When Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), known as the Father of Yoga in the West, first came to Philadelphia in 1924, he received a warm welcome as he brought to the City of Brotherly Love his teachings on Kriya Yoga, the advanced techniques of meditation which lead to realization of God, and the importance of a balanced health in the body, mind and soul. He gave a month-long series of lectures and classes at the Philadelphia Public Library which were so popular that hundreds of people had to be turned away. The Philadelphia Clubs of Applied and Practical Psychology also sponsored many additional lectures on his how-to-live principles, such as "Solving the Mystery of Success", "Concentration and Its Utility" and "How to Work Without Fatigue." By the time he left Philadelphia, Yogananda had attracted a large group of students, including internationally famed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski.
When he returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1928, during a transcontinental lecture tour, he addressed 250 physicians of the Aesculapius Society of Philadelphia on "Evolution of Healing Methods" and gave a series of talks at the LuLu Temple. He was also asked by the Fellowships of Faiths and the Philadelphia Ethical Culture Society to speak at an interfaith conference about Hinduism.
While today more and more people are recognizing the importance of looking at ourselves holistically as yoga and meditation become more mainstream, back in the 1920's when Yogananda first brought his teachings to America, he was considered a trailblazer in the science of spirituality. Now over fifty years after his death, his legacy still lives on in our city through the Philadelphia Meditation Group of Self-Realization Fellowship and through the popularity of his teachings. His autobiography, Autobiography of a Yogi first published in 1946 is still considered a bestseller today.
AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda
On November 7, through the magical realism of co-directors Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman in their documentary, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, The Father of the Yoga in the West will be back in Philadelphia this time on the silver screen. With its premiere in New York City on October 10, the film has been opening in cities all around the country including California, Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona; the film will make its debut in Philadelphia at the Ritz Bourse November 7 through the 13th.
The documentary looks at Yogananda's life and the challenges he faced bringing the ancient teachings of his homeland to the west as well as his legacy today.
"Our goal was to place Yogananda in the context of his times, allowing for greater understanding of the history of Yoga in America and what this practice is really all about. We experimented with creating internal states of consciousness through cinematic metaphor, so that the audience could engage in an experience, not merely gain information. We wanted to invite them on a journey of deeper awareness and possibility through the filmmaking itself, while unfolding Yogananda's legacy," said Paola di Florio, one of the directors of the film.
"We decided to have Yogananda tell his story through his own words (rather than using a third person narrator), in an effort to create more intimacy. This meant that, in addition to using some audio recordings of Yogananda, we had the privilege of casting a brilliant, prominent Bollywood star, Anupam Kher, to read his words and essentially 'act the part'. This also helped to keep alive a sense of magical realism that Yogananda created when writing Autobiography of a Yogi, where he recounted intimate moments of a life that went well beyond the mundane," di Florio explained.
"We created measured pacing, moments where viewers could come in and out of 'cinematic meditations,' as a means of freeing them from the intellect and allowing them just to 'be'," she added.
Brother Chidananda., a monk of the Self-Realization Fellowship since 1977, said that the film looks at the challenges Yogananda faced back in the 1920s when the United States was mostly Judeo-Christian, and how it was the way he presented spirituality as a science that drew people in. "The idea that spirituality has an identifiable measured effect on the body and the mind had a huge appeal to Americans," he said.
"Most important thing he taught was not a philosophy or scholarly study, but the daily practice of meditation. Not a vague concept of sitting quietly, but a yoga tradition steeped in the disciplined training of your intuitive facilities. It is a system of techniques of breath and mind to awaken the higher faculties that exist in every person, but usually lie dormant. We are all divine beings," he added.
"If I had to sum up Yogananda's message, it would be to 'Wake Up'."
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Because an important part of Yogananda's teachings was that the practice of meditation leads to improved health and well-being and sharpened cognitive skills, the documentary also interviews scientists to explore the connection between science and spirituality that Yogananda saw. "We searched for scientists, such as Dr. Andrew Newberg, who are pioneers in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences, a field known as 'neurotheology' to help us reach a wider audience, who might need a more grounded, empirical approach to these ancient teachings and to recognize how modern science supports them," added di Florio.
Author of How God Changes Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital who studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states. His research includes taking brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals and trance states, in an attempt to better understand the nature of religious and spiritual practices and attitudes.
"In my research, I try to answer the question of how spirituality and religion can help our health. I explore how prayer helps people cope with illness and reduces stress and anxiety as well as look at what it means to be spiritual and how it helps us understand the nature of the brain and the ways we understand reality," Dr. Newberg said.
Meditation is already known to be an effective treatment option for depression, not by itself but as a part of a treatment plan that could also include medicine and other cognitive therapies. Previous studies have shown that it causes changes in the brain like the release of neurotransmitters and an increase in the activity of the frontal lobe of the brain which is most affected by depression.
As part of his research Dr. Newberg performs brain scans of people praying or meditating in longitudinal studies to chart not only the immediate changes in the brain, but those that happen over time as well.
He doesn't only look at how religion or spirituality has positive effects though. "Sometimes religion doesn't go well," he said. "When a patient gets a bad health diagnosis, he may feel like God is punishing him, which might make him less compliant when it comes to treatment. We are trying to understand what is going on in his head and how it is different from someone with a positive religious experience."
"It is important to recognize the different facets of a person. Doctors need to look at the whole person and recognize how stress and anxiety can have a powerful effect on a person's health," he continued. "There needs to be respect for the value of meditation and other alternative medicines."
Yogananda's legacy here in Philadelphia
Here in the Philadelphia area, we have a strong yoga community with studios offering many different types of yoga, but for the members of the Self-Realization Fellowship, yoga is more than the physical practices of holding poses. The main focus of yoga is meditation, which helps quiet the mind in order to connect with the spirit.
The Philadelphia Meditation Group of Self-Realization Fellowship was among the earliest SRF meditation groups to be established in the U.S., sometime in the late 1920s. Today it is located at 25 South Easton Road Suite 205, Glenside, PA 19038. There are also groups in Lancaster, Pa; Newark, NJ; and Princeton, NJ.
Dorothy Nickelson, a member of the Philadelphia group was first introduced to the teachings of Yogananda through his autobiography back in 1985. "My brother Jack introduced me to it, however when I first read it, it didn't resonate, but the second time it did," she said.
"Kriya Yoga helps you be a better person physically, mentally and spiritually. It gives you the armor to live with all the battles of daily life-stress, illness, and disappointments. My son was diagnosed with cancer right before I started on this path, and it gave me the inner strength I needed," Nickelson said.
Krishna Polasani has been a part of the fellowship since 2007. A graduate of the Wharton School for Business, he was working at Johnson and Johnson when he read an article online about Kriya Yoga and was inspired. Growing up Hindu, he always wanted to have a stronger connection between his body and his mind. "The Kriya Yoga technique helped me experience a more abstract idea of God and express it in my everyday life," he said.
Take the Kindness Challenge
Serving others is another important part of Yogananda's teachings and of the Self-Realization Fellowship so as part of the film debut, the directors kicked of a "AWAKE 21-Day Kindness Challenge' where they are asking film goers to practice small acts of kindness to "awaken" the kindness in others. The challenge started on October 24.
Don't miss the special Q & A session after the viewing on November 7. Both co-director of the film Paola di Florio and neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg will be there to answer questions. For more information about the dates and times of the movie, visit http://www.awaketheyoganandamovie.com/screenings/philadelphia/.