Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda is exactly that. Yogananda details episodes in his spiritual and bodily life from childhood until the book’s publication around 1945. The stories are wide-ranging and vary between India and the U.S. But primarily, they’re set in locations throughout Yogananda’s home country of India. And as you might imagine, the spiritual stories include astral and metaphysical locations.
I decided to read this book because I revived my dormant yoga practice recently. But I’m a Western yoga student, focusing on the postures. Studying the spiritual aspects of yoga beyond a minimal ten-minutes-a-day meditation practice isn’t for me.
In general, I’m a spiritual skeptic so I admit that large parts of this book just didn’t reach me. Yogananda tells countless stories of gurus and swamis traveling through time and space, adjusting their physical form to the situation. He reveres deathless and age-defying yogis. And even a female yogi who ate and drank nothing for fifty years. She survived only on the light of her spiritual connections.
Setting that aside, Yogananda journeys from city to city. He connects with various spiritual men, and as a young adult chooses his lifelong guru. He takes two trips to the Himalayas, one more successful than the other. His family stories show that even a revered yogi faces family resistance. Ultimately, Yogananda goes to America to introduce Self-Realization and Kriya yoga to people in the West.
This was a tough read for many reasons. I’m not a spiritual seeker, but I’m curious about different lives, time periods, and places. The balance between spiritual teachings and more human stories was heavy on the first, which challenged me. But if you’re curious about the spiritual teachings of Hindu people, gods, gurus, and to a small extent, yoga, you may enjoy this book.
Still, I managed pretty well until the section on the Indian caste system and beliefs. My twenty first century feelings were deeply offended by Yogananda’s explanation of castes. I felt this way even though he says castes should only be followed in a spiritual sense. Squaring those two concepts makes my head hurt.
On the other hand, I loved the long chapter about Yogananda meeting Mahatma Gandhi. They appreciated each other, and Yogananda spends many pages quoting Gandhi and expounding on his work.
Lastly, the writing itself is what you expect from the time period—overwrought and old-fashioned. But I admit that occasionally Yogananda’s word choices made me laugh out loud.
Despite it all, I persisted. When chapters told of journeys and human relationships, I enjoyed the book. But so much discusses estoteric concepts of religion and spirituality. The lack of even a few details about the physical practice of yoga asanas disappointed me.
Pair with When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron or Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World by Lama Surya Das. Both are based on Buddhism rather than Hinduism, with more modern perspectives. Or choose a book focused on the location, culture and people of India, like Shantaram by Gregory Roberts.