First published by Scroll on International Yoga Day, 2015.
In recent years, some of the traditional schools of yoga referred to here have been publicly called out by multiple former students and staffers. Their detailed testimony exposes these institutions for their rigid, authoritarian practice methods, the cultish atmosphere of ‘guru’ worship they perpetuate, and the ways in which sexual and psychological abuse by charismatic ‘senior’ teachers has been commonly gaslit, deflected and dismissed over decades.
Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory, so goes the famous quote.
Sure, there’s no greater high than a sweaty, stretchy group class or learning to perfect your vinyasa to the latest Kino video online. But it can’t hurt much more than that to brush up on some of the classic and popular texts of this 5,000-year-old practice :
The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali – Sage Patanjali
“A mind free from all disturbance is yoga…”
Sage Patanjali’s seminal work, a compilation of 196 aphorisms, or sutras, is well over 2,000 years old. It focuses on yoga as a meditative practice, with the ultimate goal of yoga as kaivalya, or liberation, from worldly desires and actions.
The sutras, interestingly, are built on samkhya, the rational school of Indian philosophy. Never has this been more relevant than today. Despite fierce (and utterly dubious) right-wing religious claims of yoga as a “Hindu tradition”, Patanjali’s work remains robustly secular and moreover, espouses the samkhya belief that “the existence of God or a Supreme Being is not directly asserted nor considered relevant” to the practice of yoga.
I found that the Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali can be intimidating reading even for advanced practitioners and yogic scholars, leave alone for a novice like myself. The good news is that there are many modern commentaries and interpretations of this text, among them Raja Yoga (Swami Vivekananada, 1896) and Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali : A New Translation (1989). The most acclaimed is B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light On The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali (1993), which many perceive as the definitive ‘Yoga Bible’ in contemporary times. In simple, accessible language, Shri Iyengar offers a new translation of the sutras. He further enriches the text with his own knowledge and experience as one of the world’s leading yoga masters.
Light On Yoga and Light On Life – B.K.S. Iyengar
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what need not be cured…”
Together with Light On The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Light On Yoga (1966) and Light On Life (2005) make up a formidable trilogy of works by Shri Iyengar, a kind of Yogi-pedia for modern practitioners.
Light On Yoga, when it was first published, quickly became a classic with its illustrative descriptions of over 200 asanas and 14 breathing exercises (pranayamas). With approximately 600 photographs and accompanying instructions, it is possible for a student to use this book as a guide, in place of a teacher. There is also a large section devoted to yogic exercises for those with specific ailments.
Almost three decades later, Shri Iyengar wrote Light On Life, which describes how yogic postures and breathing techniques can guide us in the search for spiritual wholeness and harmony. More than this, Light On Life is a deeply moving, personal memoir of the veteran teacher’s own journey within yoga, and it includes warm and humorous stories of his many travels and experiences whilst teaching in India and abroad.
Yoga Mala – Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois
“Do your practice and all is coming…”
First published in Kannada in 1962, Yoga Mala remains the authoritative guide to the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition of Hatha Yoga. This is a flowing, energetic sequence of postures coordinated to the breath that today enjoys great popularity all over the world. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois developed and taught Ashtanga Vinyasa for most of his life and also set up the legendary Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, Karnataka.
Yoga Mala describes the principles and philosophy of Ashtanga practice, and details the sun salutations as well as the 42 asanas that make up the Primary Series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system. Spirited and enlightening, the book espouses the belief that, in Shri Jois’ words, “anyone could attain yoga if they had the desire and enthusiasm”.
The Heart Of Yoga – T.K.V. Desikachar
“Every shortcut is an illusion…”
This is the first yoga text to outline a step-by-step sequence of yoga practice tailored to individual needs, a style known as Viniyoga and propounded by the author T.K.V. Desikachar’s father, Tirumalai Krishnamachar. Revered as a guru to disciples such as Shri B.K.S. Iyengar and Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, Shri Krishnamacharji is widely known as the Father of Modern Yoga and is credited with reviving, and experimenting greatly with, Hatha Yoga. The title of this text is perhaps ironic, I found, considering that Krishnamacharji was known for achieving the ‘stopping of the heartbeat’ during many of his public yogic demonstrations.
The Complete Illustrated Book Of Yoga – Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati
“Health is Wealth. Peace of mind is happiness. Yoga shows the way…”
A disciple of Swami Sivananda and the founder of the internationally-acclaimed chain of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, Swami Vishnudevananda’s comprehensive guide to the benefits of Hatha Yoga is a good way to learn one’s basic concepts. It has an easy, instructive format, with almost 150 photographs and explains the fundamental postures, varying techniques of pranayama, and the natural, ideal diet for men and women. In conclusion is a detailed chapter on the autonomic nervous system of the human body.
Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha – Swami Satyananda Saraswati
“Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today and the culture of tomorrow…”
If you’re looking for a university-standard textbook on yoga theory or rather, a systematically-written yoga manual, this is it. First published in 1969 by the renowned Bihar School of Yoga, I found the text to be a lucid guide through classical yoga, explaining both the simplest and the most advanced practices of the Hatha Yoga system. It remains a must-have for students and teachers alike.
Yoga Anatomy – Leslie Kaminoff
“It is a fundamental fallacy to think that our human bodies work like the structures that humans have built…”
Many powerful texts (originating mainly from India) have stressed the philosophical and spiritual aspects of yoga. But with the sharp rise of its popularity in the West, many students felt the need for more information on the physical effects of the practice. Leslie Kaminoff’s best-selling Yoga Anatomy has served this purpose since it was first published in 2007. His text offers a deeper understanding of yogic postures and explains specifically how the spine, breath and body position are fundamentally linked. Kaminoff, inspired by the tradition of Shri Desikacharji, is a specialist in yoga and breath anatomy and runs a famed studio and breath workshop in New York City.
The Autobiography Of A Yogi – Paramhansa Yogananda
“The future will take care of itself…”
This personal and sentimental account of a Yogi’s life and travels is not for spiritual skeptics! Swami Paramhansa Yogananada’s rich memoir delves into a myriad miracles of faith occurring in ordinary circumstances, but it’s precisely for this reason that the book has acquired a significant cult following. Chapters such as The Tiger Swami and Two Penniless Boys In Brindaban stand out in the narrative, which is largely based on the Yogi’s teaching stints in the United States between 1920 and 1950. Interestingly, upon the Yogi’s death in 1952, his body was kept in a California mortuary and showed no signs of physical disintegration for upto 20 days.
In 1917, Yogi Paramhansa founded the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (known overseas as the Self Realization Fellowship) and to date, many lives continue to be touched by the Yogi’s teachings and meditations. His autobiographic work is considered one of the most moving chronicles within modern yogic literature and has been printed in multiple editions and languages.
I have to confess though, that the first book I ever read on yoga had absolutely nothing to do with yoga – barring its title. Actually, it has everything to do with it. Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It is a delightful collection of essays and anecdotes by Geoff Dyer. It’s part free-wheeling travelogue (“A restaurant on the moon could not have had less atmosphere…”), part crisis-ridden memoir (“I had to be on my own, just so that I would not feel as alone…”) – a combination most budding yogis can relate to! This is a slim paperback, breezy yet never superficial, and its warmth, humour and lack of self-consciousness made me smile. Just as yoga does. So if none of the books on this list so far can interest you, at least try this one.