Paramahansa Yogananda was one of the most popular spiritual teachers of the 20th century. He was the first well-known indian teacher who spent most of his life in the United States. He was one of a few people that made yoga known and massively popular in the western society. From his childhood he had a deep interest in spirituality and was trying to find an enlightened person who could guide him on the path. At the age of 17 he met Swami Yukteshwar Giri, which he immediately recognized as his master. A few years later he finished college and received a spiritual initiation, thus becoming a monk.
Soon he started a school for boys, that combined modern education with the practice of yoga and spiritual teachings. This school later grew into a Self-Realization Fellowship, a US-based organization, that is still promoting Yogananda’s teachings throughout the world.
In 1920 Yogananda went to the United States and stayed there till the end of his life. He started giving public lectures and classes of yoga, which soon made him popular, and he went on a cross-continental speaking tour. His lectures were attracting thousands of people, and his followers included a number of celebrities. In 1935 Yogananda went on a long trip to India to visit his guru and to develop his indian movement. During this trip he met a number of well-known people like Mahatma Gandhi and Anadamayi Ma, and his master gave him a title of Paramahansa, that indicates the highest spiritual achievement. The next year he returned to America and continued giving lectures, writing books and establishing the centers of his organization. During this period he wrote his most famous book “Autobiography of a Yogi”, which describes his life journey, relationship with his master, meetings with teachers and saints of India as well as theoretical aspects of yoga. The book was received with big interest and eventually became one of the most popular books on spirituality and indian mysticism, inspiring thousands of people for the spiritual search. The last years of his life Yogananda spent mostly in seclusion with a group of close disciples in his ashram in California. He was focused on writing and revising previously written books and articles. He said: “I can do much more now to reach others with my pen.” He died of a heart attack in the age of 59, his body was kept for 20 days and it didn’t show any signs of decay.
The essence of Yogananda’s teachings is Kriya Yoga. Basically it is a set of a few pranayamas (breathing exercises), that are taught after some preliminary practices for concentration and energizing the body. According to Yogananda, the practice was kept secret for thousands of years and was only revealed in the 19th century for the benefit of all spiritual seekers. So in fact all Yogananda’s life work was just to popularize a set of yoga exercises taught to him by his teacher. The practices of Kriya Yoga as such are not original, and can be found in the traditional texts on yoga, though in Kriya Yoga they are taught as a separate form of practice, and in the traditional Ashtanga Yoga these and other pranayama exercises are just a part of a complex system of spiritual development. Kriya Yoga is called a “definite scientific technique for attaining direct personal experience of God.” Yes, but so are all the other numerous forms of spiritual practice available in the indian tradition. Branding and spreading a few simple practices, which are definitely beneficial as such, doesn’t seems to be a great life achievement and is not enough to be called a guru.
Yogananda taught that the original teachings of Jesus Christ and Krishna’s teaching of yoga are essentially the same; this must have been one of the reasons why he was so enthusiastically accepted by the american society. His Self-Realization Fellowship claims to be having over 500 temples, retreats, ashrams and centers around the world. He definitely played a great role in introducing the indian spirituality to the West and making yoga and meditation a commonly accepted forms of spiritual practice. His insistence on direct experience and daily practice rather than blind faith is definitely beneficial in the society of book readers and youtube video watchers. One can definitely choose Kriya Yoga as a way of practice and benefit from it, though nothing is known about whether there are any enlightened disciples or followers of Yogananda’s system.