. The movie documents the life of Paramahansa Yogananda (born Mukunda Lal Gosh), one of the gurus credited with bringing yoga to the West. He is probably best known for his book, The Autobiography of a Yogi, the first book written in English by a yogic master about his spiritual path.
Yogananda was born in 1893 to Bengali parents of the Kshatriya caste in Gorakhpur India, near the Himalayan Mountains. He claims to have had clear recollections of being an infant, with early conscious memories that lasted into adulthood. From an early age, Yogananda recalled having an inner drive that led him to pursue spirituality as a way of life, and held a long term goal of becoming a guru.
Yogananda (whose name was officially changed in 1915 after initiation into the ancient monastic Swami Order), is an example of someone who seems, quite literally, to have been born to do yoga. As a member of the Kshatriya caste, he was exposed to yoga almost immediately after birth. Raised by “saintly” parents who studied scripture, Yogananda was provided with Sanskrit teachers and gurus at an early age. He received first-class train passes to travel and learn about his sacred surroundings during his childhood.
Yogananda’s autobiography is full of tales that illustrate his love of the divine, and he recounts these stories with impeccable, illuminating detail. His words place us at the feet of levitating sages, mind-reading sadhus, and gurus known for their other-worldly powers. Yogananda however, humble and devoted, never once allowed these siddhis (yogic “superpowers”) to act as a distraction on his path.
Whether you read his book or attend a movie screening, practicing yogis of any age will benefit from learning about his life. The movie and book are chock full of powerful reminders about embracing our karma and following our own dharma—concepts frequently overshadowed by the recent yoga-as-pop-culture phenomenon. Yogananda’s story is a reminder to live with spirit, conviction and nonattachment, and that these are essential to our practice, especially for those of us inclined to take our work off of the mat and into the world.
Throughout his life, as Yogananda’s studies evolved and teachings developed, it became clear to him that his dharma, or purpose, was to travel to the US and share the teachings of yoga with the West. After traveling to the US in the early 1900s, Yogananda founded the Self Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles to “help those of all cultures and nationalities to realize and express more fully in their lives the beauty, nobility, and divinity of the human spirit.”
Paramahansa Yogananda continued walking his divine path and spreading the teachings of yoga until he ultimately fulfilled his destiny. Modern yogis who seek to teach and share the history and philosophies of yoga amidst the chaos of contemporary culture stand to gain insight, inspiration and wisdom by studying the life of this particular guru.