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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

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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

A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield.  Bantam Books 1993.  366 pages.

I can sincerely say this is an excellent book but that it is not the correct book for me at this time.   Books tend to be time sensitive documents, meaning if you read one at the “right” time, it can light fireworks under your butt, while if you had read the same book at an earlier or later time of your life, you might toss it aside and pick up instead the latest copy of Time (pun intended).  My experience with what is probably Kornfield’s most widely read book is somewhere in between, but again, this may be on account of personality or timing.  Anyway, having read the book and announced this caveat, I’ll plunge in to my review.

First let’s nail down what the book is about, because it’s not immediately clear by looking at the table of contents.  The title comes from an oft-quoted passage from Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge:

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart.  There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.  And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly…

The spiritual life is not just a path, but a forest, with infinite numbers of highways and byways and small trails, and if you’re not careful, or don’t have a good guide, it is easy to end up at a dead-end or some bad place you never intended.  This book is meant as a guide or map to this terrain.

Its range is necessarily vast, covering everything from the important questions of one’s life (“Did I love well?”) to making peace with oneself (“dealing with our stuff” as Daniel Ingram would say), and initial attempts to train the wayward mind (the “puppy” as Kornfield puts it).  Salient topics such as the stages of insight and the perennial debate of True Self versus No-Self are considered from Kornfield’s typically ecumenical and gracious standpoint.  The particular issues of Westerners dealing with abuse, codependence, and self-loathing are tackled, and the positive role psychotherapy can play in unwinding these issues is also discussed.  Karma is defined and the necessary role of compassionate, helpful work as “meditation-in-action” advocated. 

Kornfield is one of the godfathers of the American meditation scene, and his vast experience, sensitive expression and insight are abundantly on display.  It is not surprising then that while I would heartily recommend it as an introduction or preliminary text to one’s sadhana, it also bears reviewing at later stages of development.  In other words, this is neither a book for beginners, intermediates, or advanced students of the Way; it’s for everyone, since everyone at all times is running into at least one or two issues discussed in the book.

Quality-wise Kornfield’s insights, suggestions and clarifications are impeccable.  He is a very human and down-to-earth guide, one who sees beyond the starry-eyed ideals of perfection many traditions advocate (cf. Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha for more on this), and while the Theravada is his “home base” so to speak, his vision is all-embracing as regards the varieties of approaches one can take to the contemplative path.  I would recommend this book even to dyed-in-the-wool Christians—maybe an evangelical or two… (but maybe not)—without hesitation.  I don’t see how it could fail to inform or advise someone, regardless of where they are.  In the end, sincerity and a desire to learn are what count.

Despite all these good points, I found myself constantly irritated by Kornfield’s writing.  It is, to say the least, a little on the saccharine side; nay, sometimes it went down like seven packs of Splenda in my coffee.  There’s a little too much “wisdom and compassion,” “heart,” and “joy,” “being” and Buddha-nature here, and in Kornfield’s world everyone is a “master”: a Zen Master (with both words capitalized no less, like it’s a job title or something), a meditation master, a spiritual master, or just plain master.  I’m sorry, but not everyone can be a master.  If you’ve been on retreat for ten or more years or you’re a natural-born genius, you might qualify, but these sorts are rare; the word is overused.  (Besides, I don’t want a master; I want a teacher or guide or good friend, but I digress…)  To make a long story short: Kornfield is heavy on the “fufu jargon,” and for a spiritual curmudgeon like me it just doesn’t fly.

This kind of writing is unabashedly “popular,” politically correct, and “nice.”  The above is symptomatic of this, but his willingness to water down passages quoted from other (especially traditional) sources, to massage them into accordance with his way of presentation, also points to this tendency.  (Not to mention irritates the hell out of me!)  I groaned at one point (page 74) where, when quoting don Juan (from Castaneda) Kornfield felt it necessary to stick the word “spiritual” in front of the word “warrior,” as if without we might all think he was advocating something he clearly wasn’t.  Two pages later an even worse example of this sort of heavy-handed editorializing reared its ugly head.  In Kornfield’s words, the Buddha said:

Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom (76). 

The source is Udana 5:6, where in the original Pali it says “Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too this Dhamma and Discipline have one taste: the taste of freedom.”  Clearly, the Buddha was describing his teaching, not anyone else’s, but Kornfield, liking the passage, “adjusted” it to fit his message.  I think you can see why this sort of thing, indulged in on a regular basis, would rub some people the wrong way.

So, the brilliant and witty, the philosophically profound and the airy-fairy—it’s all here and much more.  I will leave you with some sage advice on this book from Daniel Ingram, who called A Path With Heart a “masterwork”:

Only major problem is that is it so nicely written and gentle you might not realize how hard hitting it is. Assume it is very hard hitting and technical despite its friendly tone and you will get more out of it.            

 My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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

 

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