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How West learned to breathe free – Vandana Shukla

Swami Paramhansa Yogananda travelled around US for decades. His deeply transformative powers of yoga stand in contrast with the industry grown around it. An American documentary captures rare moments.

Long before yoga became muscle-honing postures, something to reclaim Bharatiyata, it was a universal device meant to maximise human potential. Recently released, award winning documentary ‘Awake: The Life of Yogananda’, revives the true path followed by yoga practitioners back in the 1920s, in India as well as West. The deeply transformative powers of yoga, propagated by Paramhansa Yogananda, who travelled around the US and stayed there until his death, stand in contrast with the industry grown around yoga.

The yoga that only seekers patronized is elaborated through the film with meditative vibe, broken up by the narrative of Yogananda’s life encompassing a vast time canvas. Equally significant are the events of the World War I-II and the struggle for India’s independence. The documentary reaches right up to Swami breathing his last while reciting a poem. As he travelled across the United States, teaching the benefits of meditation and urging Americans to tap into their inner divinity, it surprised the Americans: God could be found in their vertebrae and the brain by practicing Kriya Yoga — a device to activate energy centres within the body. Thousands flocked to Yogananda’s lectures, visited his Los Angeles-based ashram on Mount Washington to practise yoga and meditation. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the USA, invited him to the White House.

The West was reeling under the World War II after-effects. Two starkly opposite things were taking place: Mahatma Gandhi, whom Yogananada called a ‘true yogi’, guided the nation to freedom through peaceful ways, while the US prepared to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world was changing. By personalizing his own quest for enlightenment and sharing his struggles along the path, Swami Yogananda made ancient Vedic teachings accessible to a modern audience. Among his many writings, ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ is an all time best seller; it has been translated into 42 languages. Millions follow his teaching across the globe.

Yogananda was the first Indian guru who lived in the West amid resistance from white supremacist cults like Ku Klux Klanand  threats of his evacuation from the US.

The documentary was filmed over three years by directors Lisa Leeman and Paola di Florio, with the participation of 30 countries around the world. 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.

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