Authors & Thought Leaders

Georg Feuerstein on Tantra, Yogic Tradition and Shaktism

Published on June 17, 2017

Article by Georg Feuerstein

For more than 40 years, Georg Feuerstein, a German Indologist who passed away in 2012, contributed steadily and significantly to the dialogue between East and West, in particular to our understanding of yoga. His more than 50 books on mysticism, yoga, Tantra and Hinduism include many scholarly and popular works on yoga, notably Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy and The Yoga Tradition, Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, which is a 510-page illustrated overview of all important aspects of yoga in its Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina forms.

In this 1999 interview for Bodhi Tree Book Review magazine, he discusses—with clinical psychologist, author and yogic scholar Richard Miller, PhD, the founding president of the Integrative Restoration Institute and co-founder of The International Association of Yoga Therapists—these two books, practicing yoga authentically, and how through tantra, enlightenment can produce what he calls “cellular illumination.”

“Yoga teachers have an obligation to be grounded in yoga’s understanding of the human mind, its profound philosophical and moral teachings, and its many practices. Only then can the Western yoga movement make a lasting contribution to modern humanity.” —Georg Feuerstein

Georg Feuerstein on Tantra, Yogic Tradition and ShaktismGeorg Feuerstein’s Story

One of the most prolific scholars of Hinduism in the West, the German-born Canadian author Georg Feuerstein become fascinated by yoga in his early teens and left home at 17 to study with an Indian hatha yogi in the Black Forest. He continued to study yogic philosophy and history, doing his postgraduate studies in England at Durham University. The author of more than 50 books, Feuerstein founded the Yoga Research Center in Northern California in 1996. The Center had several goals, including conducting and facilitating Indological, historical, medical and psychological research on yoga. The Center is unique in that it is non-denominational, seeking to bridge the gap between Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina yoga and between traditional yoga and contemporary adaptations, as well as between scholars, scientists and yoga practitioners. Feuerstein came to be known as an authority on classical yoga, contributing translations and interpretations of texts like the Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali and the Bhagavad Gita, and co-authoring Yoga for Dummies.

Feuerstein created several distance-learning courses, which are available through TYS, his wife Brenda’s Canadian educational company.

Becoming a Yoga Authority

Georg Feuerstein’s first encounter with India’s spiritual heritage began with Paul Brunton’s Search In Secret India. Subsequently, he became a foremost authority on yoga. Being both a scholar and a practitioner, Feuerstein, in The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, brings us the most comprehensive and reliable treatments of the yoga tradition yet available. It stands out from other yoga publications by its pronounced interfaith orientation. The book contains a complete overview of the yogic traditions of: Raja yoga, Hatha yoga, Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Tantra yoga, Kundalini yoga, Mantra yoga and many other lesser-known forms. It also includes translations of more than 20 famous yoga treatises, such as the Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali, and first-time translations of the Goraksha Paddhati, an ancient Hatha yoga text. As Ken Wilber says, “Enter now the world of yoga, which is said to lead from suffering to release, from agony to ecstasy, from time to eternity, from death to immortality. And know that on this extraordinary tour, you are indeed in good hands.”

On the Path of Tantra

Tantra—often associated with Kundalini yoga—is a fundamental dimension of Hinduism, emphasizing the cultivation of “divine power” (shakti) as a path to infinite bliss. Tantra has been widely misunderstood in the West, however, where its practices are often confused with eroticism and licentious morality. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, dispels many common misconceptions, providing an accessible introduction to the history, philosophy and practice of this extraordinary spiritual tradition. —Justine Amodeo

The following is the edited transcript of Richard Miller, PhD’s 1999 interview with Georg Feuerstein.

Richard Miller: The Yoga Tradition is a summary of your investigations into yoga over something like 30 years. Your book approaches this incredibly complex tradition very systematically, and it provides not only clear information about the various branches and schools of yoga and how they relate to each other, but also a lot of useful background material. Additionally, you have included ample source readings from many yoga scriptures. It will be very useful for students to have these full renderings that you have provided of the Yoga-Sutra, the Bhakti-Sutra of Narada, several late Upanishads, and even a first-time translation of the Goraksha-Paddhati, which is an old Hatha yoga text.

Georg Feuerstein: Yes, I have included them because I feel yoga is best studied on the basis of its own literature. The many source readings—which cover translations from the archaic Rig-Veda and Atharva-Veda right up to more recent Hatha yoga texts—will help readers to get the flavor of traditional yoga.

Yoga as a Theory Practice Continuum

RM: How important is it for Western yoga practitioners to study these texts?

GF: It’s very important because yoga is not merely a practice, but what I call a theory-practice continuum. The scriptures furnish the context for the actual practice of yoga. Would you set out to build a computer without the necessary manuals? Many yoga practitioners do just that. They perform postures, breathing exercises and other yogic techniques without having a clear idea of their purpose within the larger path of yoga. Study (svadhyaya) of the scriptures has always been an integral part of yogic education.

Most Western practitioners come to yoga through various popularized versions of Hatha yoga, often taught by teachers, who themselves may not have been instructed in the traditional way. Thus study of the scriptures and knowledge of the theory behind the exercises have been given short shrift. I know that some Western teachers think this is quite healthy, but many Indian teachers rightly look askance at what has become of yoga, especially Hatha yoga, in the Western world. All too often, Hatha yoga is presented as a kind of gymnastics.

The Origins of Hatha Yoga

RM: In your view, what is the traditional form of Hatha yoga?

GF: Like all schools of yoga, Hatha yoga was originally a liberation teaching, or moksha-shastra. In other words, it primarily served a spiritual purpose—that of Self-realization. Self-realization, or enlightenment, is the goal of all traditional forms and branches of yoga. It consists of awakening to one’s essential identity, which is the eternal, omnipresent Self (atman).

As a branch of Tantra, traditional Hatha yoga seeks to awaken the kundalini, the serpent power, which is the psycho-spiritual energy dormant in the body. All Hatha yoga is Kundalini yoga. Many Western teachers remain unaware of the Tantric character of Hatha yoga.

Self-Realization and Tantra

RM: What’s the use of Kundalini yoga with regard to Self-realization?

GF: According to Tantra, Self-realization is more complete, because the awakened kundalini transforms the physical body into a “divine body” (divya-deha), in which every single cell becomes conscious. Thus in Tantra, enlightenment does not merely transform the adept’s cognition of the world, but it percolates down to the physical body, producing what can be called “cellular illumination.”

RM: When you use “tantra,” you obviously don’t mean the sort of sexual tantra promoted by some Western teachers.

GF: Not at all. Tantra is an amazingly comprehensive and enlightened tradition, which crystallized around 500 C.E. and some 500 years later led to the creation of Hatha yoga. In its technical sense, the Sanskrit term tantra signifies “continuity,” that is, the continuity between body and mind, external reality and internal reality, transcendence and immanence. The traditional definition of tantra is “that which expands wisdom.” Tantra is an intensely practical, experiential approach, which emphasizes ritual and particularly involves mantra recitation, visualization and the many techniques of Hatha yoga. From the beginning, tantra has been presented as a “New Age” teaching, that is, a teaching for the kali-yuga. The kali-yuga is the Dark Age characterized by moral and spiritual decline. The Tantras—the source scriptures of the tantric tradition—contain all the teachings necessary for spiritual growth and liberation in the Dark Age, which is still in full swing today.

RM: What is the connection between tantra and kundalini?

GF: Well, kundalini or kundalini-shakti (“coiled power”) is actually a concept from Shaktism—the teaching that there is a great spiritual energy underlying the universe. According to this teaching, the body’s dormant psycho-spiritual energy is locked in the center at the base of the spine. Through various practices, notably breath control and visualization, the tantrika (or Tantric initiate) seeks to awaken that energy and conduct it, in stages, to the center at the crown of the head. There, the individuated kundalini energy merges with the omnipresent “divine” energy. This is pictured as the union between God (i.e., supreme Consciousness) and Goddess (i.e., the serpent power, which is a manifestation of the supreme Energy). The result of this union is, in the first instance, ecstasy or samadhi. In the long run, it is liberation or Self-realization. I have said more about this in my book Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy.

Preparing the Body for Awakening

RM: In your book The Yoga Tradition, you mention learning Hatha yoga from an Indian guru while you were still in your teens. Can you say something more about this?

GF: Oh, that’s a long time ago. I spent about a year studying with a Hatha yoga master, who was well known in Europe for his extraordinary yogic abilities. He spent a great deal of personal time with me, and I received a lot of transmission from him. At one point, however, it became clear to me that my deepest spiritual promptings were not being met by his teachings.

Let me just say that I abandoned Hatha yoga in my mid-20s and only resumed practicing it at the beginning of 1998. Abandoning Hatha yoga for meditation and mindfulness in daily life was one of my more regrettable mistakes. I should have continued it alongside my other sadhana. It took a bout of ill health for me to rediscover and treasure Hatha yoga. After all, we are embodied beings and need to take care of our physical vehicle. It’s the only one we have right now. So, now I practice postures and breath control at least once but often twice a day.

Traditionally, Hatha yoga was put forward as a way of steeling the body, preparing it for the onslaught of full spiritual awakening. A complete arousal of the serpent power can cause havoc in the unprepared body. Therefore, the masters of Hatha yoga developed a whole range of purification practices, which not only purify the physical body (notably, the digestive system), but also the subtle body. The Hatha yoga initiates speak of subtle elements (called tattva), subtle pathways (called nadi), and psycho-energetic centers (called chakra). They all must be readied for the visit of Queen Kundalini, the Goddess energy. Otherwise, she gets angry and ruins your nervous system and organs like the heart. All this is well known in the yoga tradition, but many Western practitioners dabble with it, unaware of the dangers of Kundalini yoga.

Exploring the Medicine Buddha Practices

RM: What other practices do you do?

GF: For the past six years, I have been practicing the Medicine Buddha sadhana, which stems from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition into which I have been initiated.

The Importance of Following One Practice

RM: Isn’t it a bit strange that you are following the Buddhist path, after so many years of being passionate about Hindu yoga?

GF: Only from the outside. It seems completely natural to me. It really doesn’t matter what form of yoga (or spiritual discipline) one practices, so long as one practices something. I was fortunate to receive initiation into the Medicine Buddha sadhana, and have enjoyed it from the beginning. So I cultivate it diligently. However, let me just say that even though I repeat the Buddhist refuge prayer daily, I think of myself as a person who is treading the yogic path. Right now, my practice happens to have a largely Buddhist orientation. But I have a deep respect and love for all spiritual traditions and great masters. I bow to all the great masters, whether it is the Buddha or Patañjali, or some other master, and I gratefully accept their blessings. However, I don’t believe in mixing practices too much. A smorgasbord is good on the dinner table but not so good in one’s spiritual practice, unless you happen to be a spiritual genius like Sri Ramakrishna, who could effortlessly navigate between various approaches, having mastered all of them.

RM: But you do combine your Buddhist practice with Hatha yoga?

GF: Yes, but I use Hatha yoga primarily as a preliminary system for maintaining physical health and energizing my body. Traditionally, Hatha yoga is a path in itself, though it is true that the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika speaks of it as a ladder to Raja yoga. By Raja yoga, Svatmarama Yogendra, the author of this medieval text, probably meant the practice of meditation and ecstasy. Well, you could say that I am using Hatha yoga as a ladder to Vajrayana Buddhism. By the way, in actual spiritual practice, there isn’t that much of a distinction between Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism and Hindu Tantra. They even venerate some of the same great masters.

The Importance of the Guru

RM: Do you think it is important to have a master, a guru?

GF: Yoga has always been transmitted from teacher to disciple. Very few individuals awaken spontaneously, Ramana Maharshi being perhaps the best-known example in modern times. The majority of practitioners require a teacher and proper initiation. Only in the West has the initiatory structure of yoga been ignored and even called into question. Westerners have had some bad experiences with teachers, who either lacked in morality or failed to understand the psychological makeup of their Western disciples, or both. You don’t need a guru to learn Hatha yoga, just a good instructor. But when you aspire to more than physical fitness and hope to attain enlightenment, then I think a guru is as necessary today as he or she was 5,000 years ago. Initiation seems to be essential, just as proper guidance through the higher stages of realization is also necessary if you want to avoid the inevitable pitfalls.

RM: Where do we find qualified gurus to initiate and guide us?

GF: That’s a good question, which I am often asked. My standard answer is that they exist, but don’t tend to be all too visible. In fact, I like to think that there are a lot more qualified gurus than there are qualified disciples. Personally, I believe in the verity of the traditional maxim that the guru comes when the disciple is ready. In my own case, I have always received help when I needed and was ready to receive it. Until the guru comes, one can always do a lot of preparatory work. In fact, he or she won’t come unless one is properly prepared. Gurus come in all shapes and sizes, of course. Traditionally, only the sad-guru can lead the disciple all the way to enlightenment. Sad-guru means “the real teacher” or “the teacher of reality.” He or she is fully enlightened and therefore can transmit the high-energy state of enlightenment to others. Depending on the readiness of the student, this kind of transmission can either catapult him or her into instant enlightenment (very rare!) or transform the disciple step by step.

Finding the Guru Within

RM: There is another traditional opinion, though, according to which the guru is within you. How does this tally with what you have said?

GF: It tallies perfectly. The ultimate guru is our own true nature, to be sure. The problem is that we can’t hear our inner teacher too well, or what we think we hear are voices from our unconscious. So, most of us need an external guru to guide us until we find our true inner teacher. Then—surprise!—we discover that the voice of the external and that of the internal guru are identical.

Yoga teaches us how to gradually extricate ourselves from the unconscious, which is governed by the force of karmic necessity. When we have polished the mind’s mirror sufficiently to behold our true original face, as the Zen masters put it, then we can live in freedom. Even if we were shackled to solid iron chains for the rest of our life, we would not feel bound or unhappy. Enlightenment does not depend on any external conditions. It is never-ending ease. The great power of yoga lies in that it can help us remember who we truly are.

Notable Books by Georg Feuerstein

The Philosophy of Classical Yoga (1980, 1996)

The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga (1997) [Editor’s Note: This book is currently unavailable.]

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice (Hohm, 1998).

Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (1998)

Yoga for Dummies (1999)

The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga (2003)

Yoga Morality (2007)

The Yoga Tradition (2008)

The Encyclopedia of Yoga and Tantra (2011)

The Path of Yoga: An Essential Guide to Its Principles and Practices (2011)

The Bhagavad-Gītā: A New Translation (2011)

Published on: June 17, 2017

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