This book list is listed in order of my favorite to only a little less favorite books that are important guides and companions on my yogic path. I’d love to know yours. Share your top yoga reads and why you like them in comment section below.
Heart of Yoga is my FAVORITE overview of the yogic system and my number one recommendation to those interested in learning more about the eight limbs of yoga. Mr Desikachar has written a book that gives a great introduction to the history, philosophy and practice of yoga written in a clear, generous and down-to-earth voice. The information is so applicable and accessible. Prepare: You might need a few months and journals to contemplate his interpretation and translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The Bhagavad Gita Arjuna is a warrior and a battle is afoot. He really doesn’t want to fight because on the other side are his cousins, uncles, teachers, and he wonders if it might be better to be killed than to live with the pain of knowing what he has done. This is the setting for a wonderous discussion between Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, who happens to be divine. Krishna tells Arjuna what he must do. He has a duty. He must act. He must relinquish the fruits of his actions. He must have faith in Krishna. The story relates the yogic path through metaphor and it is a must read. I really like Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation.
Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff. The two-page introductory discussion of prana/apana and sthira/sukha and how they relate to the functioning of a cell is worth the $20, right there. Read on and you get Mr. Kaminoff’s illuminating description of the dynamics of breathing which is the best one I have come across. (His organization, “the Breathing Project” is worth checking out.) The next chapter, entitled “Yoga and the Spine,” is also wonderful. THEN there’s the rest of the book— the illustrated asanas. The book is an essential for every yoga teacher.
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter A. Levine, PhD. (from the back of the book…) “In an Unspoken Voice is based on the idea that trauma is neither a disease nor a disorder, but rather an injury caused by fright, helplessness and loss that can be healed by engaging out innate capacity to self-regulate high states of arousal and intense emotions.” Levine’s life work has been dedicated to helping people heal from trauma in body-centered therapy he calls “Somatic Experiencing“. In this book, he does a wonderful job of describing this process. He talks about how the brain evolved and how each part of the brain responds to trauma (neurobiology 101…so good). He connects this to how our bodies respond to and hold onto traumatic experience (my experience of personal trauma made sense for the first time, ever). And he offers hope to readers and therapists by teaching ways to move through and heal from trauma, not only by talking but by working with tension and energy held in the muscles and the nervous system. Read this book. Because Levine’s work is body centered and considers how the brain, mind, body, breath, and even sound can influence our experience, it offers another valuable perspective on the practice of yoga.
Health, Healing, and Beyond; Yoga and the Living Tradition of T. Krishnamacharya, T.K.V. Desikachar with R.H. Cravens. Krishnamacharya’s son and student, Desikachar, talks about the life and teachings of his father. The book offers a blend of biography and yogic philosophy and principles. Two quotes that illustrate both the profound and the pragmatic approach of Krishnamacharya’s philosophy follow…
Illness is an obstacle on the road to spiritual enlightenment. That’s why you have to do something about it. And on the topic of teaching: As long as there is breath, we can do something. good stuff.
Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit, by Donna Farhi is another great book covering the system of yoga. Donna Farhi writes a great interpretation of the yogic system of ethics, the Yamas and Niyamas and I love her seven moving principles.
Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy illustrates human anatomy layer by layer. Drawings of muscles, bones, nerves, arteries, organs… ALL of it is in there. It is a med student’s textbook and so there are lots of used copies out there. I LOVE this book.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, The Bihar School, is another yogic text that offers great detail and an abundance of information on the system of yoga. The Bihar School’s interpretation of the text is fascinating and the glossary is excellent.
Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar begins with an excellent introduction to the philosophy of yoga. Instructions and photos of a huge number of asanas follow and flipping through, you can find photos of Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar bending in the most incredible ways. Light on Pranayama is the other book of his that I really like. You get to see parts of the nose that you might not have known before and a TON of detail about pranayama technique.
The Essential Rumi… Aaahh, Rumi. I feel like I know you. If you are interested in listening to the meanderings, thoughts and passions of a Persian Sufi poet, (and you don’t mind feeling a bit like a voyeur every few pages) dive in. The ecstatic poetry is personal and universal, mundane and incredibly spiritual, and sometimes pretty funny.
The Places that Scare You, A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron. This wonderful woman is a Buddhist. She is a student of Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist who authored Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. In their own special way, both of these teachers describe the human experience in its fullness, with compassion and with an understanding that makes it a little easier to choose goodness, gentleness and courage over fear. I like myself a little better when I get to glimpse at my own actions and humanness through the words of these two people. Plus, if you need your mind to be blown through a compassion meditation, check out Ms. Chodron’s chapter on Tonglen. Shit. I didn’t even know that was possible.
Bringing Yoga to Life: the Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living by Donna Farhi. There are some things in this book that resonate so deeply and are described so beautifully that I’m putting this on the list for the practicing yogi. That said, sometimes her tone and personality really annoy me (which, I must disclose, has much more to do with me than with Ms. Farhi). So push on through the story about helping the homeless man on the porch and the pinch of perfectionism and read it for the goodness that it offers. Because it really is a beautiful book.
The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief by Clair Davies. This guy used to be a piano tuner until he had so much pain in his body that he could no longer do his work. After lots of failed treatment, he finally figured out that trigger points, small contractions in muscle fibers, were the primary cause. He also saw that trigger points refer pain so you have to know where to go to find the culprit trigger point that is causing pain. He did a lot of research, went to massage school and wrote this book and it is very, very useful. You can help yourself with muscle pain. You can help your students understand their pain. I recommend it highly.
End Back Pain Forever by Norman J. Marcus, MD. This book is so readable and so very very useful! Dr. Marcus brings the reader along with him as he describes how difficult and consuming back pain can be, what the medical community tends to do about it, (pin the pain on discs nerves or bones of the spine) and how 75% of the time, this is a misdiagnosis. He offers a wonderful lesson on physiology as he makes the argument (one I agree with) that most of the time, back pain is in the muscles and is due to a person being under-exercised and over-stressed. He talks about trigger points. He talks about suppressed emotions. He offers a sequence of diagnostic movements (useful for teachers!) and exercises that are reasonable, gentle and useful and look a little like a yoga-somatics combo. (If you’ve never heard of “somatics,” check out work of Thomas Hanna…) I have learned a ton from this book.
Healing Back Pain, The Mind-Body Connection, by John E Sarno, MD. Alright. If you are on board with Dr. Marcus and you can see how anger and upset could make you tense and get your muscles all in a bunch, then I’ve brought you along successfully enough to present this book here. Dr. Sarno doesn’t mess around. He makes the point over and over again that our mind is connected to our body—and that this connection is undeniably related to how and why we experience back pain. Back pain is rarely about the spine, disks and nerves. It has way more to do with how you deal with (or don’t deal with) your anger. I’m a yoga teacher, as you know, and I’m all about mind and body, right? Even so, I threw this book across the room when I started reading it. I was insulted by the idea that somehow I was inflicting pain on myself by not dealing with my issues in a healthy way. I think I first read it and thought, “Is this guy saying that pain isn’t ‘real’ and it’s all in my head?” This was very, very difficult for my ego to swallow and turns out, it’s not what he’s saying at all. A few days later, I picked up the mistreated book and read on. The pain we feel is very real and the major work that we have to do to heal it is work with the mind. “Yeah… yup… uh-huh…” Once I got over myself, I saw the light. This book and an insightful teacher-friend helped me to undo this 3-year awful anger-related pain in my leg. I get it. I benefitted from it. I’m a believer.
The Mahabarata is classic Indian Lit. I read the novel length retelling by William Buck. He leaves the Bhagavad Gita part out of his telling which is a bummer, but it is still really fun to read. You’ll get some context for some of the stories that come up in yoga asana and philosophy as you go along. The Mahabharata led me to the Ramayana. Rama and Sita and their love story is really beautiful. There is so much good in these tales. I think I like them because there is a very clear good and evil side to things. I also like that dieties come on in and help when they are needed or sometimes they lay out some weird trials or rules and the characters just go along with it because they are accustomed to dieties and rules and trials, I guess. Anyway, I like them and maybe you will, too.