Five Essential Yoga Practice Books

I think a lot about writing yoga books. My ambition is to write THE ULTIMATE yoga practice book that is simple yet comprehensive, thorough yet versatile. Of course, such a book can never exist. A book is finite, a snapshot of a summary of knowledge that, in the act of organization, limits the knowledge of the writer. Human experience and expertise is non-linear. The same piece of information can be expressed in a multitude of ways, changing its flavor to suit the context. That ultimate practice book, therefore, can never be written, not by me, not be even the greatest yoga master. There are some pretty great ones out there, however. Here are 5 general texts that I think everyone should have at their disposal:

1. "Light on Yoga" by B. K. S. Iyengar

Light on Yoga is the grandaddy of all yoga books and is central to the Iyengar method. In any Iyengar center you will find at least one well-worn copy and everyone refers to it simply as "the book." Published in the 60's, there are many reasons why it still holds up today. The opening chapter gives a solid, if somewhat turgid, outline of Patañjali's Classical Yoga, filtered through Iyengar's eclectic blend of neo-Vedanta, New Age religion and devotional sectarianism. There is only a little bit of pranayama in the book, though that gets developed more completely in his much later "Light on Pranayama". There is also a comprehensive 300-week progressive course to take you from the raw beginner stage to that of an advanced practitioner. (Watch out for week 26, however, when things take quite a substantial leap forward for your average Westerner.) He also includes a handful of therapeutic sequences for various ailments.

The real magic of the book comes in the section on the actual poses. Some 200 poses are featured, illustrated with beautiful photographs that took Iyengar some three years to complete to his satisfaction. Though some of the poses have evolved over the years to changed proportions, and there is no use of props in the book, the pictures are in indispensible resource for practitioners of any method. Iyengar's precise technique comes to the fore and anyone could learn much by poring over them in detail. The sequencing of the poses is well worth paying attention to. The 200 poses are laid out in an evolving progression, from simplest to most challenging. Though the sequencing may at times seem arbitrary, this could not be farther from the case. Nothing is presented in this book without great thought invested in it.

The current US edition, though affordable, is not the best in terms of reproduction. A more recent edition in a larger format with better quality paper and slightly larger pictures was published in the UK and seems to be available through Amazon's extended network of book suppliers. This is the edition that I use at home. It is worth the inconvenience and extra investment if you are serious about your practice.

2. "Light on Pranayama" by B. K. S. Iyengar

What Iyengar did for asana in Light on Yoga, he does for pranayama, the yogic breathing practices, in Light on Pranayama. He opens the book with a few short, perfunctory chapters on anatomy and the subtle energetic aspects of the body. There is only a bare minimum of this background information. Those after more detail will have to go elsewhere. The rest of the book, however, is a treasure trove of meticulously detailed information and instruction on how to set up for and practice more than a dozen types of pranayama, each one broken down into progressive stages to allow the practitioner to refine and develop their understanding of the techniques. He also includes a multi-week progressive sequence for practice that will take you from preliminary to advanced practices. I've followed the courses many times. The progression is gentle and extremely manageable.

3. "Yoga: Awakening the Inner Body" by Donald Moyer

I adore this book. I'm completely biased, as I make the trek to the West Coast twice a year to study with Donald at The Yoga Room in Berkeley. Yoga: Awakening The Inner Body is the next best thing to taking class with this extraordinary teacher. Donald was among the first of the current generation of teachers in the Iyengar Tradition to go to India and study with the Master. Iyengar Yoga has changed substantially in the intervening years, more to the taste of some than others. Whereas the early spirit was one of experimentation and exploration, as Iyengar gets older, those closest to him have chosen to interpret his work more and more rigidly, making for what is often criticized as a cold and militaristic practice.

Not so with Donald Moyer, whose sweet and uplifting nature permeates his style of teaching. His teachings are uncompromisingly sophisticated, but come from a place of enthusiasm and playfulness. He gives instruction designed to help you understand where your body fits in the great range of human variety and to help you work in such a way as to make the poses benefit your body and your situation. The same is true for his book.

The level of detail in the later chapters is fairly advanced, and might be a bit beyond beginners. It is the first two chapters, however, that are essential to everyone. In these he gives detailed instruction on Head Stand and Shoulder Stand, the two cornerstones of the Iyengar tradition, with their profound healing and meditative effects. In both poses he looks at the basic arrangement of the body and talks about how individuals may vary and what should be done in order to allow for those variations. He gives numerous prop modifications for the reader to adjust the poses to their bodies so that they may work in them safely and efficiently. For those who are not ready for the pose, he also provides alternatives that, over time, will prepare the reader for the main pose itself. There really is nowhere else you can find this kind of information in print.

In the later chapters he presents six different practice sequences addressing specific parts of the trunk and upper body. (He is hoping to follow this book up with a second volume dealing with the lower body.) The level of detail in these practices is remarkable. A basic sequence is presented for each which, depending on your familiarity with the poses, could take between an hour and 90 minutes to complete. He also provides many different related poses to flesh out each practice. The result is a vast number of variations possible with each chapter, depending on which kinds of poses the reader might wish to focus on. There is enough material here to keep even the most advanced practitioner busy for many, many months.

The most impressive aspect of this book is the level of detail. The market is riddled with introductory and beginner books. Even in the case of "Light on Yoga," though it may feature extremely advanced poses, the actual instruction of how to work with the poses is minimal in comparison with Donald's book.

4. "Yoga: The Iyengar Way" by Silva Mehta, Mira Mehta and Shyam Mehta

Students often ask me which book I would recommend they buy. My first answer is usually Yoga: The Iyengar Way. It is a large-format book that is beautifully illustrated with color and black and white photos. One of the nice things about the book is the models themselves. Though their poses are elegant and advanced, their bodies are not intimidating in any way. A lot of poses are covered for such a concise book, with plenty of material for beginners and advanced students alike. Also included is a progressive course which will take you from raw beginner to advanced student. There is a short discussion of philosophy and pranayama which is just enough to get you started, though people looking for more detail on these subjects would be better served by other books.

5. "Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health" by B. K. S. Iyengar

Though credited to B. K. S. Iyengar, I have heard from reliable sources that Yoga: The Path To Holistic Health was actually written by his daughter, Geeta. This enormous tome is by no means definitive, but it does have excellent illustrations of several key poses, many of them using props. The essential part of the book, however, is the extensive collection of therapeutic sequences provided, with sections covering the following:
  • Heart and circulation
  • Respiratory system
  • Digestive system
  • Urinary system
  • Hormonal system
  • Immune system
  • Muscles, bones and joints
  • Skin
  • Brain and nervous system
  • Mind and emotions
  • Women's health
  • Men's health

I've used the insomnia and migraine sequences many times and can vouch for their efficacy. Also included is a 20-week course suitable for beginners.

Department of Shameless Plugs:

"Yoga Practice Journal" by Witold Fitz-Simon

Perhaps not essential, but certainly extremely useful, is my own book Yoga Practice Journal. This journal is beautifully illustrated with paintings and drawings by internationally renowned designer (and my mother) Barbara Hulanicki. It includes: detailed journal pages to organize your practice; self-assessment questionnaires to record your progress; motivational strategies; asana practice guidelines with detailed lists and syllabuses of poses appropriate for different levels; pranayama guidelines; meditation techniques; a breakdown of key aspects of yoga philosophy, and more.

So what are your favorite yoga books?