BOOK REVIEW: The Stories Behind the Poses by Raj Balkaran

The Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga posturesThe Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga postures by Raj Balkaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Released: July 26, 2022

Yoga practitioners will be aware that — while some posture names are banal, straightforward descriptions (e.g. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, or “standing hand-to-big toe pose –”) many others invoke animals, sages, or deities for historical, mythological, or symbolic reasons. As this book’s title suggests, it presents the mythological backstories for fifty yoga postures. The vast majority of these fifty poses are common ones that will be readily familiar to most Hatha Yoga practitioners, though a few are advanced or obscure and aren’t likely to come up in your run-of-the-mill studio class. (And a couple may be familiar to some individuals by another name.)

The book is cleanly organized with five sections (Shiva poses, Vishnu poses, Devi / goddess poses, God story poses, and sage poses) each containing writeups for ten poses. Each pose is presented via colorful artwork in the Indian style (typically with the deity or sage in question performing the posture.)

I found the entries to be well-written and clear (Hindu Mythology can be extremely complicated and some authors get lost in the weeds by including too much minutiae or unnecessary details, but that wasn’t the case here.) The full-page artistic renderings of the poses are also clear and tidy, such that anyone familiar with the pose should readily recognize it.

The one thing I think could have been done better (though probably not without messing up the aforementioned clean organizational scheme) would be to cut some of the redundancy in the stories. In a few instances, the same story appeared in multiple chapters. To the author’s credit, these weren’t just copy / pasted, they were written uniquely, sometimes with additional information or a different focus. Still, it was a bit distracting to find myself in the middle of the same story and wondering whether I’d zoned out or lost my place. This might have been dealt with by putting multiple poses with one story and not repeating the tale one or more times. For example, the stories about Vasisthasana and Visvametrasana are inherently coupled, and the poses might be as well. (Perhaps even referencing the fact that the story had already been told might have been helpful and less distracting.)

All-in-all, I thought this book did a fine job of presenting the myths and relating them to the postures. I learned a great deal from reading the book and would recommend it for yoga practitioners and those interested in Hindu Mythology.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle & Matthew Huy

The Physiology of YogaThe Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a much-needed book for two reasons. First, while there are a number of fine books on anatomy as it applies to yoga, such books focus on the musculoskeletal system, occasionally venturing into the respiratory system – re: pranayama (breathwork.) However, yoga anatomy books rarely giving an overview of the workings of the body as a whole or describe how yoga influences and is influenced by other bodily systems. This book systematically reviews not only the muscles, bones, and lungs, but offers insight into the less familiar systems, such as the lymphatic, immune, and endocrine systems. Unless you want to know more about yoga and the integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails,) this book has got you covered. The book does an excellent job of avoiding muddling science with mythological beliefs about the body, a common sin among yoga books.

Second, there are many physiology misunderstandings and mistakes that are widespread and have come to be repeatedly parroted by new generations of teachers. These range from ideas that are unsupported by scientific evidence to those that are completely in conflict with well-understood science. This book has text boxes throughout that investigate widely taught physiology myths (e.g. twists detox the liver, shoulder stands stimulate the thyroid & pineal glands, kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) stops the aging process, heavy sweating detoxifies the body, and various claims about specific asana / practices curing specific ailments.) These boxes review what studies have been done on each claim, and (in the absence of scientific literature) it discusses whether claims make any sense in light of well-established physiological science.

The book is clear and easy to read, and has well-drawn anatomical drawings and diagrams to help communicate the workings of the body. It also has an extensive bibliography of works referenced.

The book wasn’t perfect. I thought the last chapter, which is a collection of yoga sequences, was out of place and unnecessary, given the objectives of this book. I suspect its inclusion was solely to remind readers flipping through the book that they were reading a book about yoga as well as physiology. (The graphics and headings don’t necessarily scream yoga.) However, I think this could have been more relevantly and effectively by including more graphics throughout that show individuals engaged in yogic practices / asana, or – alternatively – focusing on the physiological aspects of the practices and sequences in the last chapter. There was also a place or two where I wasn’t sure what the authors were saying, not because they didn’t write in a clear and readable style or because what they were saying wholly conflicted with what I understood to be true, but just because there was enough ambiguity that I was left puzzled.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and practitioners looking to expand their understanding of the workings of the human body, and to liberate themselves from some misinformation that has gained a following.

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Moksha [Common Meter]

The Sadhu sits upon the ghat,
so free from suffering.
Like butterflies in still moments
with wings not fluttering.

There's no living and no dying,
just a rare kind of dead,
in which bodies move, but minds don't,
and worlds are gently tread.

BOOK REVIEW: Sadhus by Patrick Levy

Sadhus: Going Beyond the DreadlocksSadhus: Going Beyond the Dreadlocks by Patrick Levy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

I got to the last couple chapters before I realized that this was a novel, and not a work of immersion journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t as compelling as I’d wish a work of fiction to be. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating look into a group of people (Sadhus / renunciants) who are little understood because they exist on the edges of society and can appear strange – if not a little scary – in their countercultural existence. The book reads like an authentic account of the Sadhu experience of a Frenchman who gives up his money and all but a few meager possessions to become a wandering ascetic under the tutelage a philosophically compatible Baba. (Until the fever dream ending instills a bit of surrealism and fourth-wall breaking.) The fact that the lead is demographically and a philosophically like the author, heightens the tendency to believe it’s nonfiction. [It’s quite possibly fictionalized autobiography to some degree, but I couldn’t say to what extent.]

Besides telling a story centered on a wandering Western ascetic in Northern India, the book does double duty in reflecting upon Hindu-Yogic-Tantric philosophy, particularly with respect to metaphysics. The lead character is neither religious nor a believer in the supernatural. Rather, he is (like many of us) in search of an almost defunct variety of a philosophy, the kind practiced by Socrates and some historic and present-day Buddhists, a variety that’s open to questioning and challenging all beliefs and assumptions as the means to better understand one’s world, a variety that recognizes the ubiquity of ignorance with respect to key questions of metaphysics. The story includes a number of Socratic method style conversations, as well as quotes from texts such as the “Avadhuta Gita” and “Ashtavakra Gita.”

I found this story to be compelling and informative, shining a light on a rarely-seen side of India.

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BOOK REVIEW: unMind: A Graphic Guide to Self-Realization by Siddharth Tripathi

unMind: A Graphic Guide to Self-RealizationunMind: A Graphic Guide to Self-Realization by Siddharth Tripathi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This clear and concise guide uses graphics and story to make the self-realization teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (and those influenced by him) approachable and even entertaining. Ramana Maharshi was a Jnana yogi who advocated a single-minded path of self-inquiry as a means of coming to grips with one’s life. This book does a spectacular job of conveying the method of self-realization and exploring the philosophical ideas that inform it.

For those unfamiliar with Jnana Yoga, there can be said to be three forms of yoga. Bhakti Yoga is the devotional form practiced by those who have an affinity for worship. Karma Yoga is associated with actions and a selfless works. This leaves Jnana Yoga, which is the studious branch of Yoga. Jnana yoga is widely considered to be the most difficult path because it requires constant self-investigation, and because one is working without a net in that one takes nothing on faith, but rather one must see for oneself. This makes Jnana Yoga the least appealing “flavor” of yoga, but if one is a scientifically-minded and studious person, it offers an option that one will find far preferable. While terms like “self-inquiry” and “self-realization” may sound pretty pie-in-the-sky, the approach is really quite grounded.

I found both the text explanations and the artwork to be incredibly effective in explaining the ideas behind self-inquiry and Jnana Yoga. The artwork combines comic strip style graphics with full-page stylized images. Not all the material features graphics, but the text-only pages are concise and easy to follow.

If you are looking for insight into Jnana Yoga, self-inquiry, self-realization, or just the way the mind works, generally, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Anatomy, 3rd Ed. by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Yoga AnatomyYoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book has several competitors, and so this review will focus on a few of the features that I believe make it one of the best books on yoga anatomy, and the most appropriate for many users. To clarify, H. David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” has some advantages over this book, but Coulter’s book is also denser and will send neophyte readers to the glossary / internet / library much more often. On the other hand, some of the other yoga anatomy books fixate entirely on postural yoga and treat it entirely as a matter of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement. While a lot of this book (and any such book, really) focuses on skeletal alignment and muscular engagement, I appreciated the books exploration of breath and the nervous system – topics that are often neglected. In short, this book offers a mix of reader-friendliness and detail that makes it at once approachable and tremendously informative.

One important feature of this book is that it avoids the dogmatism of some yoga texts, encouraging experimentation and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to bodies is bound to fail. This can best be seen in the “Cueing Callout” boxes that explore the pithy adjustment directives for which yoga teachers are famous (and often satirized,) advice that is often misunderstood in ways detrimental to a student’s progress.

A second key feature involves keeping anatomy and physiology distinct from the folk science of yoga / ayurveda. While Kaminoff and Matthews do refer to ideas like prana and apana, they do so in a broad, conceptual way that doesn’t conflate said ideas with science. A common problem in yoga texts is conflation of science with folk science such that confused readers are left with a muddle of puzzle pieces that don’t belong to the same puzzle.

Finally, as one who’s found pranayama (breathwork) to be one of the most profoundly transformative elements of a yoga practice, I appreciated that the book not only had a chapter on breath dynamics, but that all the posture discussions included a “breath inquiry” section that encouraged readers to reflect upon the effect of the posture on breathing, as well as suggesting ways in which a practitioner might experiment to improve one’s breathing.

The only criticism I have is that many of the text-boxes in the early chapters seemed to contain random information that could have been incorporated into the text, into footnotes, or edited out altogether. [In contrast to the aforementioned “Cueing Callout” boxes that had a clear and distinct purpose.] If you’re a yoga teacher or dedicated practitioner without a deep scientific background, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this book for learning about the anatomy of yoga.

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Confluence [Free Verse]

with each breath
and each step
you feel yourself
merge with the world

pulling the outside in
pressing into the planet

each breath brings oxygen
used by Buddha or Socrates

grit granules that were 
part of mighty mountains
press into your flesh
or become your bones

the world flows through you
as you flow through the world

Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.