BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Yoga Mala: The Seminal Treatise and Guide from the Living Master of Ashtanga YogaYoga Mala: The Seminal Treatise and Guide from the Living Master of Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Yoga Mala is a guide to yoga by one of the most influential yogis of the modern era, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Sri Jois, who passed away in 2009, developed an approach to Hatha Yoga that is alternatively called Ashtanga Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga. Herein, I will use the term Ashtanga Vinyasa to represent Sri Jois’s style of yoga, which relies on a fixed sequence(s) conducted with vinyasa, i.e. flowing transitions that link postures. The reason I chose one term over the other is that the term “Ashtanga Yoga” long predates Jois and is a more generic name for the practice of all eight limbs of yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Having mentioned the “eight limbs of yoga,” it should be noted that this book really only gets into half of them: yama (rules for interacting with others), niyama (rules for conducting oneself), asana (poses), and pranayama (breath exercises.) Furthermore, three-fourths of the book’s pages are devoted to asana. This is not unusual as many yogis consider it a waste of time delving into the higher level practices (pratyahara [sensory withdrawal], dharana [focus], dhyana [meditation], and samadhi [liberation] with individuals who haven’t yet made headway into the more fundamental practices.

After brief discussion of yama, niyama, and pranayama, Yoga Mala launches into description of the postures of the Ashtanga Vinyasa preliminary series. This begins with the two variants of the Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations) practiced in Ashtanga Vinyasa and progresses through the poses of the standing, seated, and finishing sequences in the order in which they occur in the Preliminary Series. There are clear black and white photos of the optimal version of each asana. The written descriptions explain the entire set of vinyasa for that asana—i.e. the flowing transitions that connect one pose to the next. Most asana have a header paragraph that tells how many vinyasas are associated with the pose and which vinyasa constitutes the asana proper. This opener is followed by a “Method” section that lays out the vinyasa in detail, and—in many cases–a “Benefits” section that explains what the posture is said to do for one–and occasionally what major the contraindications are. (However, this is a poor reference for contraindications as it mostly only says what pregnant women shouldn’t do and doesn’t get into much detail beyond that.)

There are a couple of things that I think could have been improved—mostly formatting / editorial critiques. The first is that the text increasingly lags the photos so that one has to flip forward several pages to view the associated photos. Also, the author often refers to a movement through a position using the numbering system of an earlier set of vinyasa, and this necessitates a lot of flipping back and forth. For example, the instructions often say “then go to the 4th vinyasa of the first surya namaskara sequence” whereas if he said “then do chataranga dandasana [or low plank]) they would have saved words and obviated need for the back and forth.

Sri Jois was very devout man. For those of a similar mindset, you’ll likely find the book resonates. However, if you’re the kind of person who prefers explanations rooted in a logical or scientific approach, then you may find explanations a bit summarily invoked for your tastes. In other words, he’s prone to say, just do what the Vedas and your teacher tell you and everything will be rosy. I don’t know that this is a critique so much as fair warning. If you think that the Vedas were divinely written by infallible authors, then Jois’s approach may sound good to you. However, if you think that the Veda’s reflect the biases and limited knowledge of another era (just like our present writings reflect our current biases and limitations), you may find a few comments suspect. For example, Sri Jois makes a point of saying that the Vedas state that one can do a headstand for three hours straight without adverse effects. (To be fair, he does point out that you must do it properly and under the supervision of a teacher.)

If you practice Ashtanga Vinyasa, or intend to, this is a must-read book, but it’s a useful book for those who practice Hatha Yoga of other styles as well. It’s a good summary of classic asana, and you may find something in Sri Jois’ explanation of yama and niyama to be helpful to you on your personal path.

I should point out that those who aren’t sure whether they want to practice this form should be forewarned that Ashtanga Vinyasa is an intense practice. The vinyasas require a high level of core strength as well as upper body strength for Uth Pluthi (lifts) and vinyasa motions requiring that one load all one’s bodyweight onto one’s arms. Also, the fact that one is doing the “Preliminary Series” shouldn’t falsely lead one to believe that these are all the “easy” asana. That isn’t the case; there are a number of challenging poses both in terms of flexibility and strength requirements. If you haven’t done yoga before, I would only suggest Ashtanga Vinyasa for those who have a fairly high fitness level.

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