This extraordinary work represents a lifetime of devotion to yoga by its preeminent Western scholar. It is at once a distillation and compilation of all that Georg Feuerstein has gleaned in his extensive travels both academically and spiritually. It greatly broadens the usual scope of yoga to include its manifestation in other religions and goes back in time to the edge of the prehistory. Feuerstein understands that yoga is both an ancient practice, and, by itself, a profound and venerable religion. More than anything, however, it is a salient expression of the culture and philosophy, the lifestyle and history of the Indian subcontinent where it was the midwife of the great religions of Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and of course that great body of belief and practice known as Hinduism.
Feuerstein is in one sense a true believer. He has devoted his life to the study of yoga and attendant phenomena, in particular Hinduism and the broad Tantric tradition. One gets the sense that even here in this lengthy work, he knows much more than he is conveying; that there is a synergistic power in his extensive knowledge that allows him to know things that he cannot express. One feels his intense desire to say something that perhaps cannot be said, something spiritual and personal that can only be experienced.
In another sense he is a hard-working scholar who reports on what he has learned without passing unnecessary judgments or drawing unwarranted conclusions, although he does interpret. He is, in this sense, the American expression of the great Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade (who wrote in French) with perhaps a pinch of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, on the one hand, and the English tantrist Sir John Woodroffe, on the other, folded in.
The book begins with a thorough definition of yoga and then an overview, and then its inescapable conjoining with Hinduism. This is "Part One: Foundations." Then Feuerstein looks at "Pre-Classical Yoga" and overviews the entire Vedic tradition including the yoga of the earliest Upanishads, culminating in its expression in the Bhagavad Gita. Then in "Part Three: Classical Yoga," he comes to Patanjali and the yoga of the eight limbs, the famous yoga of the aphorisms. Part Four is "Post-Classical Yoga" from the later Yoga-Upanishads from the Middle Ages in which the focus is on bhakti, technique, mantra and meditation. It is here that Western readers will find much that is new, or at least not readily available in English. And it is here that a non-dualistic yogic philosophy (as opposed to the dualism of Patanjali) holds sway. Part Five is on tantrism and "Yoga as Spiritual Alchemy." It is in this last part that the so-called "subtle body," with its nadis and pranas, its cakras ("psychoenergetic centers") and the mysterious serpent power of kundalini, is explored in depth. Here too we have the ritualistic practice of the five forbidden things from tantra yoga, the infamous "left-handed path." Here is Feuerstein's take: "Practitioners of the left-hand path (<vâma-mârga>)--vâma means both "left" and "woman"--know they are breaking profound social taboos, and their only justification for their conduct is that their goal is not sensual gratification but self-transcendence in the context of bodily existence." (p. 484)
To me--and I have studied and practiced yoga for 28 years--yoga is first and foremost a profound psychology, a way of life that has evolved along with the human experience, from the prehistory to today, a guide on how to live that has come down to us in part (only in part: so much has been lost) as a philosophic and religious tradition. Feuerstein's book is at once a great reference and a heart-felt exposition on the power of yoga to transcend this world in which we are enveloped in the "food sheath," where we are both the eater and the eaten, but with our eyes on the stars.
The book includes numerous black and white illustrations, passages from yogic works, and an extensive, selected bibliography. There is a chronology, a glossary and an excellent index.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"