Many of us start our yoga journey on the mat in a local yoga class. For some of us we may develop a home practice and possible go on to do some workshops or retreats. At some point many of us desire to learn more about the philosophy behind the postures
In your yoga journey, there will probably come a time when you wonder just how some Sanskrit term applies to daily life or how the physical practice of asana relates to yoga’s transformative powers. Fortunately, people have been writing books about yoga for thousands of years—and no matter what your question, someone probably has addressed it in writing somewhere.
Many ancient texts are deserving of serious, scholarly study, of course, but there are also plenty of great reads worthy of curling up with on a winter’s eve. Here, is a small library of titles I think provide a broader understanding of the practice and a deeper awareness of how yoga can transform your life.
The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living by Stephen Cope
To go right to the heart of yoga, you might consider picking up a copy of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, widely recognized as yoga’s primary sourcebook. Written somewhere between 500 and 200 BCE, the text explains what yoga is and how to undertake its practice. But get your hands on one of the 100-plus English translations, and you will likely find that the Sutra is difficult reading. Written in Sanskrit as a series of tightly compacted principles, it requires not simply translation but a knowledgeable interpreter to help you understand what it is saying.
Stephen Cope takes up that task in The Wisdom of Yoga, as he chronicles the experiences of several students who spend a year actively applying the practice of yoga to their personal challenges. Rather than giving a line-by-line interpretation, Cope offers a great armchair read that illustrates several of the Yoga Sutra’s fundamental teachings. Each character in the book exemplifies a human flaw that impedes happiness. Lawyer Jake’s aversion and commitment problems ransack his love life. Kate, a professional dancer raised to look on the bright side of things, inhabits a world of delusion. Interior designer Susan lusts after food. And Maggie, an elderly would-be writer, lives in the past, which hampers her self-expression in the present.
In revealing how each character is changed by practice, Cope shows how transformative yoga philosophy can be. “I wanted to get across three main pillars of what Patanjali says creates a fully human life,” Cope says. “One, we all have the capacity to still and focus the mind. Two, we can use this discipline to investigate our experience. And three, it’s not enough to investigate experience—you have to practice nonafflicted [positive] states.” Do the daily work of inviting more breath, love, compassion, gratitude, and contentment into your life, Cope says, and your psychology will follow. Practice happiness, in other words, and you’ll soon begin to feel happiness.
“The early yogis were really psychologists,” says Cope, a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “They were interested not in dogma, but in the way things work. How do perception and delusion work? What causes suffering? How can we see clearly? The system they devised is way more sophisticated than anything we have in the West.” Read this inspiring book for a look at what the Yoga Sutra says and does. Then, to live an extraordinary life, start practicing.
The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras by Nischala Joy Devi
Radically unlike a traditional commentary on the Yoga Sutra, Nischala Joy Devi’s The Secret Power of Yoga interprets the terse, intellectual sutras as a meditation on living with ease. “Most [of the sutras] are written by men for men, and men have a very different temperament,” explains Devi, a yoga teacher who spent 25 years studying with Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga. “Women live in the world, with their children. They are by nature connected and open. I wanted to make an interpretation of the sutras that was positive and heart-centered.”
Traditionalists might find her explication of the sutras unrecognizable. The first principle, ahimsa, classically translated as “nonviolence,” becomes, for Devi, “embracing reverence and love for all.”Asteya, known as “nonstealing,” becomes “abiding in generosity and honesty.” And aparigraha, or “nongreed,” becomes “acknowledging abundance.” The result is a manual that reframes the intellectually demanding concepts as a loving, heart-based approach to transformation.
“In drawing out the feminine characteristics, she puts the heart foremost, even above the intellect,” says Karusia Wroblewski, a Toronto yoga teacher. “Her way of storytelling and of peppering the book with anecdotes and teachings gives a modern example of how you can test the knowledge of the sutras. She adds a sense of coming from the heart. She doesn’t say that yoga is about stilling the modifications of the mind field; she says it’s about uniting consciousness in the heart.” Some critics object to the liberties taken here, but Sanskrit has no word for “translate.” The closest one is anuvada, which, according to linguist Ashok R. Kelkar, means “saying something again in one’s own words.” Certainly, Devi has captured that here. Her book can be seen as a doorway to the Yoga Sutra, inspiring you to live from the heart as it invites you to explore a classical approach to the text, to see what she is responding to.
Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell
Another classic yoga text is the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is the sixth book of the Indian epic Mahabharata, which tells the tale of Arjuna, a warrior prince who loses his will to fight on the battlefield; his mind can’t make peace with the idea of fighting his cousins and friends. Fortunately, his charioteer is Lord Krishna, who delivers a treatise on dharma: You must act according to your duty but surrender the outcome of your actions. The Gita is a manual to living with the challenge of making choices even when there are no great options. “Yoga students today are householders in the 21st century,” says Anusara Yoga founder John Friend, who recommends the Gita to students. “We want to engage in the world, and need to know how.”
Stephen Mitchell’s contemporary translation is a lyrical, enlivening read. “I use it to introduce the text to newcomers,” Friend says. “It’s not the most literal translation, but it’s so poetic and inspiring that people get turned on to the story. It inspires people to be more ethical and fundamentally nicer, and that is really the key. It’s one of those epic stories about the struggle between good and evil—like an ancient Star Wars. You relate to poor Arjuna—he’s just like me, he’s scared, he’s confused, he doesn’t know what to do. But he has this wise companion who is speaking the truth so clearly that any reader can let it resonate in their heart.”
There’s no Sanskrit here, but rather a soulful rendering of the poem into contemporary English. “Mitchell has created a poetry that speaks directly to the heart,” says Kate Tremblay, a yoga teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, who reads the book with her students. “You can resonate with the truth of it without really needing to work so hard to understand it.”
Tremblay calls the book a “gateway Gita,” because it introduces the story in a beautiful way that inspires students to move on to other translations to study the text more deeply. But she still comes back to Mitchell’s book again and again for a hit of that original inspiration. “It just kind of wakes up your better self and says, ‘Hey! Pay attention,’” Tremblay explains. “I can open it, read a bit, and feel linked to my higher Self.”
Yoga: The Greater Tradition by David Frawley
Scores of great yogic texts delineate everything from proper postures to esoteric philosophies. David Frawley summarizes many in his mini-encyclopedia, Yoga: The Greater Tradition. This simple, straightforward overview shows what yoga is, where it came from, and where it can take you. “My aim is to provide students with a new vision of the universe of yoga in all its vastness,” he writes. “In a mere 110 pages, he delivers. With short sections, breakout boxes, and illustrations, the book offers a lot: a history lesson, an introduction to yoga philosophy, a discussion of different yogas—for example, jnana, bhakti, and raja yogas—a thoughtful exploration of the eight limbs of yoga, a road map to the body’s subtle energy system, and an explanation of common mantras. This book is a powerful resource for novices who want a broader understanding of the practice and the way its various elements and traditions fit together. Frawley is a yoga scholar, Avurvedic practitioner, and prolific author, with more than 30 other titles to his credit, many of which explore subjects for “serious” students.
Rod Stryker, the founder of ParaYoga, is a fan of Frawley and this book. “David’s an American sage,” Stryker says. “He is one of our leading authorities and most important links to the wisdom of the ancient traditions. He embodies the practice and is one of the few voices that make the ancient teachings available to the modern reader. To read him is to come into the presence of the teachings themselves.” That sounds like a good reason to keep this book near your practice space.
Light on Iyengar
Ask around about yoga books, and chances are you’ll hear at least three of B. K.S. Iyengar’s classic works mentioned again and again: Light on Yoga (the asana Bible), Light on Pranayama, and Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These have profoundly influenced yoga in the United States today. These how-to books are among the most popular around.
With Light on Life, Iyengar delivers a why-to book. It is a collection of the musings of a master yogi nearing the end of his life. “I am old, and death inevitably approaches,” he writes. “But both birth and death are beyond the will of a human being. They are not my domain. I do not think about it. Yoga has taught me to think only of working to live a useful life.”
In each chapter, Iyengar digs a little deeper into the meaning of practice, sharing his insights and experiences. You learn that Iyengar was born with certain infirmities that ignited his passion for therapeutic yoga. He took up teaching yoga against the wishes of his family, causing him to feel embattled and defensive. He adopted stern mannerisms to ward off the advances of students (and to keep his vow of brahmacharya, or sexual continence). “Time has mellowed me, but in my youth, haughtiness was the only way I knew to preserve myself in what seemed a hostile world,” he writes.
The book also contains a mix of practice advice and philosophy. More approachable than a technical manual or a philosophical treatise, Light on Life is a memoir to enjoy from the couch, not to study on the mat. As Iyengar recounts his experiences, he offers his take on the essence of yoga, rather than the asana details he so famously teaches. The book’s only practice sequence comes at the end: Asanas for Emotional Stability. This is, it would seem, what Iyengar has decided is most important: Build your body all you want, but without an open, steady, loving mind and heart, yoga is nothing.
“My hope is to have overcome the prejudice that hatha yoga is only physical and it has nothing to do with the spiritual life,” he writes in the conclusion. “My life’s work has been to show how this is a path that can lead the dedicated practitioner to the integration of body, mind, and soul.”
Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life by Judith Hanson Lasater
Clearly, there are many great how-to practice books and many great works on yoga philosophy, but as Iyengar himself suggests, it’s not always easy for us to see the connection between our physical practice and inner transformation. As a bridge between the two, Judith Hanson Lasater, a longtime teacher and physical therapist with a PhD in East-West psychology, shows us how yoga applies to our daily lives and enables us to act more skillfully in the world.
For those seeking to connect their work in forward bends to the work of commuting, managing a career, raising children, and taking care of the small stuff that does sometimes make you sweat, Living Your Yoga is filled with moments of inspiration and opportunity drawn from Lasater’s experience as a teacher, shopper, mother, and more. In sharing her stories, she shows how you, too, can let your practice seep into every corner of your life.
Although her book contains a pastiche of inspirational quotes from the Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gita, parables, anecdotes, and suggestions for off-the-mat practice, it is mostly a guide to simply noticing your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the life unfolding around you.
Lasater arranges chapters around life’s big issues—courage, fear, compassion, faith, impermanence, and love—but she looks for clues in mundane places: in the waiting room at her dentist’s office, at the sandbox, in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, within a Father’s Day card, and even inside a store-bought pie. When she uncovers a bit of truth, it’s often funny, profound, and wholly relatable—as when Lasater’s toddler daughter informs a family friend that her stressed-out mommy is practicing “traumayama.”
Her message is that life, as it is, provides everything you need to guide you to your own enlightenment. “Yoga philosophy can be very challenging—even for advanced students,” notes Tracey Ulshafer, a yoga teacher in East Windsor, New Jersey. “The gift in Judith’s book is that she takes a sutra and puts it in the context of everyday life. Her stories are ones we can all relate to, and you can really get the point: This is all part of the journey.” In other words, yoga happens off the mat, too. “Yoga is about transformation, about understanding where we are and how we are in every moment,” Lasater says. “If I decide that yoga only happens on my mat, I’m completely missing out. Yoga is everywhere.”
One of Lasater’s students also has ideas about how yoga can help you on your journey. New Zealand yoga teacher Donna Farhi assisted Lasater for years. Naturally, Farhi too is interested in the intersection between the yoga mat and the “ground” it meets—which is to say, real life. In Bringing Yoga to Life, Farhi uses her experiences as both teacher and student to build a case for getting on a mat.
The first section, “Coming Home,” examines the various reasons we practice. The next section, “On the Means,” details what’s required: slowing down, purifying and disciplining yourself, embodying awareness, observing prana (life force), trusting your inner teacher, applying yourself, surrendering, and setting an intention. In a tone that’s compassionate but firm, she explores the width, depth, and breadth of the path and addresses the possible pitfalls and stumbles. The last section, “Roadblocks and Distractions,” lets you know what to look out for along your yoga journey and gives advice for dealing with its inevitable snags. Farhi’s writings on sloth and resistance will resonate with modern practitioners who allow competing priorities to sink their practice.
Farhi combines fun fables and anecdotes from class with questions that any serious practitioner should ask. And she’s a vocal advocate of practicing—using your time on the mat to examine your physical and mental patterns every day. “This book is written for people who have given up on the fantasy that happiness is determined by luck or circumstance and have realized that a fulfilling life is the result of skillful means and self-determination,” she writes. Farhi makes it clear that, really, the only thing standing between you and a happy, whole, and healthy life is your own self. You’ll want to come back to her words for inspiration again and again. But to honor the spirit of Farhi’s effort, you’ll have to put down the book and get on your mat. Because yoga is for practicing, after all—not just reading about.
Gary Kraftsow, the founder of Viniyoga, may be remembered as the author of Yoga for Wellness, a seminal book about applying the tools of yoga in a therapeutic context. But one might argue that Yoga for Transformation, which makes profound practices and abstruse ideas readily available to readers, is an even greater work.
In Yoga for Transformation, Kraftsow offers a path to enlightened living—not transcending the human experience, but transforming it into one of connection, love, and happiness. He takes you through a guided tour of the five koshas (energetic sheaths), with the aim of engaging and maximizing the functioning of the self at every level. This approach is evident in the chapter names: “Nourishing the Physical,” “Energizing the Vital,” “Educating the Intellect,” “Refining the Personality,” and “Fulfilling the Heart.” As in the kosha model for spiritual development, no part of the self is left behind on the quest for union with the Divine.
Viniyoga is a personalized form of practice modeled on the teachings of Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Rather than teach large classes, Viniyoga instructors typically teach privately or in small groups and offer you a sequence to do on your own, based on your particular situation or on a therapeutic approach to a specific condition. So it is surprising to find that Kraftsow offers five ready-made sequences, each linking asana, pranayama, chanting, ethical intention, and meditative practices. But Kraftsow makes it clear that he’s presenting the essence of the teachings—not the particulars. By applying the information to your unique set of circumstances, you can work out the details for yourself.
“Read with the right intention, the book can take you on an inward journey to know yourself,” says Robin Rothenberg, a Viniyoga therapist in Issaquah, Washington, who wrote The Essential Low Bacl Back Program. You don’t even have to commit to a Viniyoga practice to reap benefits. “His rich, deep map will lead you places you have been unable to see so far.”
A Bigger Shelf
More recommended reading for yogis:
Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual by David Swenson: A guide to Ashtanga Yoga’s primary series, expertly modeled. In the tradition of the late K. Pattabhi Jois, the book offers 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory.
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda: The classic spiritual memoir, first published in 1946, still resonates with practitioners today who are looking for self-realization.
The Eight Human Talents: Restore the Balance and Serenity Within You with Kundalini Yoga by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa and Cathryn Michon: A walk through Kundalini Yoga marries Gurmukh’s personal experience with the wisdom of her teacher, the late Yogi Bhajan.
The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience by Sally Kempton (aka Swami Durgananda): How to transform—rather than transcend—your emotions with a wide range of meditation techniques. Out of print, but well worth tracking down.
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar: A clear and rewarding introduction to what “yoga” means beyond the practice of asana, written in straight-forward prose that—as the title suggests—speaks to the heart.
The Language of Yoga: Complete A to Y Guide to Asana Names, Sanskrit Terms, and Chants by Nicolai Bachman: A guide to Sanskrit words commonly used in yoga classes, with an emphasis on pose names. An accompanying CD offers correct pronunciations.
Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind by Frank Jude Boccio: A thought-provoking and informative book that explores the common ground of yoga and Buddhism. Practical guidance for how and why to apply mindfulness techniques to asana.
Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee by Rodney Yee: Yee makes home-practice time compelling by offering eight weeks’ worth of instruction with weekly themes: for example, “opening to vulnerability” or “listening inward.”
Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann: A guide to 45 asanas, with thorough instructions. This book is filled with the wise advice of a master teacher yet points the reader toward the wisdom of the ultimate guru: the Self.
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff: Ever wanted to look inside a yoga pose? This book’s excellent illustrations show exactly what’s happening in the body in 75 asanas.
Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing by Yoga Journal and Timothy McCall, MD: An important bridge between yogic wisdom and Western medical tradition, this book also serves as a fine introduction to yoga therapy.
Yoga: Awakening the Inner Body by Donald Moyer: An underappreciated yoga master dives beneath the surface to teach asana from the inside out.
The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama by Richard Rosen: This book on pranayama serves as a compass for those eager to explore the uncharted territory of the breath.
The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein: A thorough compendium of philosophical knowledge, complete with translations of several key yoga texts.