I’ve been fascinated with the history of yoga since watching the documentary, Yoga Unveiled. It was recommended to me by Judy Murphy, the yoga teacher I was taking yoga classes with back in the late 2000’s. The documentary was full of details, dates and names and I recall thinking, ‘wow, there is a lot to learn!’
Fast forward to the present day, I was intrigued about the modern yogi, Yogananda, whom I kept hearing about. How did he fit into the lineages and what was his impact on yoga?
I was happy to purchase myself the copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, recognizing that I’d need a fair amount of time to read the entire book and hoping that it would be a good resource to have on hand. Both reasons were true. The 500 page book spans over 40 years of Yogananda’s life and includes 49 chapters. Each chapter rich in details of Yogananda’s life and the workings of Kriya Yoga.
Being the first yogi to the United States, I was certain the majority of the book would spend time describing his experience in the Western world. But I was wrong. The book starts by describing Yogananda’s desire and drive to reach the Himalayan mountains. Multiple attempts he made without success. Through his words you can feel the urgency and commitment he had to his spiritual quest. I appreciated the willingness to preserve even when I’m not certain he even knew where the drive was coming from.
In the end, Yogananda doesn’t reach the Himalayan mountains and still struggles to find his guru. The escapades that he endures to find his guru are entertaining and intriguing. His recounts of many spectacular yogis is a valuable addition to the understanding of yoga at the beginning of the 20th century. It was reassuring that if this yogi had challenges on his yoga journey, it was certain I would too. Knowing that Yogananda took years to find his teacher, it was okay that I took my time to find my teacher too
Yogananda’s guru was Sri Yukteswar, who was the least exciting, in my opinion, of teachers that Yogananda searched out. He was calm, quiet and introspective. In the end, probably the least flashy yogi but the one with the most insight and learnings. Sri Yukteswar was the student of Lahiri Mahasaya who’s guru was Babaji. Through this lineage, Babaji had predicted that one yogi from his lineage would take yoga to the West. Was Yogananda up for the challenge?
Yogananda although wanting to focus all his energy into yoga, he was highly influenced by his father and teacher to pursue a university degree. After completion of his studies, he focused his energy solely on yoga and took formal vows into the monastic Swami order. His passion for what he did was so great that he established a school for young boys in Dihika, West Bengal. It later was named Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, the Indian branch of Yogananda's American organization, Self-Realization Fellowship.
Soon came the time when Yogananda made the decision to take the Kriya yoga philosophies to the United States. He was invited to the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. With his teacher’s blessings, “All doors are open for you. It is now or never”, Yogananda took a lengthy boat journey overseas to America.
Upon his arrival, Yogananda was greeted with open arms and spoke as much and as often as he could, to whomever would listen. He developed relationships with many Americans who help establish the Self-Realization Fellowship which sole purpose was to teach India's ancient practices and philosophy of yoga and its tradition of meditation.
Yogananda did return to India for a short period before going back to the West where he continued to teach, write and lecture about Kriya yoga. Although not in the book, on further research, I found that Yogananda passed away in 1952, seven years after his autobiography was published for the first time.
Overall, the book was fascinating to read. It provided a context to modern yoga that otherwise would not be available to those who live in the West. Yogananda wrote with seriousness but also with a lot of humour. He was humble and willing to dedicate his life to the understanding and teaching of Kriya Yoga.
After finishing the book, I did have some outstanding questions and thoughts that were not necessarily answered in the book.
1. Multiple references to the Bible and Christian faith
I was shocked at the volume of the book that was referencing the Christian faith. At least once in each chapter had a footnote to a passage from the Bible. Since Yogananda did not practice a Christian religion, I was surprised to read this much about Bible passages. It was refreshing to see that a man of strong spiritual persuasion was welcoming if not promoting Christian values alongside the Hindu faith. My original black and white lens of religion was disrupted showing that multiple religions can and do work together.
My only thoughts as to why the Christian influence was so prominent might stem back to the time in history the book was taking place. At the time, India was under British occupation, whom Christianity was the prominent faith. As well, many Christians live in the West and possibly the book was written for that particularly audience (me too!) so referencing Christianity was another way Yogananda could relate to his audience.
2. The Lineage Debate
I still don’t fully understand where Yogananda and his teachers fall in regards to the most prominent yogi of the time, Krishnamacharya. Can I assume that each were ‘doing their own thing’ around the same time yet in a different location? Krishnamacharya was not mentioned once in this book so I can only assume they didn’t particularly know about each other and each others’ work. I think another viewing of Yoga Unveiled might just help me find the answer!
3. The Influence in the West
As noted already, I didn’t gather much information about Yogananda’s full influence of Kriya Yoga in the West. I would guess only one-fifth of the chapters actually describe the details. This may be the reflection of Yogananda’s humility. I have watched the documentary, Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which I would also like to watch again. If memory serves, it provides much more detail about the years Yogananda spent in the United States. This is intriguing to me as it shows Yogananda as being much closer to home.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about the life of a yogi.
Aspiring Yoga Teacher
I've practiced yoga since I was a pre-teen and have always found it to keep me centered. I will be a teacher one day and this is my journey to discover teaching and practice.