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‘Awake’: Yoga master’s bio only poses more questions

By Kerry Lengel/Gannett News Service

Paramahansa Yogananda was born to be a guru. Raised by devout Hindu parents in the shadow of the Himalayas, he claimed his first memories of seeing beyond the physical world came before he left the womb.

In 1920, Yogananda moved from India to the United States on a mission to teach the ancient practice Kriya Yoga as well as a new “science of religion” that would replace dogma and conflict with a universal inward journey to enlightenment and self-realization.

His story is told in the documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda,” returning to the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday after initial screenings in October. Unfortunately, while the swami taught his disciples to explore the depths of their very souls, the film barely scratches the surface of his life and teachings.

Drawing heavily on Yogananda’s 1946 book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the film mixes in handsome photography and effusive interviews from former followers as well as the likes of Deepak Chopra and the late Beatles guitarist George Harrison. It follows Yogananda’s journey from India to New York to Los Angeles, but it fails to paint a full portrait of the man or to offer insights into the historical context and legacy of his ministry.

For example, “Awake” intriguingly asserts that new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics provided a new metaphorical language to express ancient spiritual ideas, but it doesn’t explore the specifics. Nor does it put his lifelong mission in context of the explosion of spiritualism in the West in the early 20th century.

On the personal side, the film notes that Yogananda and his lifelong friend Dhirinanda had a “falling out” without explaining what led to it.

The result is a gauzy hagiography lacking the intimate details that would let us see the man who touched so many lives. Yet “Awake” doesn’t even work on the level of an infomercial because it includes only a cursory discussion of yogic practice and philosophy.

[s3r star=2/4]

Counterpoint Films presents a documentary directed by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman. Running time: 87 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some violent images and brief smoking). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.