Yoga's journey from 5,000-year-old spiritual practice to means to achieving flat abs and tight glutes encapsulates the interlocked processes of cultural appropriation, ravenous capitalism, and the Western ability to reduce everything to a trend. In telling the larger-than-life true story of Paramahansa Yogananda, the guru who brought yoga and meditation to the American mainstream in the 1920s, co-directors Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman remind viewers of the practices' spiritual meaning.
Composed of seamlessly interlocked stock footage, old photos, and dramatic re-enactments, the film traces Yogananda's life from childhood (when mystics foretold his spiritual powers and path) and his apprenticeship with his own guru to his triumphant introduction of Hindu spirituality to America, the scandal that almost destroyed him, and the final burst of spiritual and creative energy that resulted in his classic memoir, The Autobiography of a Yogi (reportedly the only book Steve Jobs had on his iPad). While celebrity devotees turn up throughout (George Harrison, Russell Simmons), what's most fascinating here are the physicists and neuroscientists discussing how the yogi's insights on the workings of the world and the brain were decades ahead of science. They suggest that science still hasn't caught up to him.
While the reverent tone of the documentary veers into PSA territory, and the use of an Alanis Morissette song at the end falls somewhere between corn and cheese, Awake is engrossing and informative from start to finish.