This weekend, my fellow yoga teacher training students and I set out to complete our 200-hour certification program.
It will be a wonderful weekend full of celebration, but it’s also a bittersweet time for all of us who have become a family over the last six months.
We have become friends. We have experienced one another on the mat, off the mat, at family parties and cookouts. We’ve shared deeply intimate and personal stories. Some have seen their loved ones conquer chemo therapy in this time, others have adopted their 15-year-old nephews and graduated from residency programs and more. We’ve shared hugs and been shoulders to cry on.
I’m deep in reflection about what the last six months have meant for me as a yogi, a man and a human being.
But today, I wish to share with you some essential yoga books that will help you learn a whole lot more about what the yogic philosophy is like.
Whether you’re a yoga teacher, a beginner yogi or neither, these three yoga books are very worth reading.
Why? Because the path of yoga affirms that each of us is our own “yogi” or “guru” in our own lives–even beyond the physical practice of modern day yoga in the West.
Thus, yoga is far more about the manners in which we live than it is about flexibility or contortion.
These three books that I have selected were integral components of my yoga teacher training this year, and I personally consider them to be some of the more fundamental resources that can help a beginner yogi shape his or her understanding of their personal yoga practice–on the mat, certainly, but especially off of the mat and in the course of our everyday lives.
Translated by Eknath Easwaran
The Bhagavad Gita is an epic tale, part of ancient Hindu texts that form a cornerstone to the Indian spiritual philosophy. Finding a resurgence in popularity over recent years as yoga grows in popularity in the West, the Bhagavad Gita or the “Song of the Lord” is a story set upon the field of battle as our hero, Arjuna, contemplates the meaning of life, the quality of his soul and the mission before him on the eve of an epic war.
Though the war in the story line has been a point of debate for centuries, it’s clear to many that this tale is not about the merits of war and killing but a vast, epic allegory for the battle we each wage in our own “everyday” lives.
This is the battle of choosing our good over cowardice; the battle to live a life of purpose and meaning in this, the one opportunity that we have; the battle to give nobly and serve deeply on behalf of others, in spite of our egoic wantings, worries and selfish desires.
“Arjuna is every man,” says translator Eknath Easwaran.
As Arjuna seeks counsel from his wise charioteer Sri Krishna, we begin to hear ourselves asking these same questions in our own heads, relating the feeling of doubt and uncertainty to the battles we wage in our own everyday lives. Arjuna is bound by questions that we have likely asked ourselves time and time again in our heads–and perhaps even with a bit of shame, anxiety and fear.
“Am I doing the right thing with my life? How do I know? How do I know if I’m on the right path? What’s the point of the work, struggle and investment I’m making–in the grand scheme of things?”
The Bhagavad Gita resonated with me strongly. It’s a powerful tale that anyone with a passion for living a meaningful life can relate to, and presents firm advice for living a meaningful life through a dual path of self-realization and service to others.
I read the Gita for the first time thanks to my yoga teacher training, about half-way through our exploration. However, if you share my outlook in wanting a deeper philosophical foundation for understanding the path of yoga “off the mat” and what the dual-path of self-realization and service feels like, I recommend reading the Gita early and often. It is it’s own bible, of sorts: full of reminders and rallying cries to stand tall and fight for yourself.
The Bhagavad Gita is a remarkably enlightened text that begs you to take up the figurative sword of your warrior within: to realize and actualize the God that resides within your Self, to be good, to do good things, and to serve the world around you with selfless words and actions.
Any fan of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saint Augustine, or the ancient Sufi Mystic poets Hafiz and Rumi will find spiritual cohesion with The Bhagavad Gita and realize just how we are all, in our own unique ways, looking inward to examine, understand and find alignment with the same “center” in life.
Translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali is the earliest known documentation of an actual process to the ancient philosophy behind the practice of yoga.
Patanjali is the one credited as the first to write down the oral tradition. We don’t know if Patanjali lived from 3,000 BCE to 400 CE, but recent dating suggests the latter. We don’t know if Patanjali was even a real person: the name could have been used by several writers of the code of yoga who wrote, edited, modified and passed down the code for generations.
Whatever the true history, The Yoga Sutras stands as an incredibly important text of 196 sayings or truths for one to practice the eight-limbed path of yoga.
Each short, dense sutra is meant to be unpacked by a teacher, guru or instructor. That’s why the terse, somewhat confusing passages are written as they are–and why you’ll find many copies of The Yoga Sutras translated with commentary by various yoga practitioners and gurus. Under the tutelage of a master or guru, the yoga student is meant to learn yoga by putting the philosophy into practice in his or her life.
Today, The Yoga Sutras remains a fundamental building block for any yogi to learn the underlying goals of yoga on and off the mat.
A non-yogi who is devout in living a meaningful life and incorporates personal practices like detachment from ego will find a great amount of value in this book.
This particular translation from Sri Swami Satchidananda is one of the more popular versions that exists. I found the translation to feel a bit dated in some sections (first published in the 1970’s, the language and verbiage feel more specific to another decade), but altogether this text will serve you well. And, some of Satchidananda’s silly analogies will certainly make you chuckle.
This translation gives a deep and comprehensive look into the eight-limbed path of yoga in more of a step-by-step method. I would read the Gita first and the Sutras second for this reason–the Gita provides the emotional building block needed to understand why we are on the path of yoga and what it feels like to be living the path of yoga.
With The Yoga Sutras, we begin to bridge the philosophical background with practical application, and implement the how.
by T.K.V. Desikachar
The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar is a great text book that is geared more towards a a modern day yogi than it is a non-yogi.
Because Desikachar is of direct lineage to the “father of yoga in the West,” Krishnamacharya. In The Heart of Yoga, we are privileged to experience lessons, insights and teachings from the son of Krishnamacharya, who presents this book to help yogis develop a very, very accessible and personal yoga practice.
In The Heart of Yoga, you’ll find a much more modernized discussion on the ideas behind a yogic life.
The Heart of Yoga is thus a very practical and simple, yet refined, modern-day interpretation of a personal yoga practice that you can begin to create and implement on your own time and schedule, using simple postures and breathing techniques.
Desikachar helps you understand some of the essentials to a yogic life by putting ideas into application. You’ll learn about how to utilize breath retention (pranayama), and some basic physical postures (asana), plus subtle but important elements of modern yoga like of meeting poses with counterposes, and how to integrate breath with body movement.
The Heart of Yoga is a great introduction to yoga that will help you emphasize the embodiment of yoga in practice and in classes. It’s a great text for someone who is looking to get deeper into an understanding of how yoga is meant to be taught or experienced, especially on the mat.
“Arise; Take Up the Path of Yoga!”
— Sri Krishna, The Bhagavad Gita
Yoga as we know it in the West–the physical practice of postures in 75-minute or 90-minute classes lead by an instructor–is a very, very small piece of what yoga is.
Yoga dates back more than 8,000 years to one of the earliest known civilizations, and offers us many ways, practices, philosophical concepts and ideas to live our lives better, healthier and in connection to the Universal Consciousness or God within each of us.
A yogic lifestyle consists of far more than just asanas or poses.
There is meditation and renunciation, integration practices and breathing exercises, codes of ways in which we treat the world and ways in which we treat ourselves.
On the path of yoga, we become deeply committed practitioners of what we say we believe–we become our own gurus, and understand that the lives that we live are are the curriculum we’ve been given to learn everything that we will ever need to learn.
And that must be why we yoga teacher trainees have become a family in these last six months.
It was never about embodying the poses side-by-side. It was, all along, about living side-by-side with one another in pursuit of our truth, purpose and unapologetic lives.
P.S. — What are your favorite yoga books for beginners?
P.P.S. — All of the above links are affiliate referral links through Amazon.com, so if you do decide to purchase one of these books through the links above, I am entitled to receive a fractional amount (a few cents) per sale from Amazon.com. Otherwise, go out and support your local book store, please :)