“Stripping the Sacred” – Brenda Feuerstein


“Teach people, not poses.” — Gary Kraftsow (paraphrased)

“Yoga contains asana, pranayama, meditation.
Anything else is acrobatics.”
(TKV Desikachar, from a long ago intensive in India)

Many of you know Brenda Feuerstein.  She was married to eminent Yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012) and they collaborated on a wealth of books and trainings in traditional Yoga.   Brenda carries on their work in Traditional Yoga Studies where she does distance learning courses and has a Philosophy/History Training Manual for teaching that segment of 200- to 500-hour Yoga teacher training programs.  It can be purchased here.

Recently on her Facebook page she posted this note that generated many comments.  I believe her words should reach a larger audience beyond Facebook so Brenda gave me permission to post it here.

Of course I agree wholeheartedly.  One of my students who has studied with me for 7+ years is moving out of state and she said:  “This is a great post, I love it and it is so true. I am sure this is exactly what I will be facing once I move and attempt to find a studio/teacher that provide real yoga as it was intended.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

Stripping the Sacred
*Warning – you might not want to hear this*

I started learning Yoga when I was very small from a book my Mom had purchased. Richard Hittleman was the author and I suspect there was no other book on Yoga at the pharmacy where my Mom would have been shopping at the time. She was probably intrigued having read something in Reader’s Digest or possibly heard the word on one of the two TV channels that were available to us.

A little later a TV show started featuring German born Yoga teacher Kareen H. Zebroff. My Mom and I would “do” Yoga with her once a week. We had no sticky Yoga mat, no meditation cushion, no clothing that set us apart from anyone else, and no studio to support our practice after the show. We sat on the cold farmhouse floor and didn’t wonder if we should look into stickier mats and travel mats. My Mom and I just practiced and I felt a “specialness” that I wouldn’t fully understand until years later.

In my teens, I ended up in a small town where I saw a hand written poster of a Yoga class being held at the school gym. Nothing was said about getting my cakras cleared, my core muscles being strengthened, and no mention of the Yoga Alliance. It was straightforward just like her class. There was no music, no props, nothing to sit on but the floor, and most people didn’t even have an exercise mat. People wore sweat pants and t-shirts and a sweatshirt if it was a cold evening. She introduced herself as having studied at the Sivananada ashram and most people had no idea what that meant but most recognized the feeling of “specialness” in her heart. It was quiet and no one was showing how they could do a headstand before class. The class was straight forward. When she spoke it wasn’t in hard-to-understand anatomical terms, but she did use Sanskrit throughout the class. I suspect that is the way she was taught. She spoke gently and sweetly about her teacher and I’d often see her in tears which I knew meant something very “special”. Her class was challenging but not necessarily in a physical way. She taught us Yoga philosophy saying we needed to learn it well otherwise we were just doing calisthenics and we should go elsewhere if that’s what we wanted. She was strong and courageous and filled with love for her teacher and the path of Yoga.

Jump forward to 2015. I was invited to live in a city after living in a rural area for several years and I decided that experience would be helpful in better understanding the current state of Yoga (generally speaking). I was taken to studios daily until I suffered a severe injury. The injury was the result of two Yoga teachers believing they could fix my life-long physical condition from a C3,4,5 fracture that had healed well enough for me to lead a strong and very active life. Even though I told both teachers prior to the class that it was best to not adjust me under any circumstance because I’d worked one-on-one with therapists for years and knew my body very well, my adho mukha śvānāsana, utthita trikonasana, and śavāsana didn’t look “right” to them so I got surprise adjustments and was unable to function normally for months and even today I’m still suffering from the well-meaning teachers who thought they could cure me with their 200-500 hour YA training. Now I understand that modern postural Yoga has helped many people with physical injuries, but the fact remains these teachers felt they could “heal” me with Yoga when in fact I ended up being severally injured. I don’t know of a Yoga anatomy module in any teacher training that would address “fixing” or “healing” neck fractures.

What I learned through all of it was that the “specialness” – the sacred – appears to have been stripped away from Yoga. How is it that we went from a class or two a week offering to a gym/studio setting with 20-30 or more classes a week? How can anything feel sacred when there is so much of it and students become numbers on ledger for the accountant? True, for a tantric it could be, but really? I suspect that many people who say they’re tantrics have no idea what they mean and when asked come up with something they’ve memorized from the internet or some book written by someone who heard tantra sells.

My own opinion is that as long as we have large studios pumping out teachers and building their client base we will never fully regain the sacredness in Yoga. It will continue to be a marketplace where one teacher is trying to outdo the next one and where the words disrespect, lack of teacher and lineage recognition, and plagiarism means getting ahead in business.

We’ve used and abused a tradition with a sacred foundation and the outcome has been devastating on so many levels. People email me asking about book recommendations stating they’re confused with everything that’s out there. People email me and say they have to take a break from their Yoga practice because they’re injured, and I respond with, “what an incredible opportunity you have to go into the foundation of traditional Yoga by studying philosophy!” People email and say, “I feel bullied…do I have to certify with YA?” People email and say, “I don’t want to learn Sanskrit in a Yoga training.” I respond, “Please go talk to your Grade 1 teacher and ask them if learning the English language (that being their first language) was important for your Reading class.” and the list goes on and on…

There are people trying their best to keep the sacred in this beautiful tradition of Yoga, and possibly like me, they feel exhausted and frustrated at times. How many Yoga magazines do we need to buy? How many books on asanas do we really need? How many ways do we need to explain the yamas which were so clearly stated? How many ways do we need to do things before we finally see that the sacredness of Yoga is hanging on by a thread? How many times does this need to happen before we wake up?

6 thoughts on ““Stripping the Sacred” – Brenda Feuerstein

  1. I completely agree, even though I am one of those 200 hour teacher trained in a large class, “churned out”.
    I love the physical practice, it is a celebrations of life. But I am injured, and I see it is a sight of slow down, to refocus on yoga as my spiritual path and let’s the creeping thoughts of loss of physical skill go.

    There is lots of time to practice. There is no finish line.
    I practice in those 20 classes a day studios. I hear tiny bits of what I deeply believe in my heart. But so much is lost.

    I spend significant time reading. I sit still. I desperately wish I had a teacher sometimes. But others I accept that I have found true santosha in my life. I know the path. I will continue it wholeheartedly.

    Ps. I do teach. I try to spark an interest in yoga in my students, who come and go. There is so much I want to say, but few opportunities to say it.

    I know some day I will find the right place.

    Thank you for this. I followed the link and would love to order the book, but it doesn’t appear to be available to the public?

    Stillness and peace

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely! I often long for the time, so many years ago, as a beginner, when I sat on a wool blanket, not really knowing anything about “yoga”, but aware that I was doing a sacred practice. There feel to be so many layers now that need to be removed to get to that space again, almost as if we’ve taken the heavy wool blanket and put it on top instead. Students get caught in those layers and sometimes never get through it. Anyway, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so grateful to have started my practice in an Iyengar studio, which is still successfully filling classes today, 16 years later. Sanskrit required, which I continue to use, and use more and more often in my own teaching because I know so many are not being taught the foundational language. The deeper teachings are often saved for longer timeframes, workshops and such, but classes are always begun with the invocation to Patanjali, and further reading could always be recommended if one was curious to know and study more.

    When my teacher left this studio, I followed her for a while and didn’t return until last week’s Free Day of Yoga. It was a little bittersweet, but I was so pleased at the studio’s reach and success. (I ultimately found the style a little too “bossy” or “persnickety” to continue in a fully devoted fashion). I moved through teacher training with instructors steeped in Ashtanga, so invocation continued, with a good immersion in philosophy. Today, I have no teacher. I can’t think of who I would even consider to be a Master Teacher where I live, who can meet me where I am in my practice. I don’t – as I think you’ve stated – want to attend classes taught by recent trainees or by any teacher without a clearly articulated lineage, so I attend classes taught by my friends and co-trainees when I have the time.

    Deepening my practice comes from what I can read and study on my own and by learning to accept the solitude of that journey. And I just started following Karin Burke’s Return Yoga Subscription instruction via Vimeo. She teaches in St. Cloud, MN, but her reach is broad and her connection to the spirit of the practice is profound. Perhaps the small towns and rural areas are where the practice is being best preserved?!

    Thank you for sharing this Linda. I so appreciate your insight into the “state of the union” so to speak. I think it is an increasingly important and valuable perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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