In the last few years, the Smithsonian Institute mounted a national exhibit titled “Yoga: The Art of Transformation”; Loyola Marymount University launched the first Masters Degree in Yoga Studies in the U.S; and the first Hindu representative was elected to Congress, taking the oath of office on her well-worn copy of the Bhagavad Gita, India’s classic Yogic scripture.
Yoga seems to have reached a tipping point in America, fully accepted in mainstream institutions – and yet, in 2013, a group of parents sued the Encinitas, CA school district, claiming that Yoga in the schools was a violation of church and state. So
some Americans are still wondering - is Yoga a religion, an exercise regimen, or something else entirely? And how, and why, has the ancient Indian practice of Yoga become a household word, something practiced by more than 20 million Americans (and growing) – in their homes, at yoga studios, on corporate retreats, and even at the Pentagon.
The Indian swami Paramahansa Yogananda, the subject of our film AWAKE, had a lot to do with it.
Paramahansa Yogananda was not the first swami to come to America; however, his time in the United States was a sort of ‘perfect storm’ – he arrived in the U.S. in 1920, in an era when Americans were looking for answers; he was a gifted orator; he keenly understood the American character; and his message of infinite possibility resonated across the country, in small towns and urban metropolises, from secretaries to opera stars, from mayors to oil tycoons.
Yogananda told Americans that Yoga is the science of Self-realization, using meditation as an anchor, available to anyone at any time. For some, Self-realization means a path to experience the divine; for others, it is a secular set of physical and mental practices to cultivate peace, contentment, and happiness; for some it is a method to induce mystical experiences that transcend the rational mind (also known by neuroscientists as the unitive state); for still others, it is a way of life, bringing mindfulness, devotion, ethical precepts and service into daily life.
No less than the great psychologist Carl Jung wrote of yoga that it is ”an appropriate method of fusing body and mind together so that they create a unity which is scarcely to be questioned. This unity creates a psychological disposition which makes possible intuitions that transcend consciousness.”
Yogananda taught that mind over matter is a reality, and leads to infinite possibility. What could be more American than that? His memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, is chock full of events and experiences that most of us could only call miracles. The book’s chapter titles include “The Levitating Saint,” “Materializing a Palace in the Himalayas,” and “The Saint with Two Bodies.” The book literally exploded my rational mind when I first read it in the eighties –Yogananda is so credible, so practical, so relatable… and yet these are fantastical stories, which challenge the common understanding of reality. Clearly, Yogananda wanted to show us that there is another reality, beyond the material world that (we think) we understand.
And Yogananda not only taught that mind over matter is a reality – he demonstrated it. His American students describe him stopping his pulse, reading their minds, and healing them of illnesses. In his early days in the U.S., he would perform these feats on stage, in front of thousands. However, he stopped the public demonstrations after awhile, feeling that Americans were missing the point, and dwelling only on the physicality of the acts, whereas Yogananda was interested in demonstrating the infinite possibility of consciousness. As a senior monk explained to us while we were filming in India,
“Many people are looking for a spiritual experience which is a single moment in time. And people do have spiritual experiences. They may see light. They may hear sound. …But the spiritual path is not seeking experiences. It’s living spirituality in every moment of your life. So we’re not seeking spiritual experiences --we’re seeking to experience Spirit.
Yogananda’s great gift to us was in helping us realize that any of us can access this. It’s simply a matter of quieting down. Getting still. Making time to turn off the distractions (yes, our smart phones & computers!). Yogananda likened meditation to simply tuning out the static on a radio and tuning in to the cosmic broadcast, if you will. To simply listen, pay attention, be present. We just have to make the time to do so. Yogananda was an astute judge of American life – back in the 20s and 30s, he told audiences, “In America, everybody is busy. And if you keep on running after too many hobbies, you won’t have any time left for bliss.” I chuckle when I wonder what Yogananda would think of our world today, with our smart phones, Wifi, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and so many of us multi-tasking between them all.
Yogananada understood the importance of choosing how we spend our time. He knew from ancient yogic teachings what neuroscientists are proving today – that, as he said: “Repeated performance of an action creates a mental blueprint, causing the formation of subtle electrical pathways in the brain, somewhat like the grooves in a phonograph record. Your life follows the grooves that you yourself have created in the brain.”
While his reference to a phonograph record may sound quaint, Yogananda’s point has never been more relevant than today, when neuroscientists are proving that our 24/7 connection to the internet and our tech devices is changing our behaviors, and even our brains. He knew that regular yoga practice could rewire your brain, and help eliminate unwanted habits. George Harrison relates in our film how he would keep stacks of Yogananda’s memoir Autobiography of a Yogi around his house and that he would ”give it out constantly, to people who need regrooving.”
The Autobiography of a Yogi and Yogananda’s message of spirit and infinite possibility were prescient, given the multitude of challenges humanity faces as we hurdle into an unknown future. Now we just need to create time for it….