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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