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The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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The Deeper Dimension of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Shambhala 2003.  415 pages. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It is a veritable treasure chest of information, insight, ideas and inspiration for practice, contemplation and just about everything having to do with yoga.  

Unlike the previous Feuerstein book I reviewed (The Path of Yoga), this is not an integrated text but rather a collection of essays and musings by the author.  Even if you didn’t know this, you would quickly suspect it since, while the sections of the book are arranged thematically (general orientation, ethics, practices, etc.), the “chapters” all have a self-contained feel to them.  There is also the sense that many were originally part of some larger unit and so when they end they sometimes do so rather abruptly.  You’re ploughing into the meat of some topic, turn the page, and–wham!–you’re on to the next “chapter.”  This can be a bit jolting, but not all the essays are like this–most have a fully rounded, finished feel to them–but it’s often enough that you start expecting/bracing for it.  Because the book consists of essays you will also get a fair bit of repetition which, for some people, may be annoying, but for others, who want to drum certain points/facts into their heads, may well be ideal.   As for a more in-depth review of the book’s contents, with a collection of essays, touching on highlights is the usual approach, and that’s what I’ll do here. 

Clearly Feuerstein has thought a lot about Yoga.  As noted, there is something of a”treasure chest” feel to the book; you never know what’s up next until you turn the page.  And while the vast majority of pieces aim at being informative, many are reflective as well, though only one can be truly called self-revealing.  That would be “Crossing the Boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism via Tantra-Yoga,” which describes Feuerstein’s “conversion” (if that’s the right word–probably not) from Hindu yoga to Buddhist yoga (ala Vajrayana).  Easily the best of the reflective pieces is #62, “Faith and Surrender: A New Look at the Eightfold Path,” a brilliant essay I would heartily recommend for multiple rereadings. 

As a scholar though Feuerstein excels at dispensing information.  He does this in breadth by touching on just about every conceivable application and type of yoga (I never even knew there was such a thing as buddhi-yoga!), and depth: for example, an eleven page essay on OM reveals this all-important seed mantra’s rich textual and cultural legacy.  A couple dozen regular volumes might be necessary to cover this much ground and there’s no way every topic can be considered in depth; for that you’ll have to seek other books.  But wait!  Dr. Feuerstein has most graciously already considered your predicament and provided an illuminating  overview entitled  “Introducing the Great Literary Heritage of Hindu Yoga”!  An excellent little piece unto itself, an annotated bibliography of books is appended to it, citing quality tomes on general yoga, the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Patanjali, the Epics, Gita, Tantrism and more.  All you incurable bibliophiles out there should do three prostrations in Georg’s direction.  (BTW, he lives in Canada.)

There’s very little one can complain about regarding this book.  Feuerstein is a writer of clarity and concision, thoughtfulness, depth and sensitivity–not to mention vast knowledge; the man may have read just about everything on the subject.   The only, ONLY gripe I might have is a slight tendency–which, frankly, coming from the pen of a scholar is rather ironic–toward a sort of textual fundamentalism.  For example, writing on the Mahabharata he repeatedly refers to the war the poem describes as the greatest ever fought on Indian soil and even speaks of “the godman” Krishna as a historical person.  This kind of thing comes up more than once–and invariably caused my face to screw up in an incredulous squint–so I have to assume Feuerstein actually believes these things.  Suffice to say, I would grant Krishna less historicity than Moses or Lao-tzu, and as for the battle, while I suspect the story has its roots in some historical event(s), I doubt its fidelity to facts in any way exceeds that of the Iliad or the romances of King Arthur.

That being said, buy the book!  You won’t regret it; Feuerstein’s writings will lead you on to richer yogic horizons!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar

The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.  Shambhala Publications 1988/2002.  194 pages.

Now I will use the B word: “B” is for “beautiful,” and this slim volume by the still-living godfather of yoga is beautiful

While I find I enjoy and benefit from anything Iyengar writes, I was actually more impressed by this book than I had expected to be.  I did not go into it with any particular expectations–perhaps that helped–except the very positive reviews on Amazon.  It is not an asana book, and Iyengar not being a scholar (he does not even have a high school degree he says on page 28, and was a “dumb student”), it is not a “learned” tome of any sort.  This book is, rather, a subtle, gentle, at times revealing, and quite elegantly written series of reflections on the practice and teaching of yoga.  Mr. Iyengar may not have been much of a student (what does this say about schools, I wonder?), but this book is clearly the product of an intelligent, discerning, and dedicated life.

It is divided into five parts: (1) “Yoga and Life,” with essays describing generally the traditional Hindu view of the life process and how yoga fits in with that; (2)  “The Tree and Its Parts,” where the eight limbs defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are described; (3) “Yoga and Health,” which is pretty self-explanatory; (4) “The Self and Its Journey,” examining the higher practices of pranayama and meditation leading to samadhi; and (5) “Yoga In the World,” which has only two essays, the first about yoga as an art form, the second about the requirements and responsibilities of yoga teachers.  (This last actually had a depressing effect on me and made me question my desire to get yoga teacher certification.  First, certifications mean precious little.  Second, the amount of knowledge and responsibility required exceed what I will be able to accomplish anytime soon, if ever.  And third, I’m already thoroughly middle-aged, suffer from ankylosing spondilitis, and will never be particularly good at asanas, much less look good doing them.  But I digress…) 

Although Iyengar does quote a bit of Sanskrit here and there, I would not say any of the essays are particularly “technical,” though this is certainly not to say they are at all superficial.  Quite the opposite–this book could not have been written by someone who was anything less than a master of his field, with long years of experience and reflection.  Which leads me to say that although anyone can read this book–beginner or advanced, the merely curious to the hardcore–what you get out of it will definitely be determined by the depth of your own practice.  Many rereadings, particularly when one is at different stages of development, or when one has perhaps crossed the line from student to teacher, will no doubt yield new insights and understandings. 

I’d like to share a few points of what, for me, were highlights.  Mr. Iyengar has a way with analogies, and a brilliant one is found on page 17, where the four original castes (peasant, merchant, warrior, priest) are compared to attitudes or states of mind.  His essay entitled “Childhood” (20) was simply beautiful, and I found the description of some of his life contained in “Family Life” (27) very inspiring.  The second part of the book is an excellent overview of yoga practice as a way of meditation and illumination; I thought in particular the notion of the Eight Limbs (ashtanga) of Patanjali as a hologram (see “The Roots,” page 50) to be nothing if not brilliant.  There are, in fact, many very insightful and illuminating passages in this section, things I never thought about in quite that way.  His discussion of yoga as a healing art (especially from p. 93ff) was very interesting–I wish he would write a whole book devoted to his experiences in this regard.  I could go on, as there are many excellent passages, but lastly I will cite p. 117ff as a brilliant evocation of why the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is so easily in accordance with the practice of asanas.   Iyengar writes:

Conciousness is always present in our finger, but most of the time we are not aware of it, so the consciousness of the finger is dormant.  You should know the difference between consciousness and awareness.  Consciousness exists everywhere in the body.  When you are walking, if a thorn touches your foot, what happens?  It pricks, and you immediately feel the pain, so you cannot say that consciousness was not there.  But until he thorn pricked you, you were not aware of your foot.  The consciousness in your foot was dormant, but the moment the foot was pricked, it was brought to the surface.  To awaken that dormant consciousness is awareness.  Your consciousness is six feet long, or five and a half feet long in your body–it is as long as your body is tall.  But awareness is small.  Awareness may extend two feet, one foot, one inch or half an inch.  The yogi says that by practising asanas, you can bring awareness to an extension equal to that of consciousness.  This is total awareness.  This is meditation.

Mr. Iyengar is of course a hatha yogin, and while practicing asanas may take you a long ways, I do not feel it is a substitute for a hard-core sitting practice.  This may be the area where he comes up short, and indeed, the only passage of the book that I thoroughly disagreed with revealed this.  On p. 139 he writes:

If you work diligently on asana, pranayama and pratyahara, you will receive your reward of dharana, dhyana and samadhi, which are the effects of that practice.  They cannot be practised directly [emphasis added].  If we say that we are practising them, this means that we do not know the earlier aspects of yoga.  It is only by practising the earlier aspects that we can hope to arrive at their effects.

I don’t agree with this at all.  In fact, as a statement of the reality of meditation practice (especially in the Buddhist tradition, pick your yana), it is simply false.  All over the Buddhist world (not to mention the Christian, Muslim, Jain, Hindu, etc), people come to meditation without ever having practiced asanas or pranayama, and many of them do just fine.  Might they benefit from asanas?  Of course!  But, as Iyengar showed quite eloquently, the Path can be approached and the Goal attained through any of the limbs of yoga (though some are more direct and less time-consuming).  While I do not wish to make overmuch of this one little misstep in an otherwise superb book, I do think it points out a shortcoming in Iyengar’s approach, which appears marked by an imbalance favoring asanas over direct meditation practice.

This aside–which is just my nitpicking–I cannot recommend this book enthusiastically enough to anyone exploring the world of yoga.  Read it, practice, reflect, and reread it.  Do not read it for information, rather for grounding, seasoning, maturation.  If yoga is a tree (and since Mr. Iyengar says it is, who are we to argue?) then read it and learn to think like a tree–to make my own unworthy stab at a different sort of analogy!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Living Yoga by Georg Feuerstein (ed)

Living Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide for Daily Life edited by Georg Feuerstein and Stephen Bodian with the staff of Yoga Journal.  Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 1993.  290 pages.

I confess I’m not sure why I bought this book.  It’s not like I didn’t check out the table of contents on Amazon.  So, before I bought it I knew it consisted of a selection of journal articles previously published in Yoga Journal.  And I know such books, even with a good editor–Georg Feuerstein, in this case–are rarely first-rate.  Plus, being a not overly enthused subscriber to Yoga Journal, I should have known what I was getting into.  Well, now you can benefit from my experience and know what you’ll be getting into if you buy this book.

First, concerning Yoga Journal, the source for every article.  I realize there’s a market for everything.  In other words, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  So no doubt there are hundreds of thousands of people who subscribe to YJ and have a spiritual orgasm every time they read it.  I am not one of them.  I find YJ  hyper flashy, heavily commercial, its articles often saccharine to the point of inducing nausea.  Sometimes I wonder if I read it for the models.  That said, I am sure that with discrimination and a willingness to wade through hundreds of back issues you could find some worthy articles and that, no doubt, is what Feuerstein and Co. were trying to do. 

They were successful on some counts.  The problem is there aren’t enough high quality pieces to make a solid book.  Plus, their rather heterogeneous subjects give the book a grab bag feeling.  Consider this diversity of topics:

  • Jacob Needleman on money
  • An earth-based poem by Gary Snyder
  • Thoughts on celebration by Carolyn Shaffer
  • Reflections on mother’s love by Ken Keyes
  • Gretchen Newmark on how to overcome eating disorders
  • A history of transpersonal psychology
  • Six illusions (or random observations) about the body by Larry Dossey

These kinds of very peripheral topics intersperse some fine and useful articles on:

  • sequencing postures
  • how to master the lotus
  • an essay by Ken Wilber on what meditation can’t do for you
  • methods of relaxation, etc

I think you can see what I mean.  There are jewels among the debris, but the overall effect is frustrating, out of focus, and a sense you are constantly starting over on page one.  Plus, even Georg Feuerstein’s introductory essays became kind of annoying after a while.

These are the pieces that stood out to me as particularly interesting (I’m sure you’ll have your own list of favorites).  All are examples of good thinking and good writing:

  • Developing Your Own Yoga Practice by Hart Lazer
  • A Nonviolent Approach to Extending Your Limits by Ken Dychtwald
  • Working With the Breath by Richard Miller
  • Asana: Basic Movement Toward Health by Judith Lasater
  • How to Grow A Lotus by Donna Farhi (the model could be my mother as a young woman!)
  • The Buddhist Yoga of Mindfulness by Stephan Bodian
  • The Power and Limits of Meditation by Ken Wilber
  • Beyond Ego by Bryan Wittine
  • What Makes Spiritual Teachers Go Astray by Diana Leafe Christian
  • Tantric Celibacy and the Mystery of Eros by Stuart Sovatsky
  • Life As Service: An Interview with Ram Das by Stephan Bodian
  • Be Who You Are: An Interview with Jean Klein by Stpehan Bodian (even though I find this kind of perspective incredibly frustrating–see Daniel Ingram on this in my review of his book)
  • Who Am I? by Ramana Maharshi
  • The Timeless Wisdom of Nonduality: Sayings of Nisargadatta

Now I have to gripe about the second or third-rate production value of the book.  The text, including the cover and internal photos, all look like someone took the original volume and popped off a copy down at their local Kinkos.  Actually, no–that’s an insult to Kinkos.  Kinkos would do a much better reproduction job than this.  The pictures are grainy, like something off a Xerox machine from the ’70s.  (Yeah, I remember those!)  The cover, as you can see, is denuded of life and color.  Shame on Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam for turning out something old man Gutenberg would have been embarrassed by!

My Amazon Rating: 2 stars

The Path of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

The Path of Yoga: An Essential Guide To Its Principles and Practices by Georg Feuerstein.  Shambhala 2011.  180 pages.

This is a good introductory survey of the field of yoga by the man who is probably the most popular yoga scholar around.  I emphasize the word popular because I’m not actually sure how much cutting edge research (new translations, scholarly publications, etc) he’s actually doing these days.  Probably not much, since Feuerstein is now retired, but his books are generally so approachable that for people who want coverage of yoga’s intellectual heritage, he is often the go-to man. 

This particular offering is definitely for those just getting themselves wet in this area.  It covers the basic branches of yoga (raja, karma, bhakti, jnana etc), the guru relationship, ethical precepts, purification practices, diet, breath, mantras and, of course, all the more esoteric stuff about kundalini and left-handed sexual practices everyone loves.  Libraries could be filled by the tomes on such fare, so for a book under 200 pages this can’t be anything more than cursory, an almost bullet-point like survey. 

And that’s okay, provided it’s what you’re looking for.  Anyone who wants to do asanas will need to look elsewhere.  The same goes if you’re interested in some particular facet of yogic practice or theory, say concerning the chakras, or specs on hatha yoga, the yamas, or how to eat according to your dosha, etc.  It is what it is–a survey for new entrants–and that’s all it is.  If you’re new and just finding your way around the world of yoga, it’s a great book.  If you’re already pretty well-informed and want to start fleshing out some of yoga’s more rarefied nooks and crannies, look elsewhere–e.g. the author’s The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self  by Stephen Cope.  Bantam Books 1999.  358 pages. 

It is not often I use the “M word” to describe a book.  No, I’m not talking about munchkin books or maleficient books.  I’m talking about masterpieces.  I am not certain if Stephen Cope’s bestseller is a masterpiece.  Maybe it is, maybe not.  Either way, it is pretty damn good. 

This is one of those books that entertains and educates you in a visceral way right from the start.  Large chunks are written in immediate narrative format–as in “he said,” “I said,” etc.  It is Stephen Cope’s personal yoga story–a sort of “pilgrim’s progress,” if you will–as well as the yoga story of his many friends and acquaintances before and during his long and continuing stay at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. 

We meet a man, a practicing Boston psychotherapist, who for a variety of reasons was feeling unsettled and dissatisfied with his life and then, somewhat to his dismay, found himself joining a religious community to do…what?  Much of the book is an answer to that and related questions: What did he want?  Why?  What was he trying to do at Kripalu?  What was–is–the meaning of yoga?  What is enlightenment?  Is such a thing possible?  Are there enlightened people in this world?  And what happens when all the things we try to keep hidden are revealed for the world to see?  

Stephen Cope furrows through all these questions and more.  His sincerity, his intensity, his intelligence, make the book a gripping read.  Its pages educate the reader even as Cope the protagonist is educated by his experiences in the ashram.  Yoga philosophy is pondered over, its depths turned up, and its many connections to Western psychotherapy reflected upon, all in gratifyingly sober, lucid prose.  This is no idealistic hippy’s tale, nor a wide-eyed New Age search for Reality.  In point of fact, it is one man’s search for himself, even as he helps us understand that the discipline, the science, the art of yoga, is there to help us lay ourselves bare to ourselves.  

“You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  This book is a testament to these words, but it goes beyond them for the “truth” as yoga reveals to Stephen Cope is an ever living, organic thing, the stuff of our lives, which we either enjoy and let go of or cling to and warp, eventually to destroy. 

You will find yourself in this book.  In one of the many personal portraits Cope draws, you will find your own symptoms and neuroses, your fears, dreams and failings.  And when you do, you will know that yoga has something to offer you.  There is so much teaching here, and it is given in such generous, gentle and wise ways.  Most of all, I think the primacy of ourselves as bodily beings, as thinking, feeling, dreaming animals of earth, is borne out.  The body really is our temple, and yoga is our puja, an act of adoration, discipline and feast.  Cope nails it in what might be the defining statement of the book: “Because yoga asanas are not so much about exercise as they are about learning and unlearning, it is not the movement itself, but the quality of attention we bring to the movement that makes postures qualify as yoga” (230).  If this is so–and I know it is–then any act, any breath, any thought done with full and alive attention, is yoga. 

Bobby Fischer once said “Chess is life.”  I would say “Yoga is life,” and Stephen Cope’s book has made this truth abundantly clear.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Yoga Bible by Christina Brown

The Yoga Bible: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Postures by Christina Brown.  Walking Stick Press 2003.  399 pages.

I wanted to give a nice little plug for this nice little asana book.  I couldn’t resist buying when I found it in the local Harvard Coop–almost 200 asanas in a book that fits snugly in the hand.  Dense (in terms of information per paragraph or bullet point), to the point, practical, and perfectly arranged so all you have to do is look, do the pose, check, turn the page and repeat.  I’ve now made my yoga routine into THIS, just following it through and then starting over again. 

The asanas are ordered somewhat how you would find them in ashtanga yoga.  Each pose is named in English and Sanskrit, captured in several pictures and with numbered instructions, plus a little information box on where to put the gaze, preliminary and counter poses, easier methods, and effects.

The intro to the book has a brief but very informative overview of yoga philosophy and practice.  After the asanas come chapters on relaxation, pranayama, seals (mudras), internal energy locks (bandhas), yogic cleasning practices (kriyas), as well as sections on yoga for specific ailments and a sort of gazeteer to the world of different yoga styles. 

If you are looking for something incredibly practical, that you can just pick up and start into without a hundred pages of metaphysics, this book is for you.  I highly recommend it for its small size (you won’t be worried about bringing it with you onto the gym’s stretching floor), ease of use and directness.  A great buy!

Amazon rating: 5 stars

Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.  Bihar School of Yoga/Yoga Publications Trust 1969/2009.  544 pages.

This is the third asana practice based book I’ve reviewed, the others being Iyengar’s classic Light on Yoga and Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann.  This yoga manual (the back cover refers to it as a “reference text”) from the Bihar School of Yoga is heavy on substance and light on frills.

What I mean is clear as soon as you open the book.  Instead of photos of lithe yogins and yoginis (think Schiffmann) or intimidating poses of Iyengaresque perfection, what you get is simple black and white drawings with lots of descriptive text.  Readers searching for a soft and cuddly yoga book might be put off by this, but they would be cheating themselves if they then closed the book.  For what is contained in these pages is quite possibly the most complete and authoritative “cookbook” for yoga practice I’ve ever seen.

Those who’ve read my review of LoY may well be surprised by this statement.  Indeed, there are ways in which LoY is definitely superior–most notably in its extensive five-year plus asana program, as well as therapeutic programs to treat specific ailments.  But there are also ways–important ways–that Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha (henceforth APMB) has the edge.

First is the organization of the asanas.  In Iyengar’s text asanas proceed generally from less advanced to more advanced, but there are no internal divisions among the asanas.  For example, if you want to find just the forward bending asanas, you can’t do it via the table of contents.  Instead, you’ll have to sift through the text, looking at the pictures or, if you know the specific asanas you’re looking for, go to the index.  If you’re just going by Iyengar’s routine as outlined in the back of the text, this is okay, but if you’re wanting to use the book in a more free-style fashion, then this is less than ideal.

APMB, by contrast, is intelligently arranged for someone who wants to take charge of their yoga routine.  A peek at the table of contents immediately shows what I mean.  The major division is by experience level–beginner’s group, intermediate group, and advanced group–but then within each of these groups the asanas are arranged according to their specific characteristics.  So for example, under the intermediate group you have asanas that employ padmasana, or forward bending practices, or spinal twisting, etc.  The beginner’s group is especially well suited for complete neophytes, and it would be advice well heeded to not begin the intermediate practices until you’re thoroughly comfortable them.  They include warm-ups (the pawanmuktasana series), relaxation postures, standing postures, vajrasana-based postures and others, including surya and chandra namaskara.

I think also the descrptions for each asana are in general better than in LoY.  A typical posture has the following: a black and white hand drawn picture, a detailed description of how to enter and exit the pose, then, each with bold headings (to easily pick them out), details on breathing, duration (how long to hold, how many times to do), awareness (where to concentrate), sequence (in relation to other postures), contraindications and benefits.  What more could you possibly ask for?

And this is just for asanas.  Fully 160 pages are devoted to detailed discussions of a progressive pranayma course, mudras (and how to integrate them into practice), and bandhas.  As an added bonus, you even get a section on shatkarma–practices on physical and mental “cleansing”.  By comparison, Iyengar devotes a measley 37 pages to these subjects, but has nothing on mudras or shatkarma.

I guess the only complaint I have about the book is that it lacks the sort of pre-programmed courses that are so helpful in LoY.  This is sort of made up for in the sections on “sequence”; however, it seems the writers at the Bihar School of Yoga are still practicing an approach to asana that seems to have gone out of style in the last twenty years or so.  This is the notion that every pose should be followed by its “counter-pose.”  (Please someone correct me on this if I have gotten it wrong!)  Erich Schiffmann suggests a quite different approach (349-50), which I’ve adopted: e.g. emphasis on standing postures one day, then forward bends, then backbends, then the cycle repeats.  Every day should have twists and inversions, and you’re never too old for sun salutations.  APMB is perfect if you adopt this mode of practice, because the organization of the text is tailored perfectly to suit.  Yet another point in this fine work’s column!

The only other suggestion for improvement I would make is that the section on yogic “subtle” physiology probably should have been moved up toward the front of the book, before the asanas, as part of the general course on yoga terminology.  As it stands now, someone reading into the text will see references to visuddhi chakra etc and possibly not know what this means because the terms are not introduced until the end.  This is a small complaint though, and I think it would be hard for anyone to go wrong with this book.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

Amazon rating: 5

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade

Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade.  Princeton University Press 2009.  536 pages.

Long the standard work in the field, Eliade’s big book on yoga still displays its author’s dazzling erudition, while at the same time suffering from a dated style, poor organization, and like so many other scholarly tomes on the exotic field of “Eastern” spirituality, demonstrates the limits of a purely academic approach divorced from serious practice.

I’ve actually lost track of how many times I’ve read this book (or at least portions of it).  In college I was a huge Eliade fan—my advisor was a student of his, after all—and indeed, when it comes to the analysis of mythology across cultures, he is the giant in whose shadow everyone labors.  This is one of the strengths as well as weaknesses of the book.  For the armchair theologian or philosopher, constant allusions to yogic parallels in other cultures—for example, among Inuit shamans—can provide illumination, but it is likely to distract or tire someone who wants to learn something useful from yoga.  (Downward dog, anyone?)  Eliade is clearly most interested in yoga as an exemplary phenomenon of homo religiosus rather than as a practice he or anyone else might seriously take up in their spare time, and this fact has to be borne in mind when venturing into the text.

First the strong points.  Eliade’s seminal volume is one of the first from a Westerner to attempt a comprehensive overview of the gigantic subject that is yoga.  When one considers the paucity of Western materials he had to work with (this back in the thirties and forties), the accomplishment is all the more stunning.  A review of the bibliography, for example, shows how reliant he was on texts produced by Indians.  He went the extra mile too, traveling to India to study under Surendranath Dasgupta, one of the great scholars of Indian philosophy of the twentieth century.  Eliade mastered Sanskrit and so was able to read and interpret source materials first hand.  He also spent six months in an ashram (much of that time in tantric dalliance with a South African dakini), and this no doubt helped him with some insight into the yogic life.  Eliade was, however, not so much a yogin as a scholar of vast erudition, and that erudition is everywhere on display, especially in his marshalling of enormous quantities of facts and insights on yoga, Hinduism, mythology, and the meaning of spirituality.

This really is why someone today should read Eliade.  If you have the time and patience you will learn innumerable things you never expected to learn, about so many obscure texts and cults, about the mishmash of ideologies and practices that somehow became Hinduism.  As the preeminent scholar of comparative religion, he is able to relate all these seemingly disparate phenomena to others around the globe, thereby offering a broad picture of his subject as an example of human spirituality as opposed to simply some weird Indian cultural product.  In this way, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom stands firmly in the line of other great Eliade books such as Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return.  It is simply rare than anyone can actually master such a significant body of material and present it coherently and with insight.  For understanding yoga in its larger, human context, this book is still one that should be read.

As noted, though, it has its drawbacks.  Eliade’s writing style is often ponderous and heavily formal—he even refers to himself in the royal “we”!  He also has an irritating propensity for obscure words and neologisms like homology, enstasis, hierophany, as well as an excessive fondness for Greco-Latin phrases.  Eliade himself acknowledged this shortcoming in his autobiography:

The writing went hard at first, requiring more effort than I had anticipated, and I wondered what was wrong with me.  Why was I making such slow progress, and why was I writing such strident prose, studded with unnecessary neologisms, with a pretentious, artificial, aggressive syntax? (Journey East, Journey West (vol. 1), pp. 254-5).

As I said: Patience!

Style aside, there are other problems.  The book, which stands as something of a general history of yoga in Hinduism, is arranged in a decidedly non-chronological fashion.  It starts with an overview of “The Doctrines of Yoga”—specifically the Samykha and classical yoga of Patanjali—then goes back in time to “Yoga and Brahmanism.”  Then it’s forward a millennium to the Gita and Epics, back a millennium to Buddhism and forward again fifteen hundred years to tantrism.  The book formally ends (if you don’t include the nearly one hundred pages of “Additional Notes”) with “Yoga and Aboriginal India”—i.e. pre-Aryan, Dravidian, and Harappan cultures.  Why?  Well, I don’t know why, unless the book can be more accurately characterized as a series of essays as opposed to a unified work.  Needless to say, I don’t think this arrangement will help anyone.

Finally, my chronic complaint about scholars rears its ugly head once again—the difference between textual insights and insights born of practice.  I’ll limit my critique of Eliade to his discussion of Buddhism, as that is what most people reading this blog are here for anyway.

The relevant chapter is “Yoga Techniques in Buddhism.”  The very first sentence caught me by surprise: “During his period of study and asceticism, Shakyamuni had come to know both the doctrines of Samkhya and the practices of Yoga” (p. 162).  I scrawled a question mark next to this, but here I’ll be more decisive: To the best of my knowledge, there is no indication of an acquaintance with Samkhya philosophy in the Buddha’s teachings.  Note I’m not saying he didn’t encounter it, or argue with proponents of like-minded philosophies, only that to specifically associate the Buddha with Samkhya seems to me to go too far.

However, the passage that sets the tone for Eliade’s discussion of Buddhism is undoubtedly found on page 163.  There he writes:

If [the Buddha] took over the pitiless analysis to which preclassic Samkyha and Yoga submitted the notion of “person” and of psychomental life, it was because the “Self” had nothing to do with that illusory entity, the human “soul.”  But the Buddha went even further than Samkhya and Yoga, for he declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or an atman.  Indeed, he denied the possibility of having an even approximate experience of the true Self, so long as man was not “awakened.”  The Buddha likewise rejected the conclusions of Upanishadic speculation—the postulate of a brahman, a pure, absolute, immortal, eternal spirit identical with the atman—but he did so because this dogma might satisfy the intellect and thus prevent man from awakening (p. 163).

Oh, how I could wax poetic on the misunderstandings embodied in this passage!

Let us say first that there is no indication the Buddha’s analysis of consciousness owed anything to yoga as Eliade would define it.  In fact, it was on account of his rejection of the yoga of his teachers that he ultimately struck out on his own and thereby became the most renowned—and revered—heterodox teacher in India’s long history.  More importantly, he “declined to postulate the existence of a purusha or atman” not because such dogmatic concepts might interfere with the process of awakening to the Self, but because when one sees with fully clarified and unobstructed vision (vipassana), such things are not to be found.  Sabbe dhamma anatta.

Perhaps we can blame Eliade’s suspicion that the Buddha never denied the Self on his teachers, or maybe we can blame it on the pernicious tendency of human beings to cling to notions of identity and permanence.  Either way, it is simply one more cautionary note to carry into this important and worthy book.  It is also a reminder of how difficult the Dhamma really is, how “against the stream.”

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

 

Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.  Schocken Books 1966/1994, 544 pages.

As they say of Porsches: “There is no substitute.”  Legal notices aside, every yogi on the planet could say the same for this book.  And for once in a blue moon a sensational blurb on a cover–“The Bible of Modern Yoga,” in this case–is truer than true.  If you own only one book on yoga, let this be the one.

It begins with an introduction “from the inside,” so to speak.  As has been made plain by some of my previous reviews, the background of the writer is as important as the extent of the writer’s knowledge.  Iyengar has it all.  He is Hindu born and a lifelong yoga devotee.  He studied with Krishnamacharya, widely acknowledged as the twentieth century’s greatest yoga teacher.  The view of yoga Iyengar offers in his 34 page introduction is a traditional and decidedly idealized view–that is, of yoga as a path to self-mastery and liberation.  He quotes frequently from the Hindu scriptures and freely tosses Sanskrit terminology around.  If you’re one of those who wouldn’t know adho mukha svanasana from a rare tropical disease, this may be off-putting, but if you’re serious about your yoga, you’d better get used to it.

Part II, “Yogasanas, Bandha and Kriya,” constitutes the majority of the book and is the reason why most will buy it.  Iyengar covers several hundred asanas, supplying general advice for practice as well as detailed instructions for each pose.  Every asana is accompanied by clear photos of Iyengar demonstrating the asana under discussion.  The sheer quantity of asanas is unparalleled–if there is another yoga book with this many or more asanas, I’ve yet to find it.  But it’s not just that: Iyengar’s explanations, his advice, and his illuminating notes on what the asanas actually do to the body and mind–advice obviously born from extensive experience and teaching–is also without equal.  All yoga books have some of what Light on Yoga has; none have such a complete package of quantity and quality.

Iyengar also includes a brief but illuminating section on pranayama.  However, those who wish to understand breath control in-depth are advised to consult his other masterpiece, Light on Pranayama.  I’ve not yet explored that one, but it is on my list.

If the book ended there, it would still be an unprecedented contribution to the literature of yoga.  But Iyengar goes the extra mile with two further sections: one, a complete five-year course in asanas and pranayama, graduated from rank beginner to expert level; two, a section discussing exercises for the treatment of specific ailments.  Again, most yoga books worth their salt include courses at the end; one I’ve reviewed already (Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann) is quite excellent in this regard.  But I’ve never seen anything close to what Iyengar does here.  This is why I came to the conclusion that at least for the time being, Light on Yoga is the only yoga book I need.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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