Yoga in the West has a few issues. North America focuses almost exclusively on the physical components of yoga as a discipline, from asanas to some of the more “sensational” cleansing practices. It comes as a surprise even to seasoned practitioners that yoga is an umbrella over dietary guidelines, moral precepts, and practices that form what might be considered a philosophical system.
Yoga is often considered primarily a collection of asanas, with headstands constituting the end-goal. It can happen that, years into sustained practice, one realizes that walking around the studio on finger-tip does not necessarily constitute complete sadhana. I’ve always felt that our collective introduction to yoga has been approached from a backward direction. We need to understand that Patanjali’s eight branches point to a common goal, which can be described by a variety of terms, including peace, enlightenment, and freedom. Asanas represent one tool that can be used to attain this goal, but in complete yogic training, they cannot be the goal itself.
To participate in daily classes is an excellent foray into yoga, but it’s limited. The physical benefits are undeniable, though advanced practice often reveals the need for symbiotic disciplines, such as pranayama, the limitation of intoxicants and detrimental foods, and meditation that leads to deeper body-awareness. Though there is “Occidental” resistance to the idea that yoga consists as much of mental/emotional discipline as it does physical, it is undeniable that certain levels of asana practice absolutely demand introversion and mindfulness in order to prevent basic injury.
It can be intimidating to think of yoga as an infinite system, with even Patanjali’s eight paths seeming to diverge into a limitless array of guidelines about diet and meditation, exercise, morals, philosophy, and breathing. You just attended a hot yoga class, sweat the equivalent of half of your body weight, funneled electrolytes into your water bottle, and you’re ready to crash – now you have to think about withdrawal from sensate desire?
I’d like to think that, while study of scriptures is a yogic directive, a secular equivalent might be the study of modern sources that help us to understand the history and current applicability of five-thousand years of practice. Some resources that are far better researched than others, both in academic senses and in terms of long-term empiricism. Recommendations from trusted sources can be invaluable, for this reason.
As a yoga student, I read voraciously. Some books have, understandably, not resonated with me, occasionally because of my point of progress at the time, and occasionally because I felt as though I were reading a cold-call sales manual. There have been, though, several books that have fundamentally increased my dedication to my own sadhana, and have improved my understanding of why and how to train. I submit these to you for your own study and judgment, with the firm belief that education outside of the studio is as important to a complete understanding of yoga as is commitment to a physical routine.
An excellent resource regarding the physical impact of yoga is Leslie Kaminoff’s and Amy Matthew’s Yoga Anatomy. As a handbook and reference, it is indispensable. It addresses questions about the very basic physiology of asanas; I find it especially useful for those interested in the rehabilitative potential of asana practice. What I appreciate about a book this comprehensive is the fact that the language used makes the subject accessible by a lay public, and it includes many (very) useful diagrams.
B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is another excellent resource, which helps the reader to access Patanjali’s foundational writing.
For those who are interested in reading a deeply personal account of spiritually oriented yoga (a fascinating contrast to the sweat-and-savasana model), a seminal book long in print is Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.
I hope that you will find the above books rewarding and interesting. I welcome all feedback and I would be delighted to compile a list of reader resources.