I've had a soft spot for 'Autobiography of a Yogi' ever since I was a kid. It was the first non-Western spiritual memoir I read, and its purity impressed me almost as much as the fantastic stories of gurus and saints.
Yogananda, born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in northern India in 1893, was the fourth child of a couple so devout that, his mother told a daughter, they slept together just once a year --- and then only for the purpose of producing more children.
Yogananda's parents had a guru. Although he died when their son was too young to know him, Yogananda reports that the guru's photo healed him from some disease when he was eight. After that, the boy was God-obsessed and, he says, possessed with divine foresight; he could, for example, "see" his mother dying from miles away. It was only a matter of time before he started ditching school to sit at the feet of holy men.
At 17, he became a disciple of Swami Sri Yukteswar. Ten years of study and meditation followed. So does some very perfumed prose. Ignore it. I'd urge you to read this book as I once did --- as a spiritual adventure story, with great characters on almost every page. Do you believe in magic? If so, you'll be tempted to when you read some of Yogananda's experiences; if not, this book turns into the flimsiest hoo-hah pretty early on. (To buy 'Autobiography of a Yogi' from Amazon.com, click here.)
Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920 and first published his autobiography in 1946. I can't speak to SRF's home-study courses. But if you've ever stopped at its Los Angeles Shrine (on Sunset Boulevard, almost at the ocean), you know it's a place of calm and peace. That is exactly Yogananda's message: quiet the mind, look inward, and shake hands with your God. For those seeking a direct encounter with the Creator, Yogananda promises an infallible method.
A God-intoxicated boy grows up to spread a message of great joy without, it appears, needing much reward for himself. That's a pure and cheerful tale, and one that's never more welcome than now. So I come back to the story, and the simple pleasure of reading about an era in India when devoting yourself to the spirit couldn't possibly be any kind of career move.
Consider the peace-and-love message completely optional. Just enjoy 'Autobiography of a Yogi' as an experience, a way of entering a world that's mysterious and exotic --- a dreamscape, a movie. Anything more, and you're on your own.