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I like to read about yoga. My library of yoga books has expanded over the years to fill all of the available shelf space in the living, dining, and practice rooms, and is now spilling over onto the floor around the bookcases and my computer desk. My wife isn’t amused. “Look at all these books,” she grumbles. “You’re never going to read this one, are you?” waving a dusty, dog-eared tome by Swami Somebody-Ananda under my nose. “Let’s give it to the Salvation Army.”
You too can make your significant other grumble after you read my recommendations of the five most indispensable books for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students. I first asked myself: What kinds of books are appropriate for each category of student? I decided that beginners need basic, nontechnical information, with an emphasis on the fundamental physical dimensions of the postures and breathing, with a little philosophy thrown in for perspective and inspiration. Intermediates need more detailed instruction and a broader historical and philosophical context for their practice. Advanced students want to refine their knowledge and challenge themselves to reach beyond the experienced limits of body and mind.
The choices weren’t easy. There really are a lot of worthwhile yoga books out there, and I’m sure I’m going to hear some complaints from students and teachers about who’s on this list (and in which category) and who’s not. I tried to be fair about my selections. Remember that I’m only listing books that I’ve read and that are in print and widely available and affordable.
And if that isn’t enough, I’ve also included 10 videos to enhance your practice. I’ve looked at around 150 videos over the years and written reviews for about half. Picking just 10 from among them gave me a headache. Like the books, there are a lot of good videos available, but I have tried to list a range of videos from different schools and teachers.
Let the reading, and watching, begin.
The Runner’s Yoga Book: A Balanced Approach to Fitness by Jean Couch. One of the best introductions to the practice of yoga postures. Clearly written and well organized, with more than 400 illustrations and photographs. The models demonstrate three levels of practice—beginning, intermediate, and advanced—so this book will have a long shelf life and be useful for years to come. Covers nearly 100 postures (along with variations), all of them suitable for beginners. Also includes sections on yoga basics and organizing a home practice.
Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind: A Guide to Personal Reintegration by A.G. Mohan. A traditional approach to yoga from a student of the late T. Krishnamacharya, one of the great yoga teachers of this century. Includes introductory chapters on yoga and personal reintegration and the role of the postures, basic instructions on 23 postures (including three inversions), and the proper sequencing (vinyasa) of a daily practice, yoga breathing, meditation, and yoga therapy.
Yoga for Dummies by Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne. Yes, the title is a little off-putting, but think of it this way: According to the ancient yogis, we’re all infected with a kind of spiritual ignorance that makes us “dummies” about the nature of our true selves. This book will no doubt make us a lot smarter. Feuerstein is one of the finest and most prolific contemporary writers on yoga and yoga-related subjects, and Payne is a master of “user-friendly” yoga.
The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality through Essential Breath Work by Donna Farhi. An excellent introduction to the “essentials” of breathwork that will help the beginner prepare for Pranayama, the practice of yoga breathing. Features sections on basic breathing awareness and the anatomy of breathing, common breathing obstacles, preparatory exercises, simple yoga breathing, breathing for couples, breathing “meditations,” and breathing for health and well-being, focusing on various health-related conditions (such as stress, headache, and insomnia), childbirth and menopause, and athletic performance.
The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar. A general introduction to yoga and its practices by one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world today. Chapters are mostly short “meditations” on subjects like yoga and its place in our daily life, the practical and symbolic meanings of the various classical practices, yoga and health, and the physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of yoga.
Light on Yoga and Light On Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar. These companion volumes are classic twentieth-century instruction manuals that should be in every student’s library, regardless of his or her chosen approach. Light on Yoga offers detailed instruction in 200 yoga postures, illustrated with more than 600 photographs. Light on Pranayama is the most comprehensive text available on the practice of yoga breathing. Sections cover the theory and “art” of pranayama, and the techniques of the primary breathing exercises.
Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. Schiffmann is one of this country’s most respected teachers. He has a unique perspective on yoga practice and writes about it with grace and intelligence. The first two sections spotlight basic exercises for breath- and self-awareness, and the fundamentals of yoga postures. The book’s core surveys more than 40 major asanas. Concluding sections treat meditation and techniques for cultivating “spontaneous wisdom.”
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar. Mr. Desikachar is, along with Mr. Iyengar, one of the most influential teachers in the twentieth century. There are really three books in this one volume: a practical guide to yoga postures, breathing, and “locks” (bandha); a survey of classical yoga philosophy (which includes transcripts of question-and-answer sessions with Mr. Desikachar and his students); and Mr. Desikachar’s translation of, and commentary on, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (a good introduction to this fundamental yoga text).
Kundalini Yoga for the West by Swami Sivananda Radha. I went back and forth a long time between this book and Swami Radha’s delightful Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language. Kundalini Yoga explores the “mystical aspects” of hatha yoga through the six traditional energy centers (chakra) in the subtle body. Contains a wealth of information about the yoga tradition and its symbolism, personal thoughts and reflections on a variety of topics (e.g., death, ego and self-image, worship, and kundalini, the cosmic energy at the base of the spine), self-awareness exercises, visualizations, and yoga practices.
Bhagavad Gita (Lord’s Song) Recommended translations by R.C. Zaehner or Barbara Stoler Miller. One of the two traditional scriptures (along with Yoga Sutra) that should be read by every serious yoga student. Written by an anonymous sage sometime in the third or fourth century B.C. and inserted as a very small episode (about 700 stanzas) into the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, the Gita is a poetic discourse on an integral yoga that combines the paths of intuitive wisdom (jnana), selfless action (karma), and devotion (bhakti). I like the Zaehner translation and commentary, but many students find it too academic. The Stoler Miller translation includes an interesting afterword about the Bhagavad Gita’s influence on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch. Power Yoga is one of the most popular and challenging forms of contemporary yoga. While Birch writes about her life in yoga with an engagingly personal touch, her posture instructions are direct and precise. Covers the history of Power Yoga, breathing techniques, two variations of Sun Salutation, nearly 40 standing, seated, and closing postures of the “primary series” (which emphasizes forward bends), 14 introductory postures for the “second series” (emphasizing backbends), and yoga therapy.
Science of Breath: A Practical Guide by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, and Alan Hymes. A perspicacious examination of the relationship between the anatomy and mechanics of breathing and the practice of pranayama by two medical doctors and the founder of the Himalayan Institute. Chapters on “Why Breathe,” “Respiration and the Chest,” “Nasal Function and Energy,” and “The Science of Prana.” The last chapter covers breathing exercises and techniques, cleansing exercises, and sitting postures.
The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein. The Yoga Tradition is the culmination of Feuerstein’s large and distinguished body of work on the history, philosophy, literature, and practices of yoga. It covers the evolution of yoga from its archaic roots in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization (in what is now Pakistan) some 5,000 years ago, to the appearance of hatha yoga around the tenth century. Includes translations of primary yoga texts (some in full, some selected sections) such as the Yoga Sutra, the Shiva Sutra, and the Yoga Vasishtha.
The Yoga of Light by Hans Ulrich Rieker. This rendition of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—one of the classic instructional manuals of hatha yoga—is Elsy Becherer’s English translation of Rieker’s German translation. Written in the mid-fourteenth century by Svatmarama Yogindra, it’s divided into four chapters that cover the foundation practices of “forceful” (hatha) training: asana (postures), pranayama (breathwork), mudra (seals), and samadhi (absorption). I must admit that I’m not entirely happy with this particular translation and commentary; however, it’s the only one widely available and until something better comes along, will have to serve.
Yoga Sutra (Aphorisms on Yoga) by Patanjali; recommended translations include The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali by Georg Feuerstein and Yoga: The Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed To Patanjali by Barbara Stoler Miller and The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Bernard Bouanchaud. The Yoga Sutra is the basic textbook of classical yoga, compiled by Patanjali in the second or third century. The first systematic presentation of the yoga vision (darshana) that influenced many subsequent schools. There are numerous translations/commentaries available. Feuerstein’s translation adheres most closely to the original letter and spirit of the text, but many of my students find it too academic. Stoler Miller’s translation is short and reader friendly. Bouanchaud appends a number of thought-provoking themes for personal reflection to each sutra.
10 Videos for the Library
Kripalu Yoga Dynamic with Stephen Cope. Whenever I see a tape from the Kripalu organization, two words come to mind: integrity and intelligence. Cope, a senior teacher and scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center, has an impressive understanding of the subtleties of the work. He presents a dynamic sequence of about 30 postures that’s accessible to all levels of students.
Yoga: Ashtanga Yoga, the Primary Series with Richard Freeman. Formally called Vinyasa Ashtanga Yoga, this vigorous vinyasa (sequential) practice combines about 60 postures, measured breathing, and other yoga techniques. Freeman is one of the most remarkable teachers I’ve ever seen, the embodiment of skill-in-action (yogah karmasu kaushalam). Though a demanding series for experienced students, even beginners can benefit by watching Freeman’s amazing demonstration.
Kundalini Yoga: The Challenge with Donna Davidge. To me, Kundalini Yoga is the most exotic of all the forms of yoga. This session includes a few traditional static postures, but these are interspersed with lots of quick movements (like rocking or rolling the abdomen, up-and-down squats, and jogging in place) that kindle the belly and spine. Though it’s active, the practice is still accessible to all levels of students.
Desikachar Conversations: The Yoga Questions with T.K.V. Desikachar (The Heart of Yoga Association, 35 min). The only interview tape among the listed 10. Mr. Desikachar is one of the most influential yogis of the twentieth century. He’s the son and student of T. Krishnamacharya, considered by many authorities to be the greatest yoga teacher of our time. Mr. Desikachar answers 17 basic questions about yoga with wisdom and compassion. A splendid introduction to both the practical and spiritual sides of yoga.
Power & Precision: Power Yoga for Beginners with Baron Baptiste. Power Yoga is an offshoot of the popular Pattabhi Jois-based Ashtanga system. This challenging session includes Sun Salutations, standing postures, backbends, and familiar floor exercises. Baptiste has a sincere and expressive delivery that emphasizes both the physical challenges of the practice as well as its more meditative qualities.
Yoga: Alignment and Form with John Friend. Friend is one of the most popular teachers in this country, and one look at this video and you’ll see why. His teaching seamlessly blends the best of Iyengar-style physical precision with his own distinctive brand of psychological and spiritual insight. I first reviewed this work five years ago, and I still think it’s one of the best instructional tapes available for all levels of students.
Aerobic Yoga: The Flow Series with Tracey Rich and Ganga White. This practice is based on a flow series linked by Sun Salutations. It includes traditional Sun Salutations and variations, standing postures, backbends and abdominal work, forward bends and hip openers, and inverted poses. It’s suitable for experienced students who want to cultivate strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Yoga at Home: Beginners Level 2; Intermediate Level 1; Intermediate Level 2; Advanced Level 1 with Yogi Hari. The Yoga at Home series consists of four tapes of gradually increasing levels. Each includes a well-rounded session of yoga breathing, chanting, posture, and meditation. Yogi Hari is a pleasure to watch and follow, a genuine practitioner of the art and science of yoga whose very presence is an inspiration.
Yoga Workout Series for Beginners with Lilias Folan. No list of videos to enhance your practice would be complete without one from Lilias. She has a totally engaging presence and a down-to-earth delivery that makes even the most “alien” Eastern practices seem completely natural. There are four very mild, 30-minute sessions in this package, culled from her popular PBS series.
Yoga Practice Series with Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee. Yoga Practice for Beginners (Patricia Walden); Yoga Practice for Flexibility (Patricia Walden); Yoga Practice for Strength (Rodney Yee); Yoga Practice for Relaxation (Patricia Walden/Rodney Yee); Yoga Practice for Energy (Rodney Yee); Yoga Practice for Meditation (Rodney Yee). Nepotism aside, the Yoga Journal practice tapes (produced by Healing Arts) really are among the best instructional tapes available. Yee and Walden are top teachers, and really perfect complements of power and grace. Together these tapes cover the spectrum of yoga postures.