BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar

The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal PracticeThe Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s author, T.K.V. Desikachar, was the son and student of T. Krishnamacharya. If you’re not a well-read and/or Indian yoga practitioner, there’s a good chance the latter name means nothing to you, and yet your practice has likely been influenced profoundly by him. He was the teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and Indira Devi. Iyengar, who recently passed away, popularized the use of props (blocks, straps, bolsters, etc.) as a means to achieve proper alignment until one’s flexibility was sufficient to achieve perfect alignment without assistance. Jois developed the vigorous and flowing Ashtanga Vinyasa style of yoga, which is the direct ancestor of Power Yoga—a popular style among fitness buffs in the West. Indira Devi was a Westerner actress who took an Indian name and was among the first teachers to introduce yoga to America and to adapt it to American needs. While Desikachar wrote the book, his father’s presence is seen throughout the book in photos and quotations.

After reading the book, it will not come as quite the surprise that T. Krishnamacharya was teacher to several of modern yoga’s most innovative teachers. A central concept of Krishnamacharya’s teaching philosophy was that yoga is a personal path that must be optimized to the individual. That’s what this book tries to do. Its aim is not to teach one yoga for all, but to help individuals tailor yoga to their own needs.

The Heart of Yoga is divided into four parts. The first two parts form the core of the book, and make up the bulk of its length. The first introduces yoga at a basic level and then goes on to impart practical lessons on asana (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), and bandha (locks.) The second part instructs on the philosophical aspect of yoga, and how an individual can bring these concepts into their life. This includes ideas that are traditionally associated with Yogic philosophy as well as those of Samkhya (Yoga and Samkhya are two of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, and are closely related.)

Part III of Desikachar’s book is his translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with commentary. Some will appreciate that the sutras are written in Sanskrit, a Romanized phonetical Sanskrit, and in English. In addition to this, Desikachar’s commentary not only elaborates on each sutra individually, but offers insight into how they are grouped and what meaning their organization conveys. For those who have read Yoga Sutras, you’ll know that they consist of 196 lines of instruction, each so laconic as to be cryptic. Commentary is essential, particularly if one is reading the translated sutras and doesn’t have the historical, cultural, or linguistic background to distill the meaning from these mega-concise aphorisms.

Part IV is called the Yoganjalisaram, which is a poem of 32 stanzas each consisting of three to six lines. “Poem” might be a misleading description. Each Sloka (i.e. like a stanza) is a lesson in yoga. It touches on diet, physical technique, philosophy, and religion.

In addition to what I thought were well-written, concise, and informative chapters, there are a number of ancillary features that are beneficial. There’s an appendix that describes some of the prominent historical texts that are commonly referred to throughout the book. Another appendix provides a series of asana sequences that are consistent with the teachings of Part I of the book. There is a glossary of terms that are used throughout the book. Up front there is an interview with T.K.V. Desikachar that deals mostly with his father’s approach to yoga. In addition to the many photos of Krishnamacharya, simple line drawings are put to good use to convey ideas where necessary.

I think what I found so appealing about this book is that the author has a pragmatic, down-to-earth, and open-minded approach to yoga. Some yoga books are way out there in the stratosphere, and their ethereal qualities don’t inspire confidence in me that the author knows of what he/she speaks. Others are doctrinaire about absolutist beliefs and values one “must” hold to be a true yogi or yogini. Desikachar is neither an ideologue nor flighty. He may have benefited from his education as an engineer. His lessons are presented simply and practically, so as to give confidence that he knows of what he speaks.

I’d recommend this book for any practitioners of yoga–be they beginner or advanced. It provides food for thought for bringing yoga into one’s life at a physical and psychological/philosophical level, and in a personal way.

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