The Life of Paramahansa Yogananda: The Early Years in America (1920–1928)

Self-Realization Fellowship; 3880 San Rafael Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90065; (323) 225-2471; VHS; 30 minutes.

If you’ve been around the yoga world awhile, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered a book that’s often listed among the spiritual classics of the 20th century: Paramahansa Yogananda‘s Autobiography of a Yogi. First published by the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in 1946, it has run through 13 English editions, sold more than a million copies, and been translated into 18 languages.

See alsoWhy Yogananda Was a Man Before His Time

Yogananda (1893–1952) arrived in this country in 1920, after a two-month ocean voyage from India, as a delegate to the International Congress of Religions, held in Boston. This video biography picks up his story at that point and follows him for the next eight years.

From rather modest beginnings—his first domicile in the United States was a small room at the YMCA—Yogananda quickly attracted a large and enthusiastic following, as he lectured in various Boston-area venues on his “scientific” approach to God-knowledge and on the ultimate unity of all religion. By 1924, he had decided he needed to spread his message farther afield, so he undertook a transcontinental tour, finally landing by the end of the year in Los Angeles, which he called the “Benares of the West,” presumably with a straight face. There he established the fellowship’s world headquarters; the SRF aimed, among other things, to “disseminate among the nations a knowledge of definite scientific techniques for attaining direct personal experience of God.” The video ends with his return to Boston in 1928. (After that, Yogananda revisited India in 1935, returning to the West the following year.)

This 30-minute biography provides a fairly straightforward telling of the events of these eight years in Yogananda’s life, without much attention paid to his teaching; there isn’t, for example, any mention of his brand of yoga, which he called kriya yoga, the yoga of (ritual) action. The story is effectively illustrated with archival photos of Yogananda and his circle (along with a few short film clips), as well as with contemporary photos of Boston, its environs, and Los Angeles.

I enjoyed the tape as a visual accompaniment to the autobiography, though I was a little disappointed that there was no acknowledgment of the Indian teachers who preceded and paved the way, as it were, for Yogananda—for example, Swami Vivekananda (often credited with bringing yoga to this country) and his fellow Ramakrishna-inspired monks, who followed Vivekananda here in the early years of the 20th century. But we’ll need to reserve final judgment on this presentation for a while; the SRF is evidently planning to release additional videos covering the rest of Yogananda’s life, so perhaps all the dots in the story will eventually be connected.

Contributing Editor Richard Rosen teaches public classes in Northern California. He is also the author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama.