Tag Archives: Traditional Yoga Studies

“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?

study + practice = balance

(The Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are a genre of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures dealing with the subject of the Perfection of Wisdom.)

Brenda Feuerstein was kind enough to give me permission to publish this article by Georg Feuerstein. Georg has authored over forty books including The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, The Yoga Tradition, and Yoga Morality. You may also know Georg and Brenda from their Traditional Yoga Studies website: “Traditional Yoga Studies (TYS) is dedicated to promoting authentic yogic teachings based on scriptural and oral transmission, as well as solid research, and to bringing out their relevance at the present time of severe environmental and social crisis.” You can visit http://www.traditionalyogastudies.com for distance learning courses on:

1. 800-hour course on the history, philosophy, and literature of Yoga;
2. 250-hour course on Patanjali’s system of Classical Yoga;
3. 250-hour course on the Foundations of Yoga; and
4. 120-hour course on the Bhagavad-Gîtâ

Brenda also told me that they have received an anonymous donation and have decided to pay it forward and give away 10 partial scholarships for their 800-hour Philosophy, History and Literature of Yoga Course. Applications are due by the end of January 2010. If you interested in applying for the course scholarship program which is 50% off the regular price ($600.00 off), you can email Brenda the following information: full name and mailing address, email address, and tell them about yourself, why you want to study the course, and why you require a scholarship for the program.

In light of reader comments on my last post, I thought Georg’s article was especially timely.

Talk amongst yourselves!

Studying Yoga by Georg Feuerstein

Everybody talks about practicing Yoga. Few Westerners talk about studying it, and many believe that the study of Yoga is unnecessary and even a waste of time. They like to quote Sanskrit sayings about the uselessness of book learning. These are typically taken out of context, and other, more pertinent statements are either ignored or not even known.

Then, again, there are those who—like the majority of academics—maintain that one must understand Yoga objectively and that by practicing it, one automatically jettisons any claim to objectivity.

Both attitudes are wrong. The belief that studying Yoga is redundant is self-evidently mistaken, because unless we know what we are practicing, we cannot really hope to be successful in our practice. This is like wanting to build a computer without expert knowledge of its component parts and how they interact. Perhaps a more pertinent example would be to want to remove a brain tumor without any medical knowledge and surgical skill.

Thus, the Vishnu-Purâna (6.6.2), a medieval encyclopedic Sanskrit work, rightly and unequivocally states:

“From study one should proceed to practice (yoga), and from practice to study. The supreme Self is revealed through perfection in study and practice.”

The belief that objective knowledge is possible and highly desirable is just that: a belief. Philosophers have considered at great length whether the common ideal of scientific objectivity is in fact possible, and many have come to question this. Many have, in addition, expressed doubt about whether such objective knowledge, even if it were possible, would be desirable. Their thoughtful works are readily available, and so I won’t argue this point here.

My present focus of attention is on the study of Yoga, which tradition tells us is indeed essential to success in the practice of Yoga. Study is treated as an integral aspect of Yoga practice. Thus, Patanjali lists study as one of the five aspects of self-restraint (niyama), the second limb of his eightfold path.

The Sanskrit word for study is svādhyāya, which means literally “one’s own (sva) going into (adhyāya).” It stands for the serious and systematic study of both the Yoga tradition and oneself. Both knowledge of the tradition and self-knowledge go hand in hand.

The traditional scriptures contain the distilled wisdom of sages who have climbed to the pinnacle of self-knowledge, and therefore these texts can contribute to our own self-knowledge. Study, in the yogic sense, is always a journey of self-discovery, self-understanding, and self-transcendence.

Yoga does not call for blind faith, though it stresses the superlative importance of real, deep faith (shraddhā), or trust. Mere belief cannot help us realize that which abides beyond the conditional or egoic personality. Instead, Yoga has always been intensely experimental and experiential, and study is one aspect of this sound approach.

Many Western Yoga practitioners, especially those with a dominant right brain, shy away from study. They much rather polish their performance of this or that posture or, more rarely, learn a new breathing technique. Yet, it would seem they often miss the mark, because they do not know the proper context in which these techniques must be cultivated. The state of Hatha-Yoga practice and teaching in the Western hemisphere is a good case in point: What was once a profoundly spiritual discipline has been demoted to physical health and fitness training. [emphasis supplied.]

Often Western Yoga practitioners do not even have an accurate knowledge of the techniques themselves. They sometimes seek to compensate for their ignorance by trying to reinvent the wheel and by producing their own versions of yogic practices. While innovation is commendable — our whole civilizational adventure is based on it — in the case of Yoga, we would do well to be modest. After all, the Yoga tradition can look back upon the accumulated wisdom of at least 5,000 years of intense experimentation.

Just as a predominantly right-brain (action-driven) approach to Yoga has its pitfalls, a purely left-brained (thought-driven) approach is equally precarious, if not altogether futile. “Armchair Yoga” cannot replace actual experience.[emphasis supplied.] If our practice is merely nominal, so will be our attainments. In Yoga, both theory and practice form a continuum, like space-time. It requires from us a full engagement, as the Buddhists put it: with body, speech, and mind. Yoga, as the Bhagavad-Gītā (2.48) reminds us, is balance (samatva). Hence we ought to engage both cerebral hemispheres when applying ourselves to the yogic path. Let us also recall here that one of the meanings of the word yoga is “integration.”

An ancient scripture, the Shata-Patha-Brāhmana (, declares that, for serious students, study is a source of joy. It focuses the student’s mind and allows him or her to sleep peacefully. It also yields insight and the capacity to master life. What more could one ask for?

Copyright ©2009 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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