The Secret Power of Yoga
by Nischala Joy Devi
One of the primary ancient texts about yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, wherein Patanjali attempts to name and codify the ancient practice and observance of yoga. The Yoga Sutras were written in Sanskrit around 2,000 years ago and are filled with aphorisms about the theory and philosophy of yoga. There are many translations of the Yoga Sutras available, but this one is my favorite. Translated and commentated by a woman (for the first time ever!), The Secret Power of Yoga makes the Yoga Sutras approachable and relevant to our 21st century life.
The very first Sutra says that Yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind. Tell me we don’t all need that in our lives 🙋🏼♀️
If you’re interested in going straight to the source and reading about yoga, this is a great starting point.
The Science of Yoga
by William J. Broad
If I ever lead a teacher training program, this book would be required reading. Broad is a journalist and true to the book’s name, it examines some of the most common claims of yoga’s health and wellness wonders against the scientific research out there. Stripped of all the spiritual claims, Broad examines yoga as we practice it today, discerning its potential to both help and harm. It’s fascinating to see yoga’s tangible, measurable, verifiable effects in our bodies, providing some scientific muscle to the purported benefits of yoga.
The Path of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice
by Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein and his work is basically the opposite of William J. Broad. While Broad approaches yoga from a journalistic perspective, examining its claims against science, Feuerstein was an Indologist and an expert in yoga philosophy (we’re talking ancient yoga here, the yoga you read about in the ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Tantra texts). The Path of Yoga is essentially a summary of The Yoga Tradition, a 500 page textbook on everything relating to yoga ever. I read the Path of Yoga first and was very glad I’d also purchased The Yoga Tradition because I had a lot of questions after reading it. Acting more like a textbook, The Yoga Tradition is a great reference tool to dig much deeper.
Having grown up in a Christian home largely in the U.S., I dug into these books with virtually zero understanding of Eastern philosophy and religions. These books were an excellent primer to the geographic, historic, social, economic, religious, philosophical, and cultural background of yoga.
The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living
by Stephen Cope
Stephen Cope, God bless him. This book provided a much-longed-for bridge between the purely objective science-based world of The Science of Yoga and the deeply philosophical (and to be honest, sometimes overwhelming) world of The Path of Yoga. Cope is a psychotherapist by training and has been practicing, studying, and teaching yoga and meditation for decades. A Presbyterian by upbringing, Cope approaches the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (one of a collection of texts about yoga, but the primary source for classical Hatha Yoga) from a modern Western perspective.
He begins his book by quoting Mircea Eliade, a leading religious historian and philosopher, saying “‘[We go] to the past only in order to learn about such authentic possibilities of human existence as may be repeatable in the present.’” In other words, according to Cope, you and I do not approach these three thousand year old texts seeking to model our lives word-for-word after them. Rather he insists, these texts contain valuable principles that can enrich our lives today even though we aren’t about to renounce our families, move to a mountain cave, and meditate 24 hours a day seeking some supernatural form of enlightenment. Cope writes engagingly about the wisdom of yoga and how you and I, stressed out city and suburban dwellers that we are, can benefit from it.
While this book is an interesting biography of a woman named Indra Devi, I enjoyed it more as an illuminating account of the development and growth of western yoga which, turns out, is VASTLY different from the yoga practiced for millennia in India (and explored extensively in the Feuerstein books). It’s an easy and interesting read that I’d highly recommend if you want to immerse yourself in the yoga world without going all the way in the deep end of the Upanishads.
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
by Mark Singleton
Singleton flat out makes the claim that the yoga we practice at our YMCAs and Hot Power studios has very little, if anything, in common with the yoga of yore. And it’s not hard to argue with him after reading a lot of the ancient texts (and the commentaries on them) which seem concerned with ends and means that have nothing to do with toned abs, low back pain from sitting at a desk hunched over a computer for 9 hours a day, or women (patriarchy is one thing Eastern and Western cultures have in common). Consider this book a slightly more academic approach (as opposed to Goldberg’s storytelling approach above) to understanding modern (Western) yoga.
There aren’t words in the English language to describe how much I love this book. It is beautiful and poetic and inspiring and immensely helpful. It is less of a How To Manual to meditation and more of a Monet, a complex and captivating expression of something that can hardly be expressed.
The Christian mystics are probably our closest link to Eastern religion, or, better said, the culture of Eastern religions. Finley spent a number of years as a Trappist monk and studied closely with Thomas Merton, and thus writes out of this more mystical Christian tradition. His ocean of love for the Trinity is breathtaking and I found this book to be a valuable guide to connecting my Christian faith with the powerful practices of stillness and meditation.