BOOK REVIEW: Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Prana And PranayamaPrana And Pranayama by Swami Niranjananda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the Bihar School of Yoga manual on pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises. The book is a one-stop reference for yoga students and teachers wishing to review the philosophy and physiology of breathing practices, as well as to put together lessons or a plan of action for practice that consists of both preparatory exercises and classical pranayama.

Students in the West may be more familiar with B.K.S. Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” which offers a similar set of material and is this book’s main competitor for most readers. In my view, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more pragmatic and gets caught in the weeds less, but offers fewer detailed photos and is a little bit less precisely organized. If one is considering between the two books, I’d say the advantage of Iyengar is a 200-week course plan that some individuals may find a handy way to systematically advance their practice pranayama. The disadvantage of Iyengar is that he goes into vastly greater detail than most people will be able to take advantage of via book. (For example, there’s 22 pages of precise explanation of closing off one’s nostrils for digital pranayama.) In short, both books give the reader everything they’ll need in a pranayama reference, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more laid-back, and Iyengar’s a bit more oriented as a step-by-step instruction manual.

The twenty-one chapters of this book are organized into three parts, but we’ll call it four because the last part is divided in two sub-parts. The first part of the book is entitled, “Philosophy of Pranayama” and it dives into the definitions of prana, kosha (sheaths), chakra, nadi (channels), pranic fields, and discusses the connection between prana and chanting.

The second part of the book (ch. 8 – 13) explores the physiology of breath. This section explains the anatomy of the musculature that drives respiration (e.g. the diaphragm, intercostals, etc.), the processes of respiration and circulation, and the importance of the nose in breathing (which is more extensive than the average person could imagine.) This section also discusses the classical distinction between pranayama and rudimentary breath practices (i.e. whether there is breath retention, or kumbhaka), and has a separate chapter explaining retention. It also has a couple chapters that present the research on the benefits and effects of pranayama practice. (Full-disclosure: this isn’t up-to-date in the edition I read, and that was the 2016 — first digital — edition. So, I wouldn’t go here looking for information on the state of research because there’s been a virtual explosion of research that’s more recent than what is covered in the book. However, it will give one a gist what has been known for a while.)

Part III consists of two sub-parts. The first is called “Pre-Pranayama” and it includes many exercises to help one become familiar with one’s breath as well as to develop the foundational breaths (e.g. abdominal / diaphragmatic verses chest breathing) that are built upon in the final section. Part III.B presents the classic pranayama. The four chapters of this section are conveniently organized into: guidelines for practice (e.g. contraindications and general concepts to keep in mind), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), tranquilizing / calming breaths, and vitalizing / excitatory breaths.

There are five appendices as well as a glossary and two indexes (an index of practices and a general index.) The five appendices provide instruction on practices that are employed in pranayama, but are not pranayama themselves. These include supplementary practices, asana (seated postures for doing pranayama more than asana for opening the rib-cage, etc.,) mudra (“seals” postures of specific body parts), and bandha (locks). The presence of the first four appendices mean that one doesn’t have to buy other books (e.g. the APMB) to access this information. The fifth appendix gathers the sutra from “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” that deal with pranayama and provide an English translation. (HYP is a 15th century manual of Hatha Yoga that is much more detailed than Patanjali’s sutras.) There are graphics throughout the book as needed to convey information, mostly line drawings.

I found this book very useful and well presented. If there is one change that would improve the book it would be less crow-barring of science and traditional / philosophical beliefs about the body to be consistent with one another. I see the value of presenting both sets of information as both this book and the Iyengar book do, but a muddle is created by trying to force the explanations into consistency when they aren’t. (I think this book does it a bit more than Iyengar, but only because Iyengar puts much less emphasis on science than does this one.) The problem is that one ends up with low-quality pseudo-science amid the strong studies, and most readers won’t be able to tell scientific consensus and from the lunatic fringe. (e.g. The belief that kirlian photography is evidence of pranic fields or qi is far from scientifically supported.) That said, for most practitioners it doesn’t much matter as it doesn’t affect the nature of the practices, which are sound and well-described.

If you’re looking for a pranayama reference, this is a great option.

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READING REVIEW: March 20, 2015

I started a Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training course this week, and so it’s not been a big week for reading. The only new book I acquired and have begun reading is that course’s text, Yoga Education for Children, Vol. 1. That book is put out by the Bihar School (Swami Satyananda), which has done a vast amount of work and research about educating children through yoga.

YogaEdforChildren

 

 

I will probably finish Mary Bond’s The New Rules of Posture over the weekend, which I only have two chapters left to complete. I discussed that book in last week’s reading report.

NewRuleofPosture

Other than that I’ve been plugging away at some of the books that I’ve mentioned in previous reports when I have a moment here or there.  It’s been sort of a technical week for reading. I hope to have more to say next week.

BOOK REVIEW: Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Asana Pranayama Mudra BandhaAsana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha [APMB] is one of two textbooks used in a yoga teacher training course I recently attended. The other text is BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Iyengar’s book is one of the most well-known yoga books in the world, and I, therefore, expected that I would prefer Light on Yoga to the much more utilitarian looking APMB—a book that you’re unlikely to find at your local bookseller (unless, like me, you live in India—in which case it is quite popular.) However, having now read both books, I think I would give an edge to APMB. I don’t usually frame a book review in comparative terms, but–in this case–the books are similar in subject matter, and comparison may benefit the many who have the Iyengar book.

Both works are largely collections of detailed descriptions of yogasanas (postures), breathing methods (pranayama), mudra, bandha, and, in the case of APMB, Shatkarma (cleansing practices.) Shatkarma is not well-known in the West, but it is a series of 6 cleansing practices that, along with asana and pranayama, are part of the trio making up Hatha Yoga.

Before proceeding with this comparison, it should be noted that the APMB is associated with the Bihar–or Satyananda–School of yoga. Indian yogis and yoginis will likely be familiar with this school as a form of Hatha Yoga that was founded in 1964 by Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Western practitioners are less likely to be familiar with the Bihar school as it has not made the same kind of splash in the West as Bikram Yoga (the most famous “hot yoga” style), Iyengar yoga (which uses props when necessary to achieve proper alignment), Power yoga (a faster and more endurance oriented form of yoga), and many other yoga styles with a hook. (I don’t mean to suggest that Westerners need a gimmick to keep their interest in yoga, but, on a whole, they do.) At any rate, while the Bihar School was founded in 1964, the yoga it presents is classical Hatha Yoga, incorporating some of the knowledge gained from modern understanding of anatomy and physiology.

What I liked best about APMB–and why I liked it better than Iyengar’s book– is its superior organization. APMB lists not only the alignments and benefits, but systematically spells out the contra-indications in their own bold headed section. Iyengar indicates contra-indications only sparsely and puts them in with the “effects” section which is mostly benefits. This makes contraindications easy to miss in the Iyengar book. APMB also has bold sections for breathing, awareness, and variations. This might make it seem like APMB would be denser, but it’s not—it’s actually more concise. Most of these subsections are short and to the point. Each asana takes between one and two pages (unless there are several variations.) While Iyengar clumps asana together with a logic, APMB delineates different sub-classes of asana (standing, forward bends, backward bends, etc.) with separate chapters.

One thing that surprised me is that I found APMB to be more forthright and scientific in its approach. I’d always heard Iyengar was modern and relatively scientifically oriented. After all, this is the man who introduced props for students who cannot perform asanas without proper alignment otherwise—so as to avoid injuries. Now I know that the Bihar School is also known for integrating present-day research into its understanding of yoga, but I was initially not so familiar with Bihar. So while both texts are better than most about depicting the risks, as indicated, Iyengar gives short shrift to the contra-indications and occasionally suggests an extreme posture for a severe ailment. While I applaud Iyengar’s passion, I think it has made him prone to see yoga as a panacea for all ills and to downplay the risks—at least in the late 1960’s when Light on Yoga was written. (Both books were written in the late 60’s, but—based solely on the front matter—it appears there may have been more revised editions for the APMB.

I should note that neither book uses citations to provide supporting evidence about what is a benefit or a contraindication. Some of these claims may be supported by scientific studies, some may be supported by experience, but some may just be old wives’ tales handed down based on pseudo-scientific or outmoded beliefs.

APMB doesn’t win hands down in all dimensions. Graphics is one area in which Light on Yoga is much more useful than APMB. Iyengar’s book uses photographs, and given Iyengar’s penchant for perfect alignment, his book’s photos are quite informative. APMB has line drawings, but some of the drawings suggest incorrect alignments (e.g. the knee well forward of the toes in an asana for which the shin should be perpendicular to the floor.) This would be a damning criticism if I thought anyone should or could learn yoga from the drawings in a book, but since I think pictures are just there to remind one of the general form of the asana, I don’t deduct too much for this flaw. [On the other hand, Iyengar is so flexible that his photos can be a little demoralizing for a person incapable of touching his or her skull to his or her coccyx.]

Iyengar’s book also has more information. While Light on Yoga has many more asana, each book has a few postures that the other doesn’t, but—for the most part—both of the books hit all the classic asanas of Hatha Yoga. I don’t give a lot of credit for having more asana or variations because both books have more than enough material to keep beginner, intermediate, and advanced students busy.

What I think may be valuable is the fact that Iyengar covers more background material in greater detail than does the APMB. Iyengar writes extensively on yamas and niyamas, and the other legs of Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa–a flowing and strenuous set-sequence form of Hatha Yoga from Mysore). Of course, if you are interested in shatkarmas or mudras, you’ll only get that information in the APMB.

Both books are beneficial references for students and teachers alike(not to suggest that teachers shouldn’t remain forever students, but not all students should be /need be teachers.) I’m particularly pleased to review this book as it may be an opportunity to introduce this book to some outside of India who may not be familiar with it. If you practice Hatha Yoga, you should give this book a look.

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