The Shambhala Guide to Yoga

The Shambhala Guide to Yoga

by Georg Feuerstein
Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Pp. xi + 190.

This survey of yogic philosophy and practice is made with Georg Feuerstein’s customary lucidity, comprehensiveness, detail, and common sense. It is a book about what yoga is, not how to do yoga, thus putting first things properly first. Too many people in the West set out to do yoga without knowing just what it is they are doing. Feuerstein corrects that misordering of priorities by giving an overview of the major aspects of the theory that every practitioner should command before beginning serious work.

This Guide makes it clear that yoga is not just an exotic form of calisthenics, but is rather a spiritual discipline based on certain assumptions about the nature of reality. It also makes clear that the full range of yogic practice includes some activities that are potentially dangerous ones for those who are unprepared for them and are unguided by knowledgeable experts in the field. Its thirteen chapters also give a commendably wide coverage of both Hindu and Buddhist yoga.

The book's first four chapters cover the following subjects: the history and purpose of yoga; the main kinds of yoga (jnana, karma, bhakti, mantra, raja, and hatha); the process of transmitting yoga (the teacher, the disciple, and initiation); and the nature of the bliss to which yoga leads and the moral basis for pursuing it (yama and niyama).

The next four chapters deal with specific techniques typical of yogic practice. These include methods of bodily purification (some of which seem bizarre to contemporary Westerners) and the postures that many Westerners exclusively associate with yoga; the rationale of diet; the theory of breath control; and the mental practices of withdrawing one's attention from the outer world (pratyahara), concentrating it (dharana ), making it continuous in meditation (dhyana), and finally getting it all together (samadhi). The use of imagination, practical techniques, and distractions along the way are also covered.

Chapters nine through eleven treat some more specific matters, including mantras, kundalini (with suitable warnings about the dangers of ignorant and premature experiments), and tantra. Treatment of the last subject includes left -hand and sexual tantras, but it also makes clear that they are not the whole of the "subject, which encompasses "a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices," embracing twelve characteristic features. The last two chapters are conclusions. Chapter twelve examines the nature of the samadhi experience, often translated as "ecstasy," that is, a standing outside one's egoic self, but which might more appropriately be translated as "enstasy," a standing within the conscious ness of the unitive Self. The final chapter, "Yoga in the Modern World," looks at the role yoga can usefully play to fill the gap between con temporary religious fundamentalism and secular fundamentalism (based on scientific materialism) and stresses the need for a qualified teacher to direct the performer in that role.

The final chapter both resonates and contrasts with modern Theosophy. H. P. Blavatsky viewed Theosophy as also filling the gap between the two fundamentalisms of religion and science. Furthermore she viewed Theosophy as a kind of yoga (specifically jnana yoga) leading to the ecstatic experience called samadhi in yogic literature. However, she also recognized that for most Westerners guidance by a guru in the Eastern pattern is not feasible, and so she advanced Theosophy as a form of yoga that can be followed without personal instruction- a form of yoga for the West or, more accurately, a yoga not limited to the cultural patterns of the East, though benefiting from its wisdom.

The Shambhala Guide to Yoga is a vademecum for students and intending practicers of Eastern yoga. It fills the need for a survey of the whole subject in a degree of detail that satisfies without satiating the enquirer. Anyone who wants to know both about yoga and how to do it can usefully begin with Annie Besant's Introduction to Yoga as a primer, follow it with this work surveying the whole field as a thorough introductory overview, and then go on to Wallace Slater's useful guides Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga for safe, practical suggestions on doing yoga.


Winter 1996