Tribute to a Yoga Scholar

Georg Feuerstein's body of scholarly works enlightened the yoga community. A friend and colleague remembers his influence.
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Georg Feuerstein's body of scholarly works enlightened the yoga community. A friend and colleague remembers his influence.

Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., a German-Canadian Indologist and author of more than 30 books, including highly regarded translations of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, and an influential text, The Yoga Tradition, died Aug. 25 at the age of 65. His friend and colleague Richard Rosen shares his memories of working with Georg.

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I first met Georg Feuerstein at the Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, in the late 1990s, although I was already well familiar with and greatly admired his scholarly work on yoga. The then-director of that venerable establishment, Donald Moyer, called to tell me that “my hero” was coming to speak there, and my first thought was, “We’ve got to get this man on tape.” Of course I couldn’t do that without his permission, so I screwed up my courage and phoned Georg. I didn’t know what to expect, him being a famous scholar and all. I guess I expected him to shrug me off, but on the phone he was both humorous and gracious, and readily gave me the OK to record.

His talk was on the Bhagavad Gita. Have you ever believed you knew some subject well, and then met someone who quickly and conclusively demonstrated that your belief was sadly mistaken, that in actual fact you’d barely scratched that subject’s surface? Such was what I discovered about myself and yoga that afternoon. As I listened to him, I was puzzled why he wasn’t better known among the yoga community’s rank and file. Then it occurred to me that much of his writing required a measure of effort most students weren’t willing to make. So I decided that an interview would help to increase general interest in his work and teaching. I arranged to meet with Georg one afternoon, late in 1998, at my house in Berkeley, to write an article about him for Yoga Journal.

Georg was born in Germany in 1947, and struck out in his late teens to the Black Forest to study yoga under a guru who, to put it mildly, squeezed him through the wringer with a regimen of hardcore training. I’ve forgotten all the particulars save one: He was boarded in a room without heat, so in the winter—ever been to southern Germany in January?—he was forced to break through the ice in his wash basin before he could wet his hands and face.

After graduation from Durham University in England, he published his first book on yoga, a textual analysis of the Yoga Sutra (an out-of-print copy of which is one of my prize possessions). Over the next 30 years he produced as many books and articles and recordings. These include my go-to translation of and commentary on the Yoga Sutra; a one-volume yoga encyclopedia that sits on a shelf where I keep my most consulted reference books, it’s formerly white jacket literally blackened by the 15 years of daily handling; and what I consider to be his magnum opus, the nearly 700-page The Yoga Tradition, which covers yoga’s history, literature, philosophy and practice.

It didn’t take long for us to recognize, each in the other, a kindred soul. Georg would stay with me occasionally when he came to use the University of California Berkeley library, he helped me get my first book published with Shambhala, and he brought me on as Associate Director when he opened the Yoga Research and Education Center. That enterprise sputtered after a year or two—and he relocated farther north in California, up near the Oregon border, and then finally left the US and settled in Saskatchewan, where over the past few years, he and his wife, Brenda, created an online program Traditional Yoga Studies.

It goes without saying that Georg was an interesting guy to be around. But because his standards were so high, and because he absolutely refused to compromise on them, he could also present some difficulties to some people. For example, his instance that, in co-authoring Yoga for Dummies with Larry Payne, he not “dummy down” the work, created some friction with the editor. First and foremost, Georg was a teacher. In the end, also not surprisingly, he pretty much got his way, thus assuring that his readers, when they finished the book, would no longer be “dummies.”

His passing leaves a hole in my life. Even though our contacts diminished over the last few years, his presence, through his books and my memories of our time together, was never far from me. I’ve often been credited with being a “scholar,” but that only by well-meaning but uninformed people. Georg taught me what it really meant to be uncompromisingly scholarly, which for him was grounded in a deep and unwavering love for his subject. If you’ve never read anything by him, I suggest you find yourself a copy of The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Then you’ll begin to understand why he was such an important figure in modern yoga, and why we should all work to keep his legacy alive.

—Richard Rosen