Originally published at yogamatters
What are the best yoga books?
A confession: I’m a bookworm.
I was recently asked by a teacher during a guided meditation, “Where do you find refuge?”. In other words, where do I go for support, reassurance, and inspiration? Where is my safe harbour? I immediately thought of my books! My library of spiritual guides and how-tos of yoga practice and meditation shout pretty loud and clear to me “You are not alone. Many have walked this path.” I take refuge in this great tradition of teaching and go to it when my spirits are low or if I need a good kick in the bum. Whenever I am lost in this big world of yoga, I recall Joan Didion’s directive from The Year of Magical Thinking: “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.”
Not a surprise choice as this is the book on yoga posture practice. Although it is hard to sit down and read for pleasure, it is a handy resource I go to time and time again when I’m trying to understand a complicated pose or just trying to bring a bit more clarity and precision into the poses that have become habitual. Or, in a broader view, I go to this book when I wonder why on earth I’m bending myself into these shapes. In contrast to other books and teachers that can be non-committal and wishy-washy, Iyengar is unapologetically confident and clear. For example: “Practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” My favourite passage, however, comes in his hopeful advice to those facing obstacles along the path:
The attitude of the aspirant is like that of a lover ever yearning to meet the beloved but never giving way to despair. Hope should be his shield and courage his sword. He should be free from hate and sorrow. With faith and enthusiasm he should overcome the inertia of ”body and mind.
Schiffmann’s prose makes me feel alive and want to go out give out free hugs. I can’t think of more moving descriptions of how poses feel and what they can awaken inside of you. Time and time again I go to the gorgeous opening chapters of this asana guide to address the questions of why we need to move and breathe to get to our spiritual heart and why we need to push our edges to continue to grow. My copy is dog-eared and highlighted with many passages, like this one, that gets to the heart of the matter:
Each breath you take can remind you to be here now, to treat this moment as important, and repeatedly to affirm the fact that right now you are exactly where you want to be, doing exactly what you want to be doing. You will probably be amazed at how much energy is suddenly at your disposal the moment you realize this. When you are no longer wishing you were somewhere else, doing something different, you will discover that energy is the given and that energy is abundant. What would you expect but the fullest enthusiasm and response when your body, mind, heart, attention, and interest are all in one place?
If you read this book, you’ll never think about breathing in the same way. Farhi has filled this text with anatomical detail, poetic inspiration, and loads of practical inquiries to experience rather than simply think about it. My first yoga teacher training assigned this book along with a homework assignment to watch our breath throughout the day and notice when, why, and how it changes and how that affects us (for example: “On a tense conference call. Not breathing. Pissed off.”). As Farhi gets to in my favourite passage, the breath is not just breath:
Our breath is constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, entering and leaving our bodies. Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage our internal organs, oscillate our joints, and alternately tone and release all the muscles in the body. It is a full participation with life.
I like to seek solutions. I like to know what to do and do it. My vinyasa flow practice is strong, and deliberate, and very much about finding equilibrium through challenge. I use the rhythm I create in that practice to work out my neuroses and begin the process of stabilising my nervous system. But the fine-tuning and balance comes largely from my restorative practice. Judith Lasater’s teachings have taught me to trust in the natural rhythm of my body and brought me to understand that sometimes slowing right down and accepting comfort and support can be the most radical practice of all. My favourite passage summarises it neatly:
Restorative poses are poses of being rather than doing.
Like many people, some of my first exposure to Buddhist thought was through the popular writings of H.H. The Dalai Lama. The first time I saw him speak in person was at Rutgers Stadium (!) in New Jersey and even though I was up in the rafters, his words and his heart cut straight into me. I’ve always struggled a bit with the Buddhist viewpoint that our underlying nature is good. Perhaps I read too many history books or lived in New York City too long, but I can often veer into pessimism. The Dalai Lama’s unflinching optimism and belief in our goodness always jolt me back, and this precise analysis of the seeming disconnect with our inherent nature and our actions throughout history helps me stay positive and committed to practice. Beyond the more obvious passages about our fundamental quest for happiness, I hold on to this favourite passage:
Although I personally believe that our human nature is fundamentally gentle and compassionate, I feel it is not enough that this is our underlying nature; we must also develop an appreciation and awareness of that fact. And changing how we perceive ourselves, through learning and understanding, can have a very real impact on how we interact with others and how we conduct our daily lives.