Sunday, August 26, 2012

Georg Feurstein (1947 - 2012)

My wife and daughter are just back from our “sangha family camping trip” down to Patagonia Lake, where we spent the sweetest weekend possible with some of the most important people in our life: the Empty Mountain Sangha/Tucson Mindfulness Practice Community that we founded in our living room just over three years ago. The whole time I was there, thoughts of one of the teachers most influential upon my life were with me constantly.

Just over a week ago, I got the message that Georg Feurstein, perhaps one of the most important yoga scholars that we have been graced to have among us, was in his last days. And ever since hearing that, I’ve held him and his wife, Brenda, in my heartmind with love, gratitude and appreciation. Today, I went online, expecting to find that he had indeed passed, and apparently he died last night, sometime around when I was sitting around the fireside with my sangha, thinking of Georg with metta held in my heart. And though there is so little we can be certain about in life, I am certain that within my heartmind there will always be this place held sacred for his memory.

Long before I met Georg, there had been a meeting of minds and a form of dharma transmission through my deep devouring of his books; reading and re-reading, writing long marginalia along his words, beginning a dialogue I know will continue for the rest of my life. I hasten to add, I did not always agree with what Georg thought, taught, and believed, and that was not what he ever required of those of us who studied with him; rather, it was his integrity and deep, strong dedication to the traditions he studied, wrote and taught about that moved me, and through this, his challenge to me (to all of us) to deepen our own exploration through deep personal inquiry. He often said, “enlightenment is a whole brain experience,” by which he meant, as I now put it, that both the conceptual and non-conceptual, the rational and the intuitive, the “ah-ha” and the “ahhhh” are present in awakening consciousness.

I remember in particular when we were studying Patanjali during the one and only YREC (Yoga Research and Education Center) yoga teacher training, when many of the students were perplexed by the philosophical dualism at the heart of Patanjali’s metaphysics, confused because they had always been taught that yoga was about “union” and non-duality by their teachers who were in fact teaching from a Vedantin perspective. Many of the students doubted themselves and their understanding because “this was Patanjali” and therefore he must be “right.” Georg said, “You know, you can disagree with Patanjali. You can think he was wrong!” With this "lion’s roar," he was telling all of us not to take the teachings as ‘gospel,’ but to question and think for ourselves.

Personally, some of my fondest memories of Georg will be both the late-night conversations we’d hold in the vestibule of the training hall at Mt. Madonna, where the YREC training took place during 2002/2003, and the early mornings when Georg would be at the front-center of the room doing his Tibetan puja, Jagadish, another of the students was in the back of the room doing his practice, and I (at the time deep into my Korean Zen training) doing my practice at the front left corner of the room. I’d be doing prostrations, or chanting with my moktok, Jagadish’s soft Sanskrit chanting coming from the back of the room, and Georg’s Tibetan bells ringing softly from the front-center of the room all blending in a sonic celebration of dharma.

Actually, other fond memories from that time include lying in shavasana, being guided by Georg’s stentorian, German-inflected voice in Yoga Nidra. Or standing outside with the whole group at sunrise, chanting the Gyatri Mantra.

It was during the training that I wrote my book, and Georg was gracious enough to agree to read the manuscript. I asked him that if he thought it good enough, would he be willing to write a short forward. After reading it, he said he’d be delighted to write a forward, and so I excitedly awaited what I thought at best would be a few paragraphs of endorsement. Instead, what I got when I opened the email attachment he sent me, was a four page essay that by the end of his second paragraph, when he referred to me as his “Dharma brother,” had me in tears.

The YREC training continues to reverberate not merely in my own life, but in the lives of all of us who were fortunate to share in the experience. Through the training, I met some men and women who have truly become family over the years since. Among them, several men who continue to nourish my appreciation that manhood can mean so much more than the hyper-masculinist pretensions of so many American men. These men, true brothers in spirit, Ted Grand, Pierre Desjarins, and Patrick Creelman continue to help shape contemporary yoga in ways influenced by Georg, each in his own unique way. And as for sisters, there are too many to name! But each, touched by Georg’s spirit, enthusiasm and integrity, continue to transmit that same spirit, in their teaching and in the way they choose to live their lives.

So, as trite as it may sound, another thing of which I’m certain, is that Georg’s work will continue to inspire generations of practitioners to come. Of course, most of that influence will come through his many amazing books, and the continued work of his wife, Brenda, through Traditional Yoga Studies. But also, no doubt, his influence will continue to flow through all those students whose lives he touched.

Oh, and back to the sangha I founded here in Tucson; after the publication of my book, I began to do a lot of air travel, teaching in various venues throughout the world. It got to the point where I was rarely home for two or three weeks at a time. When my wife and I were living in Eugene, Oregon for 18 months, I never met one person!  Georg wrote me a deeply moving, thoughtful email, asking me how it was that so many yoga teachers justified taking a group of privileged Americans to places like Costa Rica for what amounts to "yoga vacations" and the enormous ecological impact of air travel. He asked in the spirit of genuine inquiry, and it made me do some serious thinking. He ended his email by suggesting we teachers might have a greater impact by planting some roots and creating "communities of mindfulness."

As a result of that email exchange, I cut my air travel by two-thirds, and started the Tucson Mindfulness Practice Community. Three years later, we have 40 people participating in a nine-month study of the Buddhist Precepts, and sharing their time, energy and financial resources with the greater Tucson community. The travel I continue to do is all more deep 'training' based, and Georg came to understand what I perceive as the necessity of face-to-face relationship for the kind of teaching I offer.

And so, whether or not there are truly ‘afterlife’ states of existence from which one returns, as Georg believed, I know without a doubt that there is ultimately no birth and no death, and that Georg continues in all those who knew him, loved him, were touched in any way by him. And from my perspective, that’s one rich endowment indeed that he leaves behind.

In lieu of flowres and gifts, Georg had requested a scholarship fund be set up to enable incarcerated people the opportunity to participate in the Traditional Yoga Studies distance learning courses. More information about the fund will be posted at the website.