The Tree of Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar
Now I will use the B word: “B” is for “beautiful,” and this slim volume by the still-living godfather of yoga is beautiful.
While I find I enjoy and benefit from anything Iyengar writes, I was actually more impressed by this book than I had expected to be. I did not go into it with any particular expectations–perhaps that helped–except the very positive reviews on Amazon. It is not an asana book, and Iyengar not being a scholar (he does not even have a high school degree he says on page 28, and was a “dumb student”), it is not a “learned” tome of any sort. This book is, rather, a subtle, gentle, at times revealing, and quite elegantly written series of reflections on the practice and teaching of yoga. Mr. Iyengar may not have been much of a student (what does this say about schools, I wonder?), but this book is clearly the product of an intelligent, discerning, and dedicated life.
It is divided into five parts: (1) “Yoga and Life,” with essays describing generally the traditional Hindu view of the life process and how yoga fits in with that; (2) “The Tree and Its Parts,” where the eight limbs defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are described; (3) “Yoga and Health,” which is pretty self-explanatory; (4) “The Self and Its Journey,” examining the higher practices of pranayama and meditation leading to samadhi; and (5) “Yoga In the World,” which has only two essays, the first about yoga as an art form, the second about the requirements and responsibilities of yoga teachers. (This last actually had a depressing effect on me and made me question my desire to get yoga teacher certification. First, certifications mean precious little. Second, the amount of knowledge and responsibility required exceed what I will be able to accomplish anytime soon, if ever. And third, I’m already thoroughly middle-aged, suffer from ankylosing spondilitis, and will never be particularly good at asanas, much less look good doing them. But I digress…)
Although Iyengar does quote a bit of Sanskrit here and there, I would not say any of the essays are particularly “technical,” though this is certainly not to say they are at all superficial. Quite the opposite–this book could not have been written by someone who was anything less than a master of his field, with long years of experience and reflection. Which leads me to say that although anyone can read this book–beginner or advanced, the merely curious to the hardcore–what you get out of it will definitely be determined by the depth of your own practice. Many rereadings, particularly when one is at different stages of development, or when one has perhaps crossed the line from student to teacher, will no doubt yield new insights and understandings.
I’d like to share a few points of what, for me, were highlights. Mr. Iyengar has a way with analogies, and a brilliant one is found on page 17, where the four original castes (peasant, merchant, warrior, priest) are compared to attitudes or states of mind. His essay entitled “Childhood” (20) was simply beautiful, and I found the description of some of his life contained in “Family Life” (27) very inspiring. The second part of the book is an excellent overview of yoga practice as a way of meditation and illumination; I thought in particular the notion of the Eight Limbs (ashtanga) of Patanjali as a hologram (see “The Roots,” page 50) to be nothing if not brilliant. There are, in fact, many very insightful and illuminating passages in this section, things I never thought about in quite that way. His discussion of yoga as a healing art (especially from p. 93ff) was very interesting–I wish he would write a whole book devoted to his experiences in this regard. I could go on, as there are many excellent passages, but lastly I will cite p. 117ff as a brilliant evocation of why the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is so easily in accordance with the practice of asanas. Iyengar writes:
Conciousness is always present in our finger, but most of the time we are not aware of it, so the consciousness of the finger is dormant. You should know the difference between consciousness and awareness. Consciousness exists everywhere in the body. When you are walking, if a thorn touches your foot, what happens? It pricks, and you immediately feel the pain, so you cannot say that consciousness was not there. But until he thorn pricked you, you were not aware of your foot. The consciousness in your foot was dormant, but the moment the foot was pricked, it was brought to the surface. To awaken that dormant consciousness is awareness. Your consciousness is six feet long, or five and a half feet long in your body–it is as long as your body is tall. But awareness is small. Awareness may extend two feet, one foot, one inch or half an inch. The yogi says that by practising asanas, you can bring awareness to an extension equal to that of consciousness. This is total awareness. This is meditation.
Mr. Iyengar is of course a hatha yogin, and while practicing asanas may take you a long ways, I do not feel it is a substitute for a hard-core sitting practice. This may be the area where he comes up short, and indeed, the only passage of the book that I thoroughly disagreed with revealed this. On p. 139 he writes:
If you work diligently on asana, pranayama and pratyahara, you will receive your reward of dharana, dhyana and samadhi, which are the effects of that practice. They cannot be practised directly [emphasis added]. If we say that we are practising them, this means that we do not know the earlier aspects of yoga. It is only by practising the earlier aspects that we can hope to arrive at their effects.
I don’t agree with this at all. In fact, as a statement of the reality of meditation practice (especially in the Buddhist tradition, pick your yana), it is simply false. All over the Buddhist world (not to mention the Christian, Muslim, Jain, Hindu, etc), people come to meditation without ever having practiced asanas or pranayama, and many of them do just fine. Might they benefit from asanas? Of course! But, as Iyengar showed quite eloquently, the Path can be approached and the Goal attained through any of the limbs of yoga (though some are more direct and less time-consuming). While I do not wish to make overmuch of this one little misstep in an otherwise superb book, I do think it points out a shortcoming in Iyengar’s approach, which appears marked by an imbalance favoring asanas over direct meditation practice.
This aside–which is just my nitpicking–I cannot recommend this book enthusiastically enough to anyone exploring the world of yoga. Read it, practice, reflect, and reread it. Do not read it for information, rather for grounding, seasoning, maturation. If yoga is a tree (and since Mr. Iyengar says it is, who are we to argue?) then read it and learn to think like a tree–to make my own unworthy stab at a different sort of analogy!
My Amazon rating: 5 stars