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BOOK REVIEW: Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of BreathingLight on Pranayama: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is B.K.S. Iyengar’s A-Z guide to breath and breathing exercises (pranayama.) It’s meant to do for pranayama practice what “Light on Yoga” did for asana (postural) practice. That is, it presents all the classic techniques, offers variants to meet individual needs, and provides the background necessary to put pranayama into the context of a balanced yoga practice.

Let me begin by discussing the book’s organization, and this book is organized to the n-th degree. There are parts, sections, chapters, and even the paragraphs are numbered (though–near as I can tell–the latter serves no purpose for a typical reader and may be more for the help of the writer and his assistants. It does create a somewhat biblical scheme, so maybe it was assumed there would be a need to quote this guide “chapter and verse,” as they say in Bible study.)

The bulk of the book consists of the first of two parts, and Part I is divided into three sections. The first of those sections is “The Theory of Pranayama,” and it puts pranayama in the context of yoga’s entirety. If you’ve read other B.K.S. Iyengar titles, much in these nine chapters will be familiar (e.g. discussion of the eight limbs.) However, chapter 4 offers a nice description of the anatomy and physiology of respiration. There are many anatomical drawings and diagrams in it to help convey the complex information. There’s also additional information about the traditional Indian notions of breath encapsulated in the concepts of prana, nadis, and chakras.

Section II is entitled “The Art of Pranayama” and it covers those topics necessary regardless of what technique of breath exercise one is practicing. It includes seated postures, mudras, bandhas, inhalation, exhalation, retention, etc. This section, too, has nine chapters. The final section of Part I describes the various techniques of pranayama. The chapters of this section are arrayed in lists, and they systematically build from the basic technique towards more advanced variations (e.g. by inserting retentions.)

Part II covers meditation (dhyana) and the corpse pose (savasana.) With respect to the former, it suggests how one’s body, mind, and sense organs should be conducted in the act of meditation. In the case of the chapter on corpse pose (after cross-legged seating position, this being the most common position for practice) there’s an extensive look at the details of that pose.

There are a number of helpful features incorporated into the book. In addition to the drawings mentioned in Chapter 4, there are black-and-white photos throughout to clarify the textual instructions. There is also a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an Appendix of courses of pranayama (i.e. recommendations as to how to sequence breathing techniques for optimal results with guidance as to how many sets or repetitions of each to use.)

My major criticism is one I’ve offered about previous books from this author and others. There’s a muddle of science and mythology that makes it hard to know how much weight to give particular instructions. It may be that a given piece of advice (e.g. a contraindication) is based on repeated observations of the physical or mental effects, or on a sound understanding of anatomy & physiology. In which case, it makes sense to heed such advice. However, advice can also be based on myths and the desire to preserve a way of thinking about the human body which is wholly unsupported by evidence. In which case, if one has no dog in the fight to preserve egos, it makes sense to disregard said advice. I suspect the vast majority of statements of what to do (or not to) fall into the first category, but some may fall in the latter, and it’s not easy to tell which is which.

I would recommend this book for students and teachers of yoga. It’s a good reference for one’s pranayama practice.

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