theory into practice
Georg Feuerstein is passionate about the yoga tradition, which he calls “…a spiritual wealth too valuable to discard.” Building a bridge to that spiritual wealth is what his life’s work is all about. In 1997, he and his wife, Tricia Feuerstein, founded the Yoga Research and Education Center (YREC), which has just moved to a large acreage north of Santa Rosa, California. He’s also written many books on the subject, including a new one: The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice, published by Shambhala. Reading it, one cannot help but be amazed by the awesome spectrum of yoga philosophy and practices available to us. But even so, the questions remain: Are these ancient traditions of yoga relevant to us today? And if they are, how do we find the real thing?
A researcher who loves his subject, Georg is often dismayed by what passes for yoga in the marketplace, and he cites the example of the Tantra tradition, which has been identified in the West as the yoga of sex. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “From the outset, Tantra understood itself as a ‘new-age’ teaching intended for the kali-yuga, the dark age of moral and spiritual decline.” He goes on to say that “…Tantra offered new rituals, and gave philosophical ideas a new look and feel.” He’s describing a revolution in spiritual teaching that reached its peak a thousand years ago, but he could just as easily be describing what is happening in yoga today.
It is estimated that over 30 million people in the West regularly practise yoga as part of their daily routine. Inevitably, we are redefining yoga in our own terms, though the resulting practices sometimes seem far removed from their original intent. So where do the traditional teachings of yoga come in? Is tradition standing in the way of a “new” spiritual revolution? I put these questions to Georg in a recent conversation, and I came away from our talk inspired and hopeful about the future of yoga. –SWG
Swami Gopalananda In the preface of your new book, you describe yourself as one who has for over thirty years been a champion of traditional yoga. What do you mean by traditional yoga?
Georg Feuerstein Authentic yoga, as it has been taught in India. A spiritual tradition rather than what we have here in the West, which is a watered-down version of what people consider yoga.
SWG How was yoga traditionally taught?
GF Well, being an esoteric tradition, yoga has always been transmitted by word of mouth and through initiation by a qualified teacher. I don’t want to denigrate Western efforts, spiritual efforts in the field of yoga – but in the West we have many so-called lineages that are secondary. In other words, some fifty years ago somebody read a book on yoga or went to a lecture by a yogi, started their own yoga practice, and then started initiating or communicating yoga to others. To me, that’s not really authentic. I think very few Westerners are qualified to communicate yoga, first because they did not receive it from a qualified, authentic teacher. Second, because in this part of the world we by and large ignore the great merit of studying the thing that we teach. So, we make it up as we go along. But study has always been a central part of the yogic tradition.
SWG How do we build a bridge from the traditional roots of yoga to what is happening today, where millions of people are practising yoga, and yoga studios are popping up everywhere?
GF This is exactly what I have been trying to do by introducing these deeper aspects of yoga through the medium of study. By studying, people at least know what yoga is and hopefully get intrigued enough to go out and look for teachers who can convey authentic yoga to them.
There is an external side to yoga and an internal side. The internal side is what’s largely missing. So we have a lot of technique, especially in Hatha Yoga. But we don’t have very much internal communication, which is the essence of yoga, which is given in the process of transmission from teacher to disciple. So we consider ourselves students of yoga, very much in the Western model of a student and not necessarily as a disciple, a disciple who takes on the discipline given by the teacher.
SWG When you refer to the internal yoga as the “essence of yoga,” can you tell me what it is you’re describing?
GF Let’s take asana practice, for example. A teacher can show you how to do savasana. In other words, lie on your back and relax. But the inner experience is what makes it a yogic practice. Very few people, and I have observed many students, know what this inner process is unless they have had instruction by a qualified teacher. And the great mystery of yoga, of course, is this transmission. It’s always amazing to me how a person who hasn’t had that kind of exposure to the inner side, the transmission side of yoga, can actually go out there and teach meditation, for example. It doesn’t work. And so we find after years and years that people finally admit, well, it’s not working for them. They’re sitting there and watching themselves think, and they’re bored, and they give up.
SWG You said earlier that our Western idea of study is very different from the study you are talking about here.
GF Right. In yoga, it is called svadhyaya, which means literally “one’s own (sva) going into (adhyaya).” So it’s “one’s own going into something,” or we can have a second interpretation, which is “one’s going into oneself.” And study in the yogic sense involves both. It is studying a subject in a meditative way where we kind of wrap ourselves around it. And at the same time we are aware of our own process, the study of ourselves, which is missing in the Western education system.
SWG You are saying that we have a situation where there are very few qualified or authentic teachers, which leaves us wondering, How do we find what you’re talking about? What is the way?
GF Well, in my case I went to a teacher.
SWG How did you know the teacher was authentic?
GF That’s the great mystery. I think it’s a matter of how desperate you are for Light. And you go for that; you look for it. When I was in my late teens I found a teacher. He was Indian and had his school in Germany at the time. I saw his picture in a health food store, and I knew this was the teacher I would be studying with.
From then on, it was always a play between receiving teachings from qualified teachers, and then internalizing all of that, processing it and integrating it through my continued practice and study of the texts. In studying these texts, you encounter a wisdom, a quality of mind and heart, that can strike you and make a difference in your own feeling and thinking. For myself, there isn’t a day when I don’t pick up some text and be inspired by it. It’s always a signal for the mind. Once the ground has been prepared, it doesn’t take very much to go back on track if we stray from our understanding of the process and the awareness that it cultivates.
SWG And preparation of the ground means what?
GF Preparation of the ground means that we are always ready to examine ourselves, and to remember whatever teachings we have been given by a teacher. Now many people, of course, don’t have access to a teacher. Often I’m asked, you know, How can I find my guru? And I always have to laugh because my experience has been the guru really finds you. And that you simply prepare, prepare, prepare for that eventuality. And even if it never happens, the effort you have made, as the Bhagavad Gita reminds us, is never wasted. Whatever effort we make to grow inwardly, whatever effort we make to increase our understanding and cultivate the virtues that yoga tells us are desirable virtues – such as non-harming, non-stealing and truthfulness – whatever effort we make to cultivate those, all of it will sit within us and it’s the only thing we are going to take when we leave this Earth.
The teaching is the primary vehicle by which we learn. Even if we go to a teacher, we need to have our focus on that. If we are fortunate enough to have a teacher who strikes us so deeply at the level of the heart and beyond that we can make this required gesture, in the traditional sense of yoga, of self-surrender, then we must do that. And the benefits of surrender have been demonstrated throughout the ages in the yoga tradition. People wake up.
SWG What does it mean to “wake up”?
GF Waking up simply means that we get in touch with who we are beyond the body-mind, and that this great wisdom that the teachers manifest is going to manifest in us as well. My process has always been a very gradual one. There’s so much we can do and learn prior to all these elevated states of mind and transmission and what-not. Really, it is up to us to realize that we are in a fix. In traditional terms, we are suffering. So how can we get out of the suffering? We have to do something about it, and that’s where the traditions come in, where the teachings of sages can tell us something.
SWG There are many great myths associated with the ancient tradition of yoga. What relevance do they have to us in the West today?
GF There are some people who respond to symbols and metaphors and images more than others, and then there are those who have an obstacle perhaps to Eastern or, specifically, to Indian symbolism. My own sense is that unless we are sensitive to symbols it is very difficult for us to relate to any spiritual teaching. Part of our psyche has to be activated. It’s the softer side of our mind. It’s like we have to become artists in the process of our inner growth. In fact, as we grow, that side of the mind becomes more prominent. We see things differently. We enjoy the fact that there are images and symbols that trigger in us this deep process of transformation.
SWG You’re talking here about a part of the mind that is not so rooted in the reasoning or intellect, but in the intuitions and feelings.
GF Yes, the creative part of the mind. The imagination. We all access that part of the mind, of course, in our dreams, but the fact that we don’t value our dreams and those images is an expression of our disinterest in that aspect of the mind altogether. So in yoga, the interest is activated. Part of the yogic process is that we become sensitized to our hidden nature, or the subtle body or subtle realms. We touch them in our dreams, but we must also touch them in our waking state.
SWG There’s a kind of irony in this. It seems you’re describing a side of mind that is more feminine or receptive in nature. But in the tradition of yoga, and it seems to be happening in the West, too, the “name” teachers, so to speak, are usually male and the tradition is largely defined by men. Where is the feminine side in the Teachings and why is that not coming forward in the teachers who are defining yoga in the West today?
GF Well, the way I would look at this is that the yoga tradition has survived largely through its literature. That literature was authored by men. But that gives us only one side of the picture of the history of yoga. My belief is, and I have no proof of it, but my belief is that yoga was taught just as much by women. In fact, we have an inkling of that in the Tantric tradition, that the early teachers were women, not men. And the only difference is that men have always wanted to rationalize everything, and so they were the ones who wrote the books. Women tended to do their teaching in a quiet, hidden way, and it’s only some of them who wrote or whose teachings were written down by students that we know of. In Tantra more than any other tradition, the feminine side is given great attention through the concept of Shakti, goddess power.
You talked of irony. To me, the irony today is that we have so many male teachers, but the body of students is about 75 percent women. So my hope for the future of yoga rests with them! I think as more women become involved in the transmission of yogic teachings, we will see a different quality, and it will be the kind of quality that is very much integral to authentic yoga. You know, where do we get this interest in virtues? It’s the feminine principle of the psyche. Men, I think because of their biological constitution and the kind of social experience they’ve had in recent history, tend to emphasize other values, such as competition. And that is a quality that is not found in traditional yoga. So we are at a difficult time. On the one hand, we have received all these teachings, and on the other perhaps we are not quite ready to practise them as they should be practised.
SWG When you look at the mythology of yoga, can you see the seeds of the way yoga should be practised in the future?
GF Yes. Tantra, to me, especially in its formulation of Kashmiri Shaivism and Mantrayana Buddhism, is a practice, a yogic tradition that has a lot to teach us. Tantra is the most sophisticated formulation of yoga, and I think it teaches us that integration must happen at all levels. Tantra was based on a complete re-evaluation of embodiment – the human body – and even the social system. Many of the Tantric teachers completely supported the notion that the female gender has the same, equivalent value to the male embodiment. And, in fact, many of them even placed it higher, because it is a transformative embodiment. And, if we allow the images of Tantra to impact on us, they can communicate something very profound about the spiritual dimension.
SWG Can you give me an example of what you mean?
GF One of the things that many students have a hard time with are the fierce deities, as in Buddhism – the protective deities like Mahakala, surrounded by a ring of flames and looking really fierce. Now if your reaction is so strong that you don’t inquire into the meaning of this image, you have lost out. If you made enough room in your mind to accommodate something unusual, something different, then you can learn from it. So an image like that when we are open to it can really teach us about the fierceness of life, the “bloody tooth” of nature. Often we don’t want to know about that, and so our society ignores or wants to shove aside death, sickness, all these things. But they are with us, they are part of life, whether it looks bad or it looks good, it doesn’t matter.
SWG You’re saying that when we look at an image like Mahakala, we’re really looking at a reflection of our own mind?
GF Absolutely. For me, all yogic myths are about our own mind. You know, the yogis had no interest in just telling stories. They told stories because people in those days worked more with the imaginary, intuitive part of the mind, and what they wanted was to leave a deep impression on their listeners in terms of the unconscious imagery. And all of them, when you look at these stories, all of them are about transformation of a bad situation into a good one. They all start out with a mind that is confused, that is suffering, and the yogic teachings in various ways have to hit us very hard to motivate us to overcome our restrictions, our limitations. So, for example, an image like Durga killing demons is really us, our Higher Mind, say that courageous part in us, confronting these limitations. One limitation may be that we dislike authority as a matter of principle. So the limitation implies that we won’t listen. If we can find images to which we can relate, then we might see the joke. We might see that we are actually excluding ourselves from a whole wonderful stream of life.
SWG We come now to the essence of all yogic teachings, which is accepting and integrating all parts of ourselves. How do people confront those reflections of themselves and accept that, yes, that is part of me too?
GF People need to understand the job that is confronting them in yoga. It is to be present as Consciousness. Consciousness itself has no fear. It also has no one-sided attraction to anything. It simply is. When we remember that part of our nature, and do so as often as we can and perhaps one day continuously, life is joyful even when the bad presents itself. In part, we understand life as a play, which in Sanskrit is called the lila of the Divine, the sport of the Divine. And we find that what we overcome as our fears can become available as energy to do something constructive. Say you fall ill. Now instead of worrying about it and fearing all kinds of consequences – the imagination takes over and it is a negative, constricting type of response that suppresses our natural joy and energy – instead of going into that, we laugh and in the open space see the real humour of our activity. Immediately, there is energy for the healing process. We can be constructive. Or we have a relationship that is difficult, say a person who is always bothering us in some way. Instead of fixating on the bother, we see that this person is a signal to us to overcome some negative emotional pattern. And in that way, we start realizing that this person is our greatest teacher. The Buddhists say your greatest enemy is your most wonderful teacher. Why? Because if we can see that, we liberate our own energy for the process of living.
SWG Do you have a personal experience of liberation or dynamic transformation?
GF After my first teacher, there were many years that I went out on my own, and tried to do this thing of self-transformation. I had also, for many years, been shepherded in my spiritual process by a Sufi master, Irina Tweedie, even though I had no real interest in Sufism. But she was very kind and took care of me. I was with her for fifteen years and would quite often go to her little apartment in London and just sit and chat. She was a truly great Sufi master. One day I went to her and said, “I have to ask you a rather silly question. We have been together so long. Are you my teacher?” And she literally fell over on her bed laughing. I said, “What is going on?!” She composed herself, and said to me, “Georg, you would never accept a woman as a teacher!” I remember being very upset with her! I said, “How can you say that?” But she insisted. Then, after a little bit, she added, “Your teacher is just around the corner. Don’t worry.”
And then, very shortly after that, everything unfolded rapidly, and indeed I ended up with a teacher. I habitually distrusted authority, and he was a very radical figure, whose teachings to me were very profound and challenged me in my self-woven nest of security. And I thought to myself, if I ever really want to get out of the corner that I have painted myself into, I need to make a gesture here. And it took a lot to do that because he was an overwhelming kind of authority. When I first saw him, I thought, Oh my God, What have I done? But something in me knew that I needed to go through that lesson and find the middle way between being receptive and not being slavishly clinging to authority, which doesn’t work.
You see, yoga has universal principles involved. But it is for every person a unique process. We must encounter these universal principles of yoga and make them our own, and we can do that only through our own personality, our own system of symbols, and so on. So whatever we encounter in yoga must be translated into our own terms or it won’t work.
SWG So when you encountered this teacher in a male form, it could be said that this teacher was Durga in action.
GF Yes…oh yes! He was completely Durga. Being with him was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. And yet it was the one thing that benefited me the most. But still I had to learn to walk my walk. The teachings I received and the direct demands made on me to change, really I’m – even after all these years – I’m more grateful now for how he taught me, how he served me.
SWG It wouldn’t be accurate to say that you’re a traditionalist for tradition’s sake, but more that you feel tradition has a place in our lives today.
GF Exactly. I’m a rebel by nature. As I said, I have a hard time with authority, a very hard time. But I can see the benefit of the wisdom of these masters. You know, their whole lives were dedicated to self-transformation, so what they came up with is worth listening to. And that is all I would hope people will do: take the time to listen. But, you know, if we don’t have that capacity, we reject such a heritage of wisdom, 5000 years and more, perhaps. Why would we throw that away? Wisdom is not something you can discard. And we have so little wisdom today. Our society does not hand down wisdom; it hands down chaos. Our education system is not designed to liberate us; it’s not designed to put us in touch with our inner happiness. On the contrary, there is no wisdom in it. That is why we need to listen to the traditional teachings.
SWG Do you think we’re in the throes of creating a new yogic tradition in the West, which at the moment is a little tumultuous and confusing?
GF I think that is the best-case scenario, and I like to think of it that way. Jung, very perceptive man that he was, said that as the West is conquering the East through its technology, the East is conquering the West through its spiritual teachings. This is a remarkable perception, and I think it is a correct one. People sometimes ask me if I think it’s possible that the yoga movement could die out in the West, but after a hundred years it seems unlikely. Increasingly, there is this wonderful flow between cultures and traditions. We are becoming one world, and the yogic heritage, the spiritual heritage will not only be part of it, but will play a very important role. There will be an emphasis on integration rather than specialization. And I believe also that future yoga will be a yoga that will be socially and politically engaged because that’s part of our existence. We cannot deny that, and if we do, it will be equivalent to denying that we have a body.
SWG What I hear you saying is that in the yoga of today as it emerges into the West, we have the seeds for a radical transformation of how we live our lives together.
GF This is exactly my argument. How that will play out remains to be seen. In what I call the verticalist schools of yoga, the schools that are into world-negation and fleeing into the forest and so on, the world is played down along with the body, along with social action. This is no longer viable. It was never viable. I think that there are very rare individuals who can and should complete their inner process, their yogic process, away from everyone and everything. But they are very rare. It’s like one in a billion, maybe! All of us are essentially householder yogins and yoginis, and we have to acknowledge that. We are involved in the world and we have not purified our karmic baggage to the point where we could happily, meaningfully, withdraw from everything. The work we need to do is not an inner separation from anyone and anything, but simply a physical separation – the space to do the work that needs to be done spiritually. Our job will be much more how to integrate all the different aspects and levels of our being, how to live in the world in a spiritual way. In yogic terms, we must learn more and more to be in touch with and to become who we are as Consciousness, and yet not forsake the other dimension of existence, which is in fact embodiment.
Swami Gopalananda is a long-term disciple of the late Swami Sivananda Radha. He was initiated into Sanyas in 1991, and is today one of the managing directors of Yasodhara Ashram, in British Columbia. Swami Gopalananda has been immersed in the tradition of Kundalini Yoga for over 20 years. He is the author of Can You Listen to a Woman, a memoir of his experiences with Swami Radha.