Paramahansa Yogananda | Biography & Teachings

“Change Yourself And You Have Done Your Part In Changing The World”

Paramahansa Yogananda

Arguably one of the most influential Hatha yogis to bring yoga to the USA in the early 20th century Yogananda’s Kriyā Yoga provided an accessible, actionable, and relevant approach to yoga.

His life (1893-1952) is colored with tales of magic and spirituality while his teachings are filled with wisdom, compassion, and inspiration. To learn more about him let’s look at:

  • His spiritual and personal life
  • His teachings and Kriyā Yoga
  • His influence
Paramahansa Yogananda portrait

Yogananda’s early life

Yogananda was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Gorakhpur to a wealthy Bengali family.  His yearning for the spiritual path and for a teacher to instruct him was present from an early age.  He “intensely longed for God from his earliest childhood”ananda.org

After his mother’s death at the age of 11, he received an amulet said to be destined to vanish when his true spiritual Guru appeared.  Yogananda claims that the amulet did indeed disappear after meeting Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in 1910!

It is reputed that Sri Yukteswar Giri’s Guru, Lahiri Mahasaya (also the Guru of Yogananda’s parents) proclaimed that Yogananda had been sent to him to leave Mother India and disseminate yoga throughout the world. 

During his lengthy and often rigorous studentship under Sri Yukteswar Giri he attended Calcutta University and in 1914 Yogananda took his monastic vows and was fully initiated into the swami order.  He renounced his family name and became known as Swami Yogananda Giri.

what does Swami Yogananda Giri mean?

  • Swami  – A senior Hindu teacher/aesthetic
  • Yogananda  – Often interpreted as “divine union with God through yoga”
  • Giri – Mountain
Paramahansa Yogananda teaching yoga

The Making of a Teacher

In 1917 Yogananda established a boys’ school in Bengal called Brahmacharya Vidyalaya.  This school formed the bedrock of what became the “Yogoda Satsanga Society of India” and later the American equivalent “The Self-Realization Fellowship”The teachings of the school fused yoga practices and spiritual principles. 

“I saw clearly the arid results of ordinary instruction, aimed only at the development of body and intellect. Moral and spiritual values, without whose appreciation no man can approach happiness, were yet lacking in the formal curriculum. I was determined to found a school where young boys could develop to the full stature of manhood.”

– Paramahansa Yogananda
a sign for Paramahansa Yogananda's yoga school

In 1917 Yogananda founded the non-profit spiritual organization Yogoda Satsanga Society (YSS) which continues to thrive over 100 years on. The institution‘s “How to Live” principles and teachings include:

  • The purpose of life
  • The secret to lasting happiness
  • Achieving success
  • Health and healing
  • Interoception
  • Knowing God
  • Intuition of the Soul
  • Living in community
a woman meditating on a beach with a purple sky

Beyond India

It was a vision during meditation that steered Yogananda toward his destiny to disseminate the teachings of yoga internationally. He was invited to present as the Indian delegate at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, America. He accepted the offer and handed over his school to his friend and fellow yogi Swami Satyananda Giri (not to be confused with Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School).

In 1920 Yogananda arrived in America and established the Self-Realization Fellowship  (a branch of the Indian YSS ) which was set up to propagate Yogananda’s teachings on Kriyā Yoga worldwide. The name “Self-Realization Fellowship” was deemed more approachable and accessible for Westerners. There are currently over 500 multinational SRF centers in the form of ashrams, temples, and meditation circles.

He was well received in America and attracted a significant audience including powerful and influential members of society. He lectured on the “Science of Religion” which sought to bring unity to all religions and make esoteric Hindu ideals suitable for the Western audience.

His arrival in America coincided with a demand for alternatives to traditional regions which was partially inspired by the concepts of “New Thought”.  People were seeking personal wellbeing and success, and the popular “positive thought” and “autosuggestion” ideologies helped prime Western minds. Yogananda fused these principles with Indian thought and called it Yogoda.

Paramahansa Yogananda with native american leaders

Challenging Times

Despite his popularity, Yogananda wasn’t always welcomed. Coinciding with the Indian independence movement in the late 1920s he was added to the FBI watch on account of his concerning religious, moral, and spiritual teachings.  

Yogananda encountered trouble in 1928 when he was withheld from events for his “own safety”.  He faced social and political unrest while in the southern states where it was still illegal for races to mix.  Not one to abandon his spiritual and moral ideals Yogananda founded an African-American Yogaoda Association for his “Negro brethren.”

During this time, he faced abandonment from students and financial backers and became acutely aware of the demands of teaching Westerners which was certainly more challenging than renouncing the world!

Later Years

After brief trips to Europe and the Middle East, in 1935 Yogananda journeyed to India where his Guru removed his title of Swami and he was given the highest spiritual title – Paramahansa meaning “supreme swan”.  Shortly after Sri Yukteswar Giri died and Paramahansa Yogananda returned to America to continue to share his knowledge and disseminate the teachings of Kriyā Yoga.

Paramahansa Yogananda writing

Paramahansa Yogananda spent most of his life in California and he became an American citizen in 1949. He spent his remaining years in LA away from the public eye documenting his teachings.

“I can do much more now to reach others with my pen.”

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda’s death

Yogananda’s death was well-documented and like his life,  shrouded in mystery and magic.  He spoke of being close to death when he attended a dinner with the Indian Ambassador. On reciting his poem “My India” he is said to have “lifted his eyes…and slumped to the floor”

While his mysterious death was categorized as a heart attack there were questions raised regarding his dramatic passing and the lack of decay that took place before his body was buried in California.  

“Death is really beautiful; if it were a bad thing, God would not let it happen to us. It is really freedom, an entry into another, higher life. We must utilize this life in order to realize the life beyond this one.”

– Paramahansa Yogananda
Paramahansa Yogananda meditating cross legged

Paramahansa Yogananda’s Teachings

Yogananda’s “The Science of Religion” was an approachable and measurable term for Westerners. It challenged traditional/Western beliefs without dismissing Christianity.  “What is behind religion, not the religion itself” was a key concept aimed at uniting the religious principles of Christianity while incorporating the Yoga teachings of Krishna.

 “The true basis of religion is not belief, but intuitive experience. Intuition is the soul’s power of knowing God. To know what religion is really all about, one must know God.”

– Paramahansa Yogananda

While Yogananda’s offerings were considered controversial he succeeded in creating a vocabulary for the spiritual teachings of Kriyā Yoga fitting for the lives of western householders.  He wanted people to understand that they could have a personal relationship with the divine and they didn’t need to become monks to do so. Yogananda informed us that we are the “unchanging God” and not just the material self and possessions with which we identify.

a depiction of someone meditating surrounded by fractals

Although asana was not a leading part of Kriyā Yoga, Yogananda did include movement and body awareness.  His wellbeing-focused energization exercises and muscle control were described as “muscle charging through willpower” and were influenced by the “New Thought” movement as well as European bodybuilding.  He considered the body a good indicator and measurement of the success of yoga.

“Yogananda’s early publications in America promote this auto suggestive, quick-fix method of apparatus-free gymnastics, which is said to yield the ‘highest possible degree of physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing at the minimum expenditure of time and effort.”

– Mark Singleton, Yoga Body

Kriyā Yoga

Kriyā = action, deed, effort

Kriyā Yoga is broadly based around the practice of meditation and is part of Raja Yoga but most commonly it is regarded as the yoga of action. References to the ancient practice of Kriyā Yoga can be found in texts as old as Patanjali’s  “Yoga Sutra” and in “The Bhagavad Gita”. 

“Kriyā Yoga consists of body discipline, mental control and meditating on Aum.”

– Yoga Sutra II : 1
a woman meditating by the beach dressed in white

The systematic and “fast-track” approach to the spiritual path taught by Yogananda was given to him through the lineage of his Guru which surfaced with Mahavatar BabjiUntil Babji the teachings of Kriyā Yoga took place secretly – quite the opposite of Yogananda’s destiny to disseminate the teachings worldwide!

“The Kriyā Yogi mentally directs his life energy to revolve, upward and downward, around the six spinal centers”

Paramahansa Yogananda

Yogananda described his intuition-based self-realization as the foundation for recognizing the God within. He called it a spiritual science or the “science of the spirit and soul”.

Yogananda’s approach to Kriyā Yoga was a psycho-physiological method of controlling energy through traditional and modern practices including:

a splash of paint and om written over the top

So what was it about Yogananda’s teachings that captivated the west?

Yogananda’s blend of unity of all religions, and mind-body-soul well-being provided a holistic system for transformation without abandoning religion.  While Western philosophers were talking about the death of God Yogananda taught the reconceptualization of the divine.

Ananda.org provides a comprehensive guide to Yogananda’s teachings and why they were revolutionary:

  1. Only God exists. 
    This Vedic approach contradicted that there could be many religions putting God in everything not just the role of creator.
  2. Daily meditation, stilling the mind, is the way to see behind the dream. 
    Few people in the West were meditating in the early 20th century.
  3. Prana keeps us alive, keeps us healthy, makes us magnetic, and allows us to succeed.
    Yogananda emphasized the importance of the nervous system and our ability to control “all things material”. 
  4. Emancipation from karma and reincarnation.
    People were encouraged to think about their thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
  5. We don’t need to leave the world. 
    Practitioners did not need to renounce their lives but could walk the spiritual path as householders.
  6. The desire to be happy and to avoid pain is the universal motivation behind every action. 
    Yogananda’s “Self-Realization” recognized that happiness is inherently within and not dependent on material possessions.
  7. Spiritual communities provide the optimal environment for the pursuit of happiness and God. 
    Spiritual communities were rare outside of the church.

His Influence and writing

Yogananda arguably facilitated the growing popularity and practice of yoga in the West.  He taught a significant amount of people ranging from presidents (Calvin Coolidge) to Gandhi and his influence stretched to musicians such as Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. New-age and alternative medicine teacher Deepak Chopra called him a spiritual genius.

Paramahansa Yogananda eating with Gandhi
Yogananda and Gandhi

Apple founder Steve Jobs had just one book on his iPad – “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Yogananda and that book was given to each attendee at Jobs’ funeral.

There are many books documenting the knowledge and wisdom of Yogananda but it is “Autobiography of a Yogi” that is most widely known. Several million copies have been sold worldwide and it has been translated into more than 50 languages. “Autobiography of a Yogi” is both a life story and an account of a spiritual journey. 

It continues to be a source of spiritual inspiration and a “bible of mystical India” (Singleton).

Yogananda provided the world with magical stories, ancient teachings for modern life, and a rich legacy for spiritual enlightenment.

“…you realize that all along there was something tremendous within you, and you did not know it.”

Paramahansa Yogananda

Want to find out more about the life and teachings of Yogananda?  Watch “Awake: The Life of Yogananda”  (2014) or read “Autobiography of a Yogi”.

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams

Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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