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

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Life at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft

Life at the ExtremesLife at the Extremes by Frances Ashcroft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Anyone interested in the limits of human physiology will find this book fascinating. Technically, its subject matter is broader than that, considering the environmental limits of living creatures, generally. However, all but the last chapter focuses on how humans react to (and adapt to) extreme conditions. Chapters one through six explore the challenges and limitations of humans under extreme conditions of elevation (ch. 1,) of pressure [underwater] (ch. 2,) of heat (ch. 3,) of cold (ch. 4,) of intense physical activity [running-centric, but deals with strength and power as well] (ch. 5,) and in space (ch. 6.) Then, each chapter reflects upon examples of species that are extremely well-adapted to said conditions, and why. (e.g. After learning about how and why humans have to acclimate to survive high elevation treks, one learns about the bar-headed goose, a bird that can go from sea level to flying over Everest – all in the same day.)

The final chapter (ch. 7) is a bit different in that it discusses extremophiles, creatures that can survive in a wide range of conditions (e.g. acidity, temperature, lack of moisture, lack of oxygen, etc.) that would be certain death not only for humans but for any animals. Most of the species discussed are either single-celled creatures or tiny multi-cellular life (e.g. Tardigrades.) With respect to humans, there is a discussion of the limits and present understanding of suspended animation.

This book offers an intriguing look at life at the extremes. While written by a Professor of Physiology, it’s highly readable for a general audience. It mixes narrative examples in with the discussion of physiology to make the material approachable and engaging. 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

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Functional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr & Mary Kate Feit

Functional Training AnatomyFunctional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Exercise regimens that improve the body’s ability to coordinate movements in order to carry out particular actions relevant to the exerciser’s life have increasingly come to be valued in recent years. (Traditionally, fitness regimens often focused on one muscle / body part at a time without an eye toward whether the strengthened muscles worked well together when applied to the required motion – or sometimes regimens focused entirely on how the muscles look.) This book is designed to show muscle activation for a wide range of functional fitness training exercises. It is one volume in a series of anatomy for sports / exercise books put out by the publisher, Human Kinetics.

Each exercise under discussion features an anatomical cut-away drawing showing the muscles that are working, as well as a list of the primary and secondary muscles, a diagram showing which planes are being worked in during the exercise, a step-by-step description of how each exercise is performed, and a brief discussion of what functionality is improved by doing the exercise in question — always with a supporting drawing of a relevant action / motion. Some of the exercises offer a variation.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first chapter gives an overview of what functional training is (and how it contrasts with other approaches,) and provides the necessary background to understand the exercises explanations (e.g. the planes of the body,) the rationale for what exercises are included, and what must be kept in mind with this approach to exercise. Chapters two through five look at various types of exercise, besides strengthening exercises. These include: mobility / flexibility exercises (ch. 2,) motor control / movement preparation exercises (ch. 3,) plyometric exercises and kettle-ball (ch. 4,) and power exercises using heavy weights (ch 5.) Chapters six through eight focus on strength exercises by body part: upper body (ch. 6,) lower body (ch. 7,) and core / rotational strength (ch. 8.) The last chapter provides advice on how to put a program of functional training together.

The book doesn’t include much ancillary matter. The front matter consists of a brief preface, and the back matter provides an “exercise finder,” a detailed index to find the desired exercise rapidly. [The latter has a nice feature. It includes a drawing of the exercise. That’s useful because exercise names, while prosaically descriptive, can often be confusing (e.g. what two trainers call a “hip extension” may vary, though they will both no doubt feature extension of the hip joint in some way.)] There is a page for those who are using the book for Continuing Education (CE) credit that explains what resources are available.

I found this book to be beneficial and educational. I learned a few new exercises, and was provided with some interesting food for thought. The drawings are clear, both in their representation of the exercise and the anatomical cutaways. If you are looking for information on functional training, particularly which discusses muscle activation, I’d recommend you give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras

Bodyweight Strength Training AnatomyBodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book combines a calisthenics manual with the anatomical drawings and descriptions necessary to explain the muscle activations involved in each exercise. It takes a very straightforward approach, being organized by body part. Each chapter discusses the component muscles of said part and their unique features, and then gives a series of exercises to work said part. For each exercise, at least one anatomical drawing is provided, showing the primary and secondary muscles being worked in the exercise. In some cases, more than one drawing is needed to convey the full range of motion of the exercise, but in many cases one drawing is sufficient. Each exercise also receives a brief bullet-point description of the action, a textual list of muscles utilized, and notes on issues and cautions to keep in mind to get the most out of the exercise.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book. It discusses general principles to be kept in mind like the need to balance opposing muscle groups, and it also lays out the advantages and limitations of calisthenics, or bodyweight, workouts over other approaches to fitness. Like a number of other calisthenics’ books, this one emphasizes the advantage of not necessarily needing any equipment. In other words, with a little creativity and some quality doors, robust furniture, or park access, one can do all of these exercises without either a gym membership or costly trips to the sporting goods store. Of course, one does need sturdy stationary objects to pull against, particularly to maintain a balanced upper body. What I like about this book more than some others I’ve read is that it emphasizes the need for safety in taking the equipmentless approach. I’ve cringed before in seeing some of the improvised set ups that have been jury-rigged as examples in other calisthenics manuals, but this book uses stout furniture and rafters to get the point across.

Chapters 2 through 9 each focuses on a particular body part, including (respectively): arms, neck and shoulders, chest, core, back, thighs, glutes, and calves. Each chapter starts with some general information on muscle action before launching into the exercises. If you have a particular interest in developing your glutes (i.e. your butt, your backside), then this is definitely the book for you. The author specializes in glutes, and while there are about a typical number of exercises for that musculature, the background information up front is more extensive than for most of the other chapters. For many of the exercises, the author proposes regressions and progressions — that is, easier and harder variants of a fundamental for those who either aren’t up to the basic yet or who need a harder version to challenge them.

The penultimate chapter, Ch. 10, presents whole-body exercises (e.g. burpees, mountain climbers, etc.) and discusses the benefits of including such exercises in one’s workout regimen. Included in this chapter is an introduction to both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and to Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT.)

The final chapter offers an overview of all the factors to keep in mind when arranging exercises into a program (e.g. number of sets, repetitions per set, and how such considerations are varied depending upon one’s goals.) There’s a lot to consider when putting together a workout regimen, including: the necessary rest periods, balancing one’s workouts to avoid structural imbalances, and how to vary one’s approach depending upon one’s individual goals. A section on exercise for fat loss is included, which is important not only because there are so many people interested in that subject but also because there is so much misinformation out there.

As mentioned, most of the graphics are anatomical drawings showing the muscles in cut-away as the action of the exercise is being performed. There are a few other graphics to help clarify information, as well as tables in the last couple chapters to present information in an organized and easy to use fashion.

I found this book to be informative and well-organized. It’s a straightforward presentation of the skeleto-muscular action involved in various calisthenics exercises. If that’s what one is looking for, or even if one is just looking for a guide to bodyweight exercises, this book will meet your needs.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Anatomy, 2nd Edition by Puleo and Milroy

Running Anatomy 2nd EditionRunning Anatomy 2nd Edition by Joseph Puleo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores anatomy (and to a lesser degree physiology) as it pertains to running, and shows how one can strengthen anatomy to increase one’s performance as a runner.

I will divide the book up into three parts, though that division is not explicitly made by the authors. The first three chapters discuss running fundamentals. Chapter 1 explores the nature of movement in running. The reader learns about the phases of the running gait and the muscle activation relative to said phases. The second chapter focuses heavily on the anatomy and physiology of the cardio-vascular system and the impact it has on muscle performance. Chapter 3 discusses external factors that can influence running performance such as air temperature, humidity, terrain, and altitude.

The second part of the book consists of the middle five chapters, and gets to the heart of the subject. These chapters investigate the role of musculature in running and show numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen said muscles as well as describing the activation of muscles in those exercises. Starting from the ground up, these chapters proceed as such: feet and ankles, legs, core, shoulders and arms, and chest and back. One might not think that the upper body is critical to running, but the authors demonstrate otherwise.The exercises selected assume the availability of a full range of fitness equipment: machines, free weights, as well as elastic bands and BOSU – though some bodyweight exercises are included.

The third part of the book explores some odds and ends that are crucial, but not covered in earlier chapters. Chapter nine explains how to avoid injuries. Running is an activity that offers plenty of opportunity for repetitive stress injuries because it’s an endurance activity involving iterated actions. Chapter ten explores alternative training programs (e.g. training in the swimming pool or on treadmills), and the pros and cons of such activities. The last chapter is about gear, and – not unexpectedly – much of it is devoted to shoes and questions such as whether one needs orthotics. It should be noted that the authors are firmly in the camp that favor footwear. (There are many advocates of barefoot running in recent years.)

There are many color drawings that show which muscles are activated by movements. The drawings are clear and effective. There is an index of exercises at the end that makes it easy to find various exercises.

I’d recommend this book for runners and trainers who are interested in how muscles can be strengthened and stretched to increase performance and minimize the risk of injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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5 Essential [and Sometimes Hilarious] TED Talks About the Human Body

5.) 3 Clues to Understanding your Brain by VS Ramachandran: Ramachandran discusses three afflictions that offer insight into the working of the brain. Capgras Syndrome occurs when individuals think loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Phantom limbs occur when there is an amputated limb which the brain continues to feel the presence of. Synesthesia is a muddling of sensory inputs /experiences.





4.) Charming Bowels by Giulia Enders: How we poop. How our gut nervous system influences our central nervous system. Why there is such a thing as “too clean for your own good.”





3.) Can We Create New Senses for Humans by David Eagleman: Our senses are narrowly attuned to taking in that information that offered evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. How might technology help us transcend those bounds?





2.) 10 Things You Don’t Know about Orgasm by Mary Roach: Eyebrow orgasm, thought-induced orgasm, orgasm among the deceased, and how orgasm may cure your hiccups.





1.) The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky explains that one can’t look at one biological system to understand violence or cooperation. Instead, genetics, environment, our nervous system, our endocrine system, and even the digestive system come into play. He also considers how we change.

BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter

Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and PractitionersAnatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners by H. David Coulter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many books on anatomy for yoga, and I’ve read my share, but this is my favorite.

What did I like about it? First, Coulter examines the anatomy and physiology of breathing in some detail, and that’s an important topic that is overlooked by many others. A lot of yoga anatomy books stick exclusively to the musculo-skeletal system. Second, this book doesn’t mix science and pseudo-scientific mythology. Sometimes books shift from talking about arteries and veins to nadis and chakras in a manner that can be confusing and counterproductive. Third, the book discusses how postures can be safely varied for individuals with limits, as well as discussing the most advanced expression of postures for more flexible or skilled students.

What’s the catch? There must be a downside? Well the book is dense and it’s a challenging read. It’s not that the writer uses too many technical terms. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, Coulter is careful not only about using anatomical terms, but also avoids reliance on Sanskrit names as well. It’s just that there is a lot of material that one must read painstakingly while visualizing and–in some cases—tactically probing around one’s body (or someone else’s–if they’ll let you.) I don’t know that there’s much that could be done about this, given the desire to convey the material that the book does—and it’s valuable information. The book has a large number of graphics that mostly consist of anatomical drawings and photographs of the various versions of the postures. It’s possible that more graphics could have been used to reduce the amount of descriptive text, but—on the other hand—reading it slowly and carefully is a useful and productive exercise. And, if you’re not reading it for your RYT-500, you can take your time and read it section by section, as time permits, over the course of more than a year as I did.

The ten chapters of the book are mostly divided up by classes of posture (asana.) Chapter 1 is about “movement and posture” and provides the necessary background that one will need to understand the later chapters. Chapter 2 is on breathing–both the musculature involved and the physiology of it. The rest of the chapters are on core exercises, standing postures, back bends, forward bends, twists, headstands, shoulder-stands, and meditative postures, respectively.

The book has a glossary, a short bibliography, and two indexes (one by anatomical parts and the other by practices/postures.) I normally don’t bother to mention indexes, but in this case it’s useful to know because the book’s organization is by type of posture, and so it’s not always straight forward where various muscles or tissues are being covered.

As I say, I found this book to be tremendously informative. I recommend it for yoga teachers as well as intermediate / advanced practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Breath by Swami Rama et. al.

Science of BreathScience of Breath by Swami Rama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie, but a goody. The first edition came out in 1979, but as its intent is to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of breath for yoga practitioners, the fact that it doesn’t access the bleeding edge of respiratory science isn’t all that detrimental.

This short book consists of four chapters. Two chapters are by the famous yogi Swami Rama, and the other two are written by medical doctors. The first chapter is an introduction to breath from the yogic perspective. It both explains why it’s so important to understand and work with breath and introduces the mythic physiology (prana, nadi, chakra, etc.) that has historically been used to explain pranayama (breath exercises.)

The second chapter is written by Dr. Alan Hymes and it explains the mechanics of respiration. While Chapter 2 focuses on the anatomy of breathing, it begins with an explanation of cellular respiration to introduce the role of breath in powering muscles. There is a fine explanation of the operation of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles in breathing.

Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and it delves into the role of the nose and nasal cavities in respiration. Breathing through the nose is emphasized in both yoga and many other systems of breath training (e.g. the Buteyko and Wim Hof methods.) This is because the nasal cavities perform many useful functions such as moisturizing and warming air, capturing pollutants, and extract heating and moisture from exhaled breath. Besides exploring nasal anatomy and physiology, Dr. Ballentine describes jala neti shatkarma (nasal cleansing with salt water) and nadi shoudhana (alternate nostril breathing.)

The final chapter, written by Swami Rama, mostly describes various techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises) and related practices bandhas and mudras (locks and seals in which bodily parts are contracted or constricted.) However, the chapter begins with a mix of physiology and mythic physiology. That is, it explains some topics not addressed earlier–such as the interaction between the nervous and the cardiovascular systems as well as chakra.

My standing complaint about books that weave together science and pseudo-science is mitigated a bit herein. My problem with putting these ideas together is that it can be difficult for the reader to determine what concepts reflect reality and which offer models to help one visualize energy. However, except for the last chapter, this book does a good job of keeping these ideas separate. The chapters by the medical doctors present the science with minimal intrusion of unscientific concepts. Swami Rama does present science and mythology together, but not so much scrambled together in a confusing mish-mash.

Chapters 2 through 4 use a number of graphics to help present the material. In the middle chapters these largely consist of line drawings to convey the relevant anatomical features or physical actions. The last chapter adds photographs to demonstrate relevant postures. There is a page of recommended readings, but it’s more of an advertisement for other books put out by the Himalayan Institute than the recommendation of books on the science of breath.

I found this book to be educational. It packs a lot of useful information into a concise package and is readable to a layman. I’d recommend it for yoga practitioners and others who are engaged in breath work.

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