I got an e-mail recently from one of my early morning regulars with the following question:
“Do you have any good book recommendations for people who are beginners like me who want to learn more about the philosophy/practice of yoga?”
This is a great question, especially if you are a reader by proclivity anyway, why not read about what you practice? It’s also an invitation to controversy; as I hope I’ve hinted in this blog, what yoga is and isn’t, or should and shouldn’t be, is a source of constant controversy. And I mean that in a good way- any spiritual practice or philosophy worth its salt must be examined, re-examined and challenged on a regular basis to claim (and reclaim) its worth and relevance. And there’s no guarantee of agreement- I grew up an altar boy Catholic, and admired priests and teachers who had radically different views on what it means to be a “good Catholic”. All, I believe, are completely sincere, devoted people, whose journey has led them to very different conclusions. I see the same thing in yoga, in Buddhism, in political liberalism and conservatism, and I think it’s mostly a good thing. That’s the long way of saying my views and recommendation might be completely contradicted by another teacher, and it’s up to each student to examine what’s out there and decide what really speaks to them.
Oh, yeah, I promised book recommendations, didn’t I? Here’s where I’d start (and forgive me while I work on the links. I allegedly have a deal with Amazon where I get a few cents if you buy a book the blog links to, but it’s been hard to execute lately…):
Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erick Shiffman
The back half of the book is an asana book, a set of pictures and instructions on yoga poses. But the first half is a rumination of Schiffman’s, one of America’s first and best “celebrity” yoga teachers, journey from curious teacher to master teacher. His meditations on and analogies for the yoga practice were invaluable to me as I developed my own practice.
Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita. Ram Dass is a fascinating story even if he’d never written a word. One of the most colorful and articulate figures of the 60’s counterculture, his journey from Harvard professor to LSD advocate to disciple of Neem Karoli Baba and American yoga guru, and then to a survivor of a debilitating stroke and teacher about aging, is the stuff of legend. He has several books that I love, but this to me is his crowning achievement. Adapted from a series of lectures at Naropa University in Colorado, this is his examination of and ruminations on the Bhagavada Gita, one of the major canonical works in yoga. (there are several, but the Gita and the Yoga Sutras stand as the king and queen of modern yogic philosophy) Dass has a tremendously engaging speaking and writing style, and can explain even very esoteric concepts in very approachable ways. I don’t agree with everything he espouses, especially when it comes to psychadelics, but I happily recommend his books regularly.
B.K.S. Iyengar is in many ways the father of American asana- prominent teachers as diverse as Patricia Walden, Baron Baptiste and David Life all cite him as a major influence, and his seminal Light on Yoga is still one of the bibles of asana practice in America. In later years, though, he has turned his attentions as a writer to yoga “off the mat”, and his most recent work is in many ways the culmination of his career as a teacher, thinker and practitioner. It is mostly concerned with yoga off the mat. Iyenger’s writing style can be a little difficult- he is known to spin off page-long analogies that would make Homer blush- but I always find his writing worth the effort.
(Please note, for the sake of this post I limited my recommendations to books that have a pretty direct connection to “traditional yoga”. As a practitioner and a teacher I am just as influenced by Stephen Mitchell’s translations of the Tao Te Ching, and the work of Byron Katie and Thich Naht Hahn, Pema Chodron and Andrew Cohen as I am by these books, but here I wanted to stay fairly strictly in the “yoga realm”.)
Teacher and students, what other yoga books would you recommend to a curious newbie?