Yoga books, in general, are intolerable.
It's January, the month when yoga classes fill up with people trying something new. Often they're nervous. They're not sure exactly what they're doing. And they're not alone. We, the people who do yoga, are practicing an incredibly esoteric spiritual system, and often we're practicing it at, of all places, the gym. Clearly we could use a little background information. We need yoga books.
Here's the problem: Most yoga books stink. They are chock-full of paths and intentions and destinies. They are crammed with horrible words like holistic and mantra. You can practically feel their authors glowing with smugness. I once read a yoga book so replete with self-congratulation and platitudes that it made me quit yoga for a month. I refused to be party to a culture that could give rise to such a document.
There are a few tolerable yoga books out there in the lotus-festooned rubble.
Awakening the Spine, by a wiry Italian crone named Vanda Scaravelli, is an eccentric little book beloved by yoga teachers. Scaravelli is a bossy grandma, a circus freak (you get to see amazing photos of her beautiful, weathered body in astounding poses), and a game, able spiritual teacher all at once.
Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope, teeters dangerously close to the kind of new agey babble that kills most yoga books. But Cope has worked as a psychotherapist for most of his life, and he does a brilliant job of aligning the ancient practices of yoga with Western ideas about psychology. This book tackles the terms of yoga philosophy and makes you feel they might actually relate to your life. And when the term is something like the "bliss sheath," that's quite an achievement.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a 14th century text that is much easier to read than the more famous Yoga Sutras. The Pradipika plunges the reader into the rather exciting and sometimes frightening world of nasal cleansing, ritual enemas, and extreme chanting. You have to love a book that gives these instructions: "The Yogi should practice Hatha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully."
Reading the Pradipika is like visiting a foreign country — a place where the most basic social mores are unfathomable to us. This book is a frank corrective to the notion that we, in our yoga studios or our gym yoga classes, understand very much at all about yoga. And humility is always the best accessory to bring to a yoga class.
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Claire Dederer's essays, criticism, and reporting have appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, Slate, Yoga Journal, Real Simple, and the Nation. She lives on an island near Seattle.
Books mentioned in this post
Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses