The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice

By Georg Feuerstein
Foreword b yKen Wilber. Prescott, AZ: Hohm, 1998. Paperback, xxxii + 686 pages.

Georg Feuerstein has been a vigorous student-scholar of India's religio-philosophical traditions since his fourteenth birthday, when he was given a copy of Paul Brunton's In Search of Secret IndiaHis ongoing penetration into the mysteries and profundities of this most spiritually astute country has led to the publication of more than thirty books and many articles. He ranks high within the top echelon of the world's most prolific, informed, insightful, and lucid writers on the spirituality of India. As ably stated by Ken Wilber in his foreword to The Yoga Tradition, "in Georg Feuerstein we have a scholar-practitioner of the first magnitude, an extremely important and valuable voice for the perennial philosophy, and arguably the foremost authority on Yoga today."

The author states his objective clearly: "to give the lay reader a systematic and comprehensive introduction to the many-faceted phenomenon of Indian spirituality, especially in its Hindu variety, while at the same time summarizing in broad outlines what scholarship has discovered about the evolution of Yoga thus far." The Yoga Tradition is simultaneously (1) a pleasantly readable story of the development and practice of Yoga and (2) a volume of encyclopedic proportions to which the interested student can return again and again for review and the checking of factual data.

The readability of The Yoga Tradition is provided by the author's lucid and engaging writing style, as well as by the format and appearance of the book. Printed in double columns, many pages display bordered quotations of key textual passages. More than 200 illustrations, consisting of photographs (historical persons, sculptured images), line drawings (deities, mythic persons, Yogic postures), diagrams, charts, maps, and lists that summarize comprehensive topics, add to the reading pleasure. Crucial terms and expressions are frequently presented in bold Sanskrit lettering along with English transliteration, thereby allowing the interested student to learn to write and pronounce the formative concepts that make up Yoga.

One of the most useful features of the book lies in the 21 translations of foundational texts. About half of these are translated entirely, with extensive selections from the others. One of the texts, the Goraksha-Paddhati (at 28 pages, the longest of those included), is here translated into English for the first time. Where needed, Feuerstein interpolates helpful clarification and commentary as the translations unfold.

The user-friendly and scholarly nature of the book is enhanced further by the transliteration and pronunciation guide, the endnotes numbering nearly 450, the chronology extending from 250,000 BCE (evidence of the earliest humans on the Indian subcontinent) to 1947CE (India's national independence), a 12-page glossary, an extensive bibliography, and a detailed index, which makes the book particularly useful as a reference tool.

The opening chapters of The Yoga Tradition provide an overview of the subject, with subsequent chapters following a roughly chronological order. The main historical periods are Pre-Classical, Classical, and Post-Classical. Yoga is explicated as it appears in the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and numerous expressions that subsequently developed prior to modern times. Representative of the many forms of Yoga treated are Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Raja, and Kundalini. The historical review ends with Tantra and Hatha Yoga. The comprehensive coverage of the book is seen not only in Feuerstein's vast presentation of Hindu Yoga but also in his inclusion of chapters on Yoga as it developed in India's three smaller indigenous traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Finally, the author's lifetime involvement in the spirituality of India, resulting in a simultaneous breadth and depth of understanding, is reflected in his ability to distill accurately the distinctive spirit of the native traditions making up India's complex religious heritage. In the book, for example, Hinduism is summarily characterized as a religion of "breathtaking non-dualist metaphysics," Buddhism for its "stringent analytical approach to spiritual life," and Jainism by its "rigorous observance of moral precepts, especially nonviolence."


May/June 1999