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Yogi Reveal Thyself

If you’ve misplaced your capacity for wonder, the new biopic, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, opening October 10, just might restore it. The 20th-century guru (author of the classic Autobiography of a Yogi) who brought yoga out of India and into the streets of America, Paramahansa Yogananda, was also a master at opening the doors of perception, revealing the extraordinary within the apparently ordinary. And this documentary does the same, rivetingly.

It’s hard to imagine a time when yoga had yet to permeate America, but when the foreign Swami Yogananda first landed in Boston in the roaring 20s (for a stay of a few months that became 15 years), America was a wide-eyed nation flush with the boundary-breaking new ideas yet gripped by social and legal conventions (all which Yogananda cheerfully defied): Jim Crow, the Anti-Miscegenation laws and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which would effectively bar any future Indian mystics until the Civil Rights era.

An early adopter of technology (the notoriously tight George Eastman uncharacteristically gave him a movie camera), Yogananda crisscrossed the country, with it, giving lectures in all the major cities and drawing crowds of thousands of fascinated seekers to places like Carnegie Hall. AWAKE recreates the shock and delight of that encounter, bringing alive the man and his invitation to establish a personal relationship with God.

Yogananda often spoke of the human discovery of consciousness in cinematic terms. So it’s appropriate that the screen version of his life - an innovative mash-up of archival footage and recordings (painstakingly restored by monks decades later), interviews with past and present cultural influencers (George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Russell Simmons) and evocative re-enactments - uses the magic of cinema to dissolve the separation between subject and object.

Yogananda’s own words – some narrated by the Bollywood star Anupam Kher and some from original recordings – drive the narrative and provide the heart and power of the film. A wonderfully attuned soundtrack, featuring generous silences as well as a distinguished cast of classic and contemporary musicians, weaves the different elements together and seamlessly transports us into the mystical heart of yoga.

In retracing “the transformation of the boy Mukunda into the monk Yogananda,” as Yogananda phrased it, AWAKE leads the viewer through the same territory. As we navigate the realms of spirit and nature, the modern and the ancient, the film compels us to ask what is real and what is not – as Yogananda himself did.

If the film answers that question, it’s not in certainties, but with the idea that we should embrace the mystery.

If the film answers that question, it’s not in certainties, but with the idea that we should embrace the mystery.

The Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) hired filmmakers Paola Di Florio, Lisa Leeman and producer Peter Rader to bring Yogananda’s teaching to a new generation. Rader recently told YogaCityNYC about the reactions the film is getting. “Whether you know who he is or you’ve read the Autobiography or you’re seeing this stuff for the first time, people are saying that Yogananda’s energy is exploding off the screen.”

Yet it’s not without its critics. Some hardcore devotees are upset that the movie isn’t devotional enough. “We are showing the human aspect of the guru and to us that was absolutely essential and non-negotiable.”

Producer Rader’s had his own ups and downs. His first screenplay became Waterworld, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most famous flops. This hard-won lesson is something he’s reminding his producing partners about as the reviews come in. “If you get the 60% in the middle, you’re in great shape. You’re going to have to let go of the 20% on the bottom and 20% on the top that are just going to hate you, hate you! That’s the razor’s edge.”

So how do you walk that edge? “Everything comes from a mysterious place that we all have occasional access to. Our job as artists and filmmakers is to allow that to materialize into this realm, into the time-space dimension.”

Nowhere was the “grace” of the process more apparent than in working with the images themselves. Even though they had a huge amount of source material to work with, they weren’t sure it was usable.

“Our first reaction was “Oh my god, this stuff is problematic.” It’s so self-conscious. People didn’t know yet how to behave in front of movie cameras. And [Yogananda] would look into the lens and stand there and then take a few steps and pose.”

So it was like the “selfies” of the 1920s?

“It's literally like the selfies back then but not when you’re talking about an exalted master.”

The deeper the film crew got into the material, they realized how perfect these images were for the project. “This is a man who has some sense of how the footage is going to be used decades after he has left his body. These beings know that they have the ability to affect people and transmit energy across technological boundaries and across decades of time. It’s darshan: every moment that he’s looking in that lens, it’s a moment of grace.”

Is he a believer? “You can’t make a movie about Yogananda and not get affected.” All three of the filmmakers had an asana and meditation practice prior to filming but “what was so interesting and completely novel about this path to us was the bhakti, the devotion.”

So yes, that is the invitation. Embrace the mystery. Go deeper. Reveal the self.

~ Lila Galindo

AWAKE - The Life of Yogananda runs October 10-16 at the Village East Cinema.

Headquartered in Los Angeles and founded by Yogananda in 1920, Self Realization Fellowship has over 500 temples, ashrams and retreat sites around the world, including a center at 217 E. 28th Street.

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