two books
by Georg Feuerstein & Brenda Feuerstein
Hohm Press/Traditional Yoga Studies

Yoga Morality: Ancient Teachings at a Time of Global Crisis
Hohm Press 2007

Green Yoga
Traditional Yoga Studies 2007

As the effects of climate change and other ecological damage become more established and irrefutable, how can the ancient principles of yoga guide us to be global citizens in a time of impending crisis? Georg Feuerstein, a foremost Western scholar of traditional yoga texts and author of over 30 books, is eminently qualified to consider this question. His two most recent books explore how the ancient tradition can inform present action.

The discussion of moral issues usually involves a walk along a fine line between holding up an ideal standard and judging harshly those who fall short. In these books, Feuerstein offers a sweeping overview of the spiritual and moral fibres of the ancient yoga traditions. Unfortunately, his critical tone and alarmist language undermined my experience of the wealth of knowledge he offers.

Feuerstein encompasses the Jainist, Buddhist and Hindu traditions, an inclusive approach to the three main branches of yoga’s cultural development in the East that is both informative and refreshing. Both books are also packed with direct references to various texts, providing first-hand access to ideas and principles that are often only interpreted vaguely, or, according to Feuerstein, simply left out by many yoga teachers in the West.

To this end, he devotes entire chapters to the yamas, arguing that these principles must guide all yogis and yoginis in their achievement of moral maturity. The niyamas, by comparison, are only touched upon, though I found the discussion of these principles of self-care to be very well executed, as was the closing chapter on “miscellaneous yoga virtues.” In it, the author discusses patience, gratitude and tolerance, among other ancient and seldom-explained principles.

Yoga Morality and Green Yoga are in many ways companion volumes, with the former laying the academic and philosophical foundation for the arguments forcefully presented in the latter.

Green Yoga asserts the application of yoga virtues such as non-harming and “greedlessness” to the treatment of the Earth. Long a critic of Western culture’s interpretations of yoga simply as a form of exercise, the author has expanded his critique to include the lifestyles of most inhabitants in the English-speaking world, in this scathing rebuke of overfishing, pollution, deforestation, consumption of meat, materialism, reliance on the automobile, and holidays that involve cruise ships or airplanes, to name a few.

Again, the author’s impressive men-
tal powers provide a reading experience packed with information, this time the facts and figures of environmental devastation. The litany of statistics is intended to stir the reader to change wasteful or harmful lifestyle choices. Feuerstein’s frustrations with the current state of the Earth are obvious. He wants and believes in fundamental change.

It is perhaps the author’s frustration with what he sees as humanity’s as yet limited response to the global crisis that fuels the judgemental and alarmist tone found in the pages of Green Yoga and Yoga Morality. These books felt, in the end, more like a lecture from a stern father than a wise and inspiring call to more mindful behaviour.

— Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

back to top

The Bible: A Biography
by Karen Armstrong
Douglas & McIntyre 2007

While I was reading Karen Armstrong’s latest book, The Bible: A Biography, I kept having vivid memories of my granny sitting every day with her Bible, reading and telling me stories about the people in the book as if she knew them all personally. That was her way of study and it gave her faith in the ongoingness of life. We all want to know why we are here, where we came from and who we are.

The words of the Bible have been a spiritual guide for many people. “Language plays an important part of our quest,” Armstrong writes. Language helps us formulate the questions to what life is all about. It starts our search — the words ripple out and they also go deep within to discover the potential we hold. At times in the search there are glimpses of what is behind the veils of experiences that are hard to put into words. At other times language takes us right into the middle of important issues and relationships.

Karen Armstrong has gathered the history of the most popular and complex book in the world. She describes the Bible’s development from its birth in the spoken word, through to the written word, to the book we know today and its many translations and interpretations. She shows us how people have borrowed stories over time and how traditions have built on each other. In that way, the Bible becomes a fascinating tale of our interconnections. Armstrong emphasizes the importance of language, an underlying message of compassion, and the practice of interpreting the text to keep the Bible relevant and alive.

“The Bible remained holy because people were continually discovering fresh ways to interpret it,” says Armstrong. People were encouraged to understand the Bible by using their intuition and effort to interpret verses into their own words and thoughts. One version of the Bible was printed with space on each page so the students could add their own commentary “because without it the line of tradition would come to an end.” Armstrong gives many examples of ways in which people interpreted the Bible to reflect their unique circumstances and find their own meaning. Some of the interpretations could be very surprising and different, because it is human nature to want to make sense.

Since its conception, people have also unfortunately used the Bible to justify their violent actions and prejudice, as well as limiting their study to literal interpretations. Armstrong suggests that interpreting the Bible based on the principle of charity is a spiritual discipline deeply needed in our torn and fragmented world. In fact, the great sages of the past “insisted that charity and loving kindness were essential to biblical interpretation.”

There have always been pathways to lead people to a more enlightened life. The Bible: A Biography gives an overview of the complexity and history of this document in a very clear way. I highly recommend this book. Armstrong’s re-
search brings an overview that opens to the message of compassion, charity and wholeness. We need to see what we have lost in the past and bring it forward into our lives today in whatever denomination or spiritual tradition we practise.

— Swami Radhananda

back to top

The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader
edited by Darren Wershler-Henry & Lori Emerson
Coach House 2007

n the English language, the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet serve as the basis of words, speech and, ultimately, all of our verbal communication. To bpNichol, they were an endless source of fascination, allowing him to explore the shape and form of language. According to poet and critic Karl Young, Nichol used letters as “elemental matter, almost without history.” He spent his lifetime trying to understand the nature and construction of letters, finding the patterns and shapes within.

The Alphabet Game (named after Nichol’s 1972 sound poem, in which he recites the alphabet and sings incantations in an almost childlike, nursery rhyme voice) is a broad overview of bpNichol’s substantial poetic output. The book is organized into sections containing concrete and visual poetry, shorter poems and sequences, and prose and prose poetry.

bpNichol is one of Canada’s most influential and innovative experimental poets. He started his career in the early 1960s with concrete poetry (poems which are words arranged into shapes on the page) and hand-produced mimeographed pamphlets. Until his untimely death in 1988, at the age of forty-four, he was remarkably prolific, producing poetry, novels, short fiction, children’s books, and collage/assemblage. In 1970, he won the Governor General’s award for poetry with four different books, and he has had a lasting impact on a generation of writers.

Nichol’s poetry has also had a profound influence on my own approach to writing. I first discovered his work when I was a university student, and I responded to his series of autobiographical poems, Selected Organs, with my own interpretation of my relationship to the parts of the body. It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Nichol’s work, and when I first laid my hands on this reader, I was drawn to the series that had such an impression on me as a twenty-year-old aspiring writer.

I was surprised to find not only the original and playful language that I remembered, but also an almost divine insight into the nature of existence. “We learn to see with the third eye, to listen with the third ear, to touch the unknown with the third hand, to walk down dark streets in search of the hidden, the unseen,” he says in “Sum of the Parts,” which acts as a conclusion to the series.

In the same way that Nichol has a whimsically divine approach to poetry and language, this volume also playfully refers to itself and Nichol’s work. The book opens with a prologue, Nichol’s 1969 poem, “The Complete Works.” The text of the poem is a list of all the keys on a typewriter and a footnote: “any possible permutation of all listed elements.” This prologue acknowledges that this anthology is in no way Nichol’s complete works, while also noting that the letters themselves contain everything.

The Alphabet Game represents only Nichol’s printed work, not his sound or oral poetry, nor his dozens of handmade books and pamphlets. An accompanying website,, provides scanned reproduction of these texts, as well as sound files and photographs of his performances.

— Roseanne Harvey

back to top

The City of Words
by Alberto Manguel
House of Anansi 2007

Ardent readers and listeners of CBC, which recorded and broadcast the Massey Lectures, already know the appeal of Alberto Manguel’s writing style, especially as heard in his mellifluous voice. But apart from Manguel’s contribution to the annual lecture series devoted to new ways of thinking about society, he is well known for his books, A History of Reading and The Library at Night.

At the heart of Manguel’s lectures, published by Anansi as The City of Words, is the role of stories in society. Stories, says Manguel, “are our way of recording our experience of the world, of ourselves, and of others.”

This is a rich template for what Manguel does best: meander through literature at a pace that only the truly well-read might attempt. He culls insight after insight from the vastness of his reading, from Beowulf to Jack London, from Greek mythology to contemporary Irish literature, contemplating from all different angles how society has, for instance, dwelt upon the problem of “barbarians” and the distinction between society’s “us” and “them.” It’s undeniably fascinating stuff.

However, he fails to contextualize or even expound upon these literary anecdotes in a manner that, to the less-well-read observer, would distinguish his style from elitist erudition. For the well-read reader, the effect is merely disorienting.

The problem, I realized as I reread my favourite of the lectures, “The Screen of Hal,” lies in the distinction Manguel makes between “true stories” in literary language and “inauthentic stories” in the language of advertising. The former are “ambiguous, open, complex, infinitely capable of enrichment” whereas the latter are “short, categorical, imperious, final.”

Manguel forms his critique of contemporary storytelling around this distinction: today, stories are expected to serve market forces rather than socially critical purposes. This final chapter contains a stellar argument against mass-produced and capitalist-minded creativity, and it warms the heart of anyone working for art’s higher purposes.

But it also seems to justify Manguel’s difficult and open-ended organization: he wants to create literature with myriad potential meanings and implications. This is the sort of literature, according to Manguel, that can best break down the distinctions between society’s “us” and “them,” thereby revealing our common humanity. Manguel’s excessively erudite style, however, all but obscures this insight: exactly the opposite effect he’s trying for.

What does this mean for the reader? It means that Manguel, as he confesses he would in the introduction, deliberately raises a lot more questions than he answers. This ambition ultimately risks frustrating the reader rather than enlightening her. And, frankly, it’s fair to ask that he make more of an effort to share the wisdom he’s gleaned from stories, rather than overwhelming us with the fact that he’s read so much.

— Jay Smith

back to top

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life